Monday, 4 July 2011

"Fragile Dreams" Review

(In the interest of full disclosure, I abandoned this game for a span of several months after being hopelessly stuck at one part. It was a carnival stage, and just trying to find my way out to progress to the next part of the game was an exercise in futility. I spent days combing every inch of this area, even backtracking to a previously completed mall area just in case I missed something.

Eventually I had no motivation to play Fragile Dreams anymore. I couldn't even bring myself to look at Game FAQS until several months later. This review should have been up last year, but I felt so thoroughly defeated by this game, and for all of the wrong reasons: Its art-design of a rustic, post-apocalyptic world hid a doorway that should have been in plain view, which was never pointed out on the map. The game made no effort to point me in the right direction. This was a total failure on Tri-Ace's part to communicate an objective with the player.

A year later, and I finally pushed through with the help of an online strategy guide, although no other portion of Fragile Dreams is that poorly designed. The product itself is rough around the edges, its battle system clearly an afterthought. It's clear where this game's priorities are, and they are better than most. And yes, the experience matters as much as the product itself. What does one rate a game that does many things right, and one thing outrageously wrong?)


"Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon" is a very rare creature. It's not a first-person shooter. It's not a sequel to an existing franchise. It actually takes advantage of the Wii's sometimes daunting controller without resorting to the dreaded "waggle"(at least, not often enough for me to notice). It's not about gruff body-builders who shoot aliens. It is more concerned with generating a lasting effect on the player than mindless action. It deals with a world that ended not in a bang, but a whimper.

Nature has swallowed the remnants of civilization, in one striking set-piece after another. There's no one left to cut the grass or restock the shelves. No one but "Seto"(Houko Kuwashima), who is left alone in this empty world when his "grandfather" passes away. No moment in this game so pierces the heart as when Seto finds a letter from the old man.

Seto is still wet behind the ears. He is still learning how to exist in a world where no one can guide him. He is not naive. He is simply unused to being around other people, even those who might wish to be alone. This boy has only recently come to feel what being all alone is like, and has had enough. A silver-haired girl catches his eye, and becomes the carrot and the stick. "Ren"(Miku Yoshikawa) is more of a walking victory condition than a character, but beggers can't be choosers. Seto's only other companions are ghosts and cats.

The angry dead linger in this graveyard planet, which necessitates combat from time to time. Now, this is not God of War. It cannot be blamed on Seto that he is not an acrobatic fighter. The stiffness of battle here does not bother me so much as the poor camera placement. It is centered behind him at all times, save for two long stretches of tunnel. In these tunnels, we can gauge the distance between Seto and his attackers, but depth-perception is impossible to judge everywhere else. Using a bow-and-arrow does not help, because you must sacrifice your flashlight in the process, blinding yourself to an assault of shadows.

You traverse many ruined epitaphs of civilization, creep through crumbling hotels, beneath a ceiling of tree branches and abandoned scientific facilities with machinery that is still operational. The attention to detail is staggering. There are hidden messages written on the walls, newspaper clippings and artifacts from forgotten lives that give us a peak into the people who are now gone. It paints a bittersweet picture of the men, women, children who succumbed to the end of the world. We even see one such story from the perspective of a dog waiting for its master to come home.

(Okay, maybe the letter from Grandpa is the second-most BAWW-incuding thing in this game)

There are a few faces still around, some of which even come along for the ride. But if you're wondering how human beings could still be around, or live long enough to still be here with Seto, well there's always a catch. Unfortunately, many members of the cast aren't involved long enough to leave a lasting impression. "Crow"(Mie Sonozaki) is an amnesiac who taunts Seto at first, playing keep-away with a treasured item. When they eventually decide to be friends(in a scene that made me, no-foolin', laugh out loud), we expect it won't be the last we'll see of him. The reunion we get is disappointing.

The only truly consistent presence is the polite Merchant (Tomohisa Aso), who wears an unsettling visage and is not all he seems, but is an otherwise invaluable ally. He sells the player weapons and items you will need in your quest. We learn why he would still consider bartering in a world with no customers, and sympathize with what lies beneath the mask.

Wanna buy some weed?

At one point Seto equips a piece of machinery that speaks to him in a woman's voice, and provides helpful data on his surroundings and of upcoming threats. This was a helpful tool on more than one ocassion, but it is over much too soon for my liking. And then he is joined by "Sai"(Ryo Hirohashi), the ghost of a young girl covered in bandages and writing, whose teasing and cold logic are warmed by a kind gesture from Seto. She fulfills the same purpose as the machine backback, but it feels like we got too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

There are times where you are alone in the quiet black, and know that danger is afoot when otherworldly sounds whisper from the haze(which play through the tiny wii-mote speakers). I don't know if I would classify this as a "horror" game, like Silent Hill or its ilk. Fragile Dreams is more concerned with wistful sorrow, and a longing for companionship in a world with a vacancy. Atmosphere plays a bigger part here than psychological scares. But there is some dread in -knowing- that an impossible creature waits somewhere in the dark, and having no idea where it will reveal itself.

The cause of the worldwide catastrophe involves ghosts, robots, scientists and A.I. programs. The apocalypse  seems to have been initiated not in a hellfire of nuclear war, but from a process that probably sounded better on paper. Although it still amounts to anime mumbo-jumbo when you think about it long enough, it's a fascinating thought-experiment that we could lose everything from a gesture founded in the best of intentions(like that time where that actually almost happened). Although it is a shame that the game ends with a serious case of Final Boss "Blue Balls". If you've ever played Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, you know what I'm talking about.

I wish more games were like Fragile Dreams. It is such a grueling process to make a game function at all, let alone well enough. A series of articles by Shamus Young has done more to elucidate the process of simply making a character animate than all of the developer interviews I've read over the years. I suddenly appreciate the animators of big-budget games. But often we waste these months of back-breaking work on, what, characters who are as emotionally deep as a piece of wet toast? Here is a game that wants you to care about its characters, its story and its setting. It wants to produce an emotional response, and offer a more rewarding personal experience than one can get while chainsawing Locust hordes. It does not always succeed, but it's a concerted effort, and I appreciate any game that doesn't aim short.

I'd like to see more games attempt what this one does, if for no other reason than to see one of them get it right on all fronts.

NOTE: I played this game with the Japanese voices with English subtitles. Good on them for including that, because it means I didn't have to listen to Johnny Yong Bosch. If my score seems harsh now, know that this game dodged a bullet.



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