Fractured Soul – PAXtravaganza 2013!


I could give you a simple explanantion: Mega Man controlled with two characters in two different dimensions instead of one, but that would not fit the style of writing here, now would it?

In that spirit, ever hear of “twin screen shooters”? Someone, apparently, thought games like Gradius and DoDonPachi needed some extra spice – for example, controlling two ships simulatenously on opposite sides of the screen, as well as dealing with two entirely different patterns of bullets. If this sounds fun, you might need some medical attention or perhaps retain some magical multi-tasking skills and depth of mental perception that most humans don’t have or couldn’t even develop. Still, it doesn’t mean they are not fun or interesting; I believe they started popping up when obsessive arcade players decided that using two ships on traditionally standard arcade games seemed like a good idea for a lazy mind.

Observe and behold the skill/dedication/excess of free time at work! Still, it inspired a neat (and probably unknown) subgenre that brought us Flash games like Super Xalaxer, and I refuse to complain about it. Still, for the normal person, you’d imagine that this experience of controlling two things, or at least allowing one to switch between two screens at some point, would make for a pretty interesting game in itself.

Lo and behold, you’re not far from the mark, as Fractured Soul does just that. Release for the 3DS Virtual Store after a long and arduous development cycle, Endgame Studios’ mechanically bizarre game goes for a similar vibe as the twin screen (if not directly inspired by it, I assume). I got to play the game at PAX East and talk to Grant Davie, Managing Director of the project, and I think even the PC version looks like gold just from the short time I played it.

Basically, you control a character, shoot things with your laser gun, and solve puzzles; the Mega Man comparison isn’t too far off the nose. However, Fractured Soul gives you two screens of two dimensions; your character will find himself in one or the other. A simple button press will take you immediately from one dimension to the other – on a DS-type device, this looks incredibly cools. A locked door may appear on one side, while on the other you’ll traverse completely unhindered. Perhaps an enemy appear on one place, but not on the other; change your location, and a seemingly impossible situation becomes an easy solution.

Still, it’s in teaching you this skill with less difficult obstacles that you end up with a bit of a pickle when the game throws platforming at you. I’ve got no fault with the controls, which provide the standard jump and double jump (here, more a jetpack-like thrust forward with a different directory and arc than the standard jump, but it’s the same concept), but you can imagine the constant screen shifting might screw you up. It’s no fault of the game, which breadcrumbs you into using these effectively through its level design (at least of the level I got to play at PAX East – don’t blame me for any other ones). However, having your eyes suddenly jump to a different location to land on a platform on a different screen remains an acquired, rather than natural, skill that the game fosters. Take it from the developers themselves:

Expect constant experimentation, then, with the controls and how they work, for you’ll need them! Some of the jumps I encountered require deft control of the switching mechanic. Stress out and press it one too many times, and you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a pit. It’s nice to have accurate controls where I do not need mashing, but it also means the game demands a level of precision with an altogether different mechanic. Mid-air switching looks cool and all, but what feats of precision will I need to jump, switch, avoid a laser, and then switch again to land on the platform?

Unlike a lot of “retro” platformers, we’ve got a genuinely new system here that does not do well against compromise. You either play the game like your life depended on it, or you play something a little easier on your stress levels…say, a JRPG or something. Old concepts like “underwater makes you slow/you jump higher” get a new set of tools with the screen switching; anti-gravity will mess you up more times than you can count. Avoiding lasers becomes a way to keep the player engaged without letting them off the hook with arbitrary time limits. I just find the whole concept quite endearing, as it copies tropes without making them the same old thing you’ve seen a billion times before.

The way to make such a platforming interesting forces mastery on the fly; you can only do so much by throwing the same obstacles over and over again. Letting the player master the basics now requires a design that treats those mechanics as lifelines, and not merely a path to get from point A to point B. You can see this in the underwater levels, the heat (need to switch to prevent the suit from overheating), and even wind/snow effects that allow for the traditional bounce. Of course, you’re focusing on both dimensions, so avoiding obstacles becomes a bout of spatial awareness on two different perspectives on the same place – quite complicated, reflex-oriented, and brain-teasing all at the same time. Fractured Soul looks to have a handle on how to make a solid, challenging, and wonderfully devious platformer.

This lack of compromise shows up many other indie platformers, I’d say. This seems like true difficulty and challenge, without any weird caveats and with reasonably paced checkpoints that force you to complete two hard sections before getting the relief of a checkpoint (which, far as I know, isn’t identified by the game – good luck with that!). It refuses to compromise on the elements that matter, and I truly appreciate it. In the same way, when we stick to God’s Word and do not admit compromise on the things that matter (in this case, God’s commands), we end up with a much better end product than one manufactured by human hands. Psalm 119 says something to that effect:

How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the Lord.
How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.
You have ordained Your precepts,
That we should keep them diligently.
Oh that my ways may be established
To keep Your statutes!
Then I shall not be ashamed
When I look upon all Your commandments.
I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,
When I learn Your righteous judgments.
I shall keep Your statutes;
Do not forsake me utterly!

Let’s add one more: boss battles. How do you use a boss when it’s on two screens at once? What unique strategies the switching will invoke excites me, but I suppose I will need to wait and see (or someone can tell me, alternately). Also, it looks really awesome. Also, did you notice the soundtrack fits perfectly? Ok, I’ll stop talking right now. Unfortunately, as I do not have a 3DS, I’ll need to settle for a PC version releasing in the near future, which promises multiple difficulty levels (apparently, the 3DS version defaults to a “hard” mode difficulty, which surely turned someone off). If you’ve got one, please go buy it for me or vote for it on Steam Greenlight!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.