Since the original DS was released in 2004 very few developers have used both of the system's screens in tandem for gameplay. Many games have stuck to featuring the gameplay on one screen (usually the top) and used the other for some in-game function or on-screen map. Even though the screens have such a close proximity, it can still be challenging for players to follow what is happening in two different places at once. However, there have been some games that have pushed players in this direction, most notably the amazing The World Ends With You, and now Fractured Soul is testing players' ability to split their attention while gaming.
The release of Fractured Soul in the 3DS' eShop is the end of a very long road for its developer, EndGame. With the concepts for Fractured Soul dating back to 2004, the game is clearly a labor of love for the independent team behind it. Originally conceived as a shoot'em-up, Fractured Soul has evolved into a 2D platformer staring a character that seems like it would be more comfortable in a Halo game. Taking place on an outpost that's overrun with enemies, players control a mysterious, armored character that can shift between dimensions (also DS screens). As you jump between dimensions you only occupy one at a time, and can interact with objects that appear only in that dimension. Escaping from the outpost is your only option.
The shifting between dimensions is the most important part of Fractured Soul. Each level is expertly designed to test players' ability to progress through a puzzle-ridden, platforming level by switching the gameplay from screen to screen. Somehow, in the eight years that the DS platform has been around, this idea of switching between screens is still pretty novel, making Fractured Soul intriguing, to say the least. However, once you get past the novel gameplay, things start to fall apart a little bit.
As you might expect for a game that has been on such a long journey, and was originally intended for release on the DS, the graphics come across as subpar. The characters feel lifeless, and the levels come across as generic. While it has no impact on the gameplay, with the time it takes to download such a huge game (2982 blocks of memory – currently the largest in the eShop) you might be expecting just a little bit more. On top of that, Fractured Soul doesn't even include 3D gameplay at all, whether it needs it or not.
One additional thing that Fractured Soul could have done better was crafting a compelling story. In short, players are thrown into a game where they know little to nothing about what is going on. While some games can get away with that by revealing the story as the game progresses, Fractured Soul opts to only offer up a vague one-sentence introduction at the beginning of each level. Again, this is another thing that does not affect the gameplay, but it makes it challenging to connect with the character, and care whether or not he/she/it escapes from this space station or finds out why he/she/it can shift between dimensions.
Aesthetic and storytelling complaints aside, Fracture Soul is a solid game, especially if you like a good challenge. The game has been frequently described as heavily inspired by old-school platformers, and it does feel like a mix of classics like Mega Man and Metal Storm by combining shooting with precision jumping. One of the most noticeable things that it carries over from these games is the fact that it's hard... really hard. In addition to having to train your brain to focus on two different screens at once, the actual gameplay and puzzles are a challenge. Landing numerous jumps in a row while switching between screens, taking out a host of attacking enemies, and trying to collect the secret items hidden throughout the level will test players' skills and dedication, but come with a sense of accomplishment when you finally complete the section that you've been stuck on for days. Developers EndGame made a wise decision to up the game's difficulty, but not put a restriction on the number of lives you have. Retrying is just a fact of life in Fractured Soul, having to try and beat a level with three lives would be next to impossible.
It's interested to reading about the journey that Fractured Soul has endured because of the irony woven into some of the best levels in the game - the shoot 'em-up ones are fantastic. Basically, you need to shoot enemies to keep your ship alive, balancing out the action on both screens simultaneously - think Ikaruga but two separate ships on two separate screens. Unfortunately, making a full game based off of this gameplay was scrapped, because it's a solid standalone experience, and if EndGame had put the time and effort into it, it could become something that shoot 'em-up fans would eat up.
Fractured Soul is far from a perfect game, but it still well worth experiencing. If you can past the generic character, sparse story and uninspired setting, and focus only on the gameplay Fractured Soul could be one of the best platforming games of the year, especially if you're a fan of on-the-fly puzzles and punishing challenges. The game is fundamentally sound, it's just a shame that after all these years the wrapper lacks any shine, but it once again proves the old adage, "you should never judge a book by its cover."