Fractured Soul's split visuals will warp your mind and test your patience.
I first heard about Fractured Soul over a year ago, when I was pointed toward a fascinating essay by an independent game creator named Grant Davies and his epic eight-year quest to bring the game to market.
Originally envisioned for the then brand new Nintendo DS, Davies did the initial design for a game called Slidatron, a platform puzzle game split across both screens of the DS. The puzzles would be built around the player only existing on one screen at a time and being able to switch back and forth between them.
You can read Davies's original essay to get the full story, but in short the clever concept was dragged through eight years of bad luck and naive decisions, changing styles and names several times along the way. At long last, though, it was released in some territories late last year, and is now available in Australia as a downloadable title for the 3DS.
Your robot protagonist will die many, many times.
The first thing I noticed when I played Fractured Soul was that the top screen is strictly 2D only - you cannot turn on the 3D setting. Davies explained this decision as being a defence against possible eye strain. "We did that because there is only one screen on the 3DS that's stereoscopic," he said. "If you were constantly switching between the 3D and 2D screens, you'd get a headache pretty quickly."
The next thing that jumps out when playing is that this is a very difficult game. Unlike many modern games that gently increase the difficulty curve throughout the playing time, Fractured Soul gets very hard early, and it doesn't let up. This is a monstrously unforgiving game, and easily frustrated gamers would be wise to give it a wide berth.
At its core, the action is classic Nintendo-style 2D platforming, with difficulty to match. Your unnamed protagonist appears on one screen, with a faint ghost appearing on the other. The game world is split against two parallel dimensions, and while the world is similar in both, it is the differences that create the challenge. Enemies, walls, and platforms may exist in one dimension and not in the other, necessitating lightning quick mid-air dimension switches.
This creates some genuinely unique gameplay. While you might dodge a shot from an enemy by jumping in the traditional way, you can also switch to the other dimension, vanishing from one screen and appearing on the other. More complex manoeuvres may involve jumping from one platform, switching dimensions to pass through a barrier, then quickly switching back to land on the next platform. It only gets harder from there.
Things get really interesting in subsequent worlds. The space station on which you are trapped is slowly falling apart across multiple dimensions, so conditions on the upper and lower screens start to differ. First you encounter a flooded area, where one screen is underwater and the other is dry. The flooded area allows higher jumps and long glides, but also slows your movement. Others have ice and wind in one dimension, or fire. The final set of levels is the most brain-bending of all: gravity is reversed in the top screen, meaning you will fall downward on one screen and upward on the other.
As to why all of this is happening, Davies is non-committal. "We didn't want the story to get in the way of the game, so the way we present the story is a paragraph of text on the loading screen," he said. "We don't interrupt it with cutscenes or anything like that." Those text screens are deliberately vague, making your journey a mysterious one.
"We used to have a much more involved storyline, but all the testers got really annoyed with it. They just kept hitting the A button to skip all the dialogue. So we said, let's just say this is purely about gameplay and concentrate on that."
Completing the 30 or so levels that come with the game is just the beginning. Dedicated players can go back and try to improve their performance. "The game is oriented toward speed-running, so once you finish the main game and replay all the levels, if you really like it you can compete on the online leaderboards for best time on the speed-runs," Davies explained.
Getting 100% on each level is a major challenge. It requires you to beat a par time, which usually means not dying at all, as well as collecting every secret item. The secrets are tucked away in hard-to-reach corners, and going for them can be fatal ("The secrets entice you into death," Davies admitted.) requiring you to collect all of them, avoid death, and finish in a very tight time limit to score five stars.
The par times are hard to beat even without collecting secrets, conceded Davies. "The par times are pretty aggressive; they're speed-run times." I must admit that I was not able to get five stars even on the easiest level in the game, so this kind of completionism is strictly for the hardcore fans and masochists.
I don't use that word lightly, either. Were I not playing the game for review, I probably would have put it down (or, more likely, slammed it down while swearing loudly) and stopped playing. While I enjoy a challenge, Fractured Soul is punishingly difficult, much more so than I typically enjoy. While I love the concept, and it looks and sounds great, this is not a game that I would be playing for fun. Death comes very easily, checkpoints can be far apart (and some levels have none at all), and there were a few sections I had to attempt over thirty times before getting the sequence of button presses right.
Unbelievably, it gets even harder. Collecting stars on the main levels will unlock bonus levels, which are essentially levels that were rejected from the main game for being too fiendish. "All the ideas we thought were just way too hard, we thought, oh well, put it in a bonus level!" Davies said with a laugh. Full disclosure: I didn't even attempt them. The main levels were more than hard enough for me.
If you are the kind of gamer that likes their games very hard and misses the days of unforgiving platformers like Battletoads and Megaman, this is the game for you. At only $9.99 on the 3DS online store it's definitely a bargain, and the patriots among you will no doubt like to support a local Aussie studio, but if you are the kind of gamer who smashes controllers when you get angry, you should probably look elsewhere.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez