Fragile Dreams is about knowing, but the mystery is in the gameplay itself.
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the MoonPublisher: XSEED Games
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 2009-03-16
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is one of those games that sounds a lot better on paper than when you’re actually playing it. Working like a weird hybrid action RPG, the gameplay and story are so at odds with one another that you’ll wonder why they didn’t just make an anime. There are tiny moments and clever ideas through the game and as a title that dares to be different, Fragile Dreams certainly accomplishes that goal.
Controls work a bit like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Thumbstick moves, Wii-mote aims a flashlight and steers, and you’ll use the A button to attack. Items and doors are interacted with by aiming your avatar at them and pressing A. You have an inventory for holding health, weapons, and mystery items. Weapons break at random, and mystery items can only be identified at save points. The game is basically walking around large empty areas, fighting the occasional enemy, and collecting stuff. Difficulty is scaled for a younger audience, and there isn’t much to fighting except pressing A and running away before you get hit.
The game really wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it weren’t for the fact that its setting is so unique. You play Seto, a young boy wandering around the world after everyone has died in some strange disaster. The best analogy I can make is that it’s what would happen if you turned The Road into an anime, which is both interesting and disturbing simultaneously. The game is walking from cutscene to cutscene so that you can watch Seto struggle with his surroundings and overwhelming loneliness. Seto will talk to ghosts, animals, and even an emotionally unstable GPS unit just to find some kind of connection with someone around him. The game itself is gorgeous visually, and the transitions from various environments are all good for setting the mood. A dark underground shopping mall gives way to a beautiful sunrise, to a dark abandoned park, and then a sun bleached hotel to create a real sense of space and solitude.
The frustration is how much the game itself is bad. The entire thing revolves around re-spawning encounters and backtracking around the game world. Just when you finally think you’re about to progress to a new area, you’re sent to an old one to get an item. Most of the game is spent not knowing where to go and trying to figure out what the cryptic instructions are supposed to mean. The time spent wandering around confused is dragged out because monsters respawn indefinitely. Combat is dull but what makes it a chore is that the weapons break randomly. Your inventory consists of what’s in your hand and what you keep in a brief case which can only be accessed at save points. You’ll need to keep accessing the brief case to get weapons, which means trudging to a save point constantly. More backtracking is added on top of this because there are mystery items scattered throughout the game that can only be identified at save points. Exploration generally consists of locating all the locked doors, finding their keys, and then going back to progress.
What’s frustrating is that even when the game does try to mix things up it’s hit and miss. Anytime the game deviates from its formula it’s usually worse because it still doesn’t explain itself. A puzzle where you have to sneak up on someone becomes unbearable because you can’t tell what the game wants you to do. At other times, you’re asked to find something with almost no explanation for where it could be. Moments like this persist throughout. The best part in terms of spatial storytelling are memories that Seto finds hidden around each map. When you go to the save point the memory will play out. Some of them are pretty touching, like a boy pondering his favorite video game or a daughter contemplating her mother. It’s an idea from Lost Odyssey, and it’s mostly a welcome addition to the game. It becomes a problem when the game starts to get carried away with them. A few brief lines is one thing, but some of the later ones become giant sprawling texts that go on and on.
It’s that tugging between plot and gameplay, with plot always winning, that breaks the game eventually. Seto is shy, insecure, and scared of the empty world around him. This all makes sense in terms of story. In the game he beats the crap out of giant monsters for hours on end while leveling up and looting them for precious gemstones. I realize the insecure person is a JRPG/anime archetype but it has always been problematic in these games. From Yuna in Final Fantasy X beating wild animals to death with her magic staff to Yukiko slicing the bizarre psychological monsters of Persona 4 to pieces, this issue is usually just ignored. If there are a bunch of characters to fixate on, it’s not really noticeable either. In Fragile Dreams, the only character of any permanence is Seto. Since you spend the majority of the game beating up ghosts with household objects, it’s impossible to block out how glaringly inconsistent his behavior is. If there were other characters to distract from this it wouldn’t be as big of an issue, but without that, the game suffers.
It’s the little things that keep me from just dismissing the game entirely. The slow accumulation of friends around the save point fire. The careful shifts in location and setting that develop mood. The surprisingly interesting story once things get going. It’s all interesting enough that it might convince you to slog through the actual game. The problem is that when you get all the way through you still won’t think Fragile Dreams was a good game when you’re done. It just had a cool story.