Game Description: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a single player action-exploration game with light role-playing game (RPG) elements. A Wii exclusive, it introduces players to a lonely, emotional story in which solving the mystery of a dark world, nearly devoid of humanity, but filled with ghosts and demons falls to the young boy, Seto. Using the tools provided, as well as what can be found, purchased or upgraded throughout the gameworld players seek to solve this mystery and escape the solitude of isolation.
HIGH A premise that hooked me immediately.
LOW The amount of wandering and backtracking.
WTF How did this terrible inventory system get approved?
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a difficult thing to review. On the one hand, there really aren't that many "serious" efforts on the Wii, and I feel fairly petulant being critical of one when it arrives. On the other hand, only so much allowance can be made for concept and intent; after all, reviewers must base their judgments on what is and not what could or should be. As much as I may want to reward Fragile Dreams for what it attempts, I can't ignore the fact that it's a fairly painful experience.
The premise of the game is quite intriguing—players take on the role of Seto, a 15-year-old boy who finds himself alone in a post-apocalyptic world after his grandfather dies. With no immediate goal other than to find fellow survivors, I was intrigued immediately. Crossing several genres, Fragile Dreams is heavy on atmosphere and story, but is probably best described as a third-person adventure game. However, there's both more and less to it than that. Its structural design borrows from Survival Horror and RPGs as well as Action/Adventure, yet frustratingly manages to take the worst elements from each while leaving out the best.
Making effective use of the hardware, Seto's flashlight (and viewpoint) is controlled by the Wiimote, with most objects in the environments easily seen thanks to glowing fireflies hovering above them. The Nunchuk's stick handles movement, and combat is mapped to the A button. The developers did a good job of implementing the controls, and I do want to praise them for that—it's usually my main complaint with Wii titles. That said, significant problems in the game's core design become apparent almost immediately after starting play.
Although Fragile Dreams can claim graphics which are moody and quite well-done, the structure underneath them feels extremely clunky and outdated. For example, progress can only be saved at campfires sprinkled liberally throughout each level. Without checkpoints, players must consciously return to these fires to make sure that progress isn't lost. In addition, Seto's inventory is ridiculously small, and it's insanely cumbersome to rearrange items or identify found ones without being at a campfire as well. Between saving and constantly re-allocating inventory space, a player can expect to be making pit stops at firepits on a near-constant basis, effectively destroying the natural flow of play and any feelings of freely exploring each environment.
Besides this campfire-centric approach, other problems irritate as well. Rather than exploring a wasted world (or even a city) each area is rather small and has players aimlessly wandering the same ground back and forth until they happen to trigger whichever event is required to progress. Worse, later in the game players must backtrack to previous areas for what amounts to simplistic item fetching.
In some titles, this sort of boredom can be partially alleviated by entertaining combat, but Fragile Dreams stumbles here as well. With all attacking handled by one button, there is no depth or technique to the fights. It can also be quite difficult to gauge distances between Seto and his enemies, resulting in swinging wildly at thin air. (Oh, and did I mention the weapons break?) Asking a player to devote hours to this kind of stuff is the opposite of compelling and feels like an extreme waste of time.
With all that stacked against it, the fact remains that a strong story or cast of characters can often present some redeeming value and smooth over any unpleasantness, but my suspicion is that Fragile Dreams is going to split players into opposing camps of "love it" or "not" with very little room for middle ground.
For a story that seems to be a perfect vehicle for themes of isolation and loneliness, I found it ironic and unsatisfying that once past the starting area, Seto is never really alone. Instead, he's constantly interacting with one character or another in typical JRPG emo-exchanges that are neither sophisticated nor interesting enough to override the lacking gameplay. For being in a desolate shell of a world, there are entirely too many characters around.
Another misstep in the storytelling, Seto often finds "memory items" scattered throughout each level. Each relays a brief vignette attached to things like a shoe, a diary, or a paper crane. I would assume that these items are present to enhance the game's dramatic elements in some way, but it's never satisfactorily explained how Seto is privy to these bits of lore, nor do they ever add up to anything. They simply exist, and do nothing to deepen or enrich the experience. (Adding insult to injury, they also take up inventory space—collecting them means even more trips to the nearest campfire.)
I have to be honest in saying that it was extremely difficult to find motivation to continue playing, and this review is based on an incomplete run. Although the controls were solidly implemented, the graphics were some of the best I've seen on the Wii, and I do believe the developers' hearts were in the right place, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a tedious, trying experience that didn't offer enough reason for me to carry on in spite of its downsides. I'm sure that some Wii owners and JRPG connoisseurs will fall in love with its moody nature and deliberate pace, but despite its attempts to be a serious, artistic game on a console that's choked with brightly-colored waggle-heavy cash-ins, I really can't say that its successes outnumber its failures.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco reference, animated blood, fantasy violence, suggestive themes. Although I did not complete the entire game, I did not encounter any significant references to alcohol, tobacco, or sexual content. There is one point in the game where two male characters kiss, but it's more an innocent misunderstanding than something innately sexual. The violence consists of the main character hitting ghosts and monsters with various types of sticks, and it's quite tame.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the game makes heavy use of the Wiimote microphone, and with no visual cue on-screen to represent these sounds, hearing-impaired players will run into a significant amount of difficulty, and may actually find it impossible to progress past certain points in the game that rely on sound. This game is not recommended for hearing-impaired players.
HIGH The desolate, yet familiar environments, although they're repeated.
LOW The constant tedium of the Inventory Tetris.
WTF "Friends give each other kisses, right? I read that somewhere."
The Apocalypse usually arrives with a bang and a flash in video games, a natural consequence of the combat motif that dominates their interactivity. In the radioactive haze of nuclear annihilation, or the privation that accompanies a massive natural disaster, we can find easy justification for the appearance of monsters and monstrous men. But we can instead imagine a quiet apocalypse, in which man disappears without violent incident, as if the whole species passed in its sleep. Our buildings and monuments would still stand. It would even take some time for the noisy machinery of our society to grind to a halt, so the first sign of our passing would be that there was no creature on earth that could speak. Fragile Dreams is about such a silent ending, and the value of what will be lost in it.
It's impossible to discuss what I liked about Fragile Dreams and why it didn't work without revealing some of the game's secrets, so spoilers will follow.
The event that destroyed almost all of humanity in Fragile Dreams resulted from an effort to abolish speech. The "Glass Cage" designed by the scientist Shin was supposed to give humans the power to sense each others' emotions, but instead sent nearly everyone into a sleep from which they did not wake. The game's protagonist, Seto, was an infant then, and after the death of his caretaker he ventures into the ruins humanity left behind. Some of these, like the cavernous storm sewer he explores, are everyday monuments, accentuating the absence of man with their vast emptiness. Others, like the train station and the mall, are ordinary spaces made mournful by silence.
Early in his journey, Seto encounters a mysterious girl named Ren, and spends the rest of the game pursuing her. He is helped and hindered on his way by a diverse group of characters, ultimately befriending almost all of them. Only Ren is human, however; the others are ghosts, or artificial intelligences. The first of these companions, Personal Frame, is little more than a backpack with a speaker and an antenna sticking out of it. She accompanies Seto through the early parts of his adventure, helping him through his awkward attempts to fight off the game's unfriendly ghosts. PF is living on borrowed time, however, and when her battery dies Seto tearfully buries her. His emotional attachment to a talking box is created and deepened through speech.
Seto's longing for human contact is in large part a desire to converse. When his dedication to the search is challenged by the ghostly Sai, Seto emphasizes that he wants to be with Ren, even if she hates him, so that she can respond to what he says. When he discovers the truth about his friend Crow, Seto makes it clear that humanity, in the biological sense, is not something he cares about. PF may have a flat voice and an obsession with dubiously-derived statistics, but she converses with Seto. For him that is enough to create a relationship, hence his joy when he hears voices from the radio. What separates Seto's friends from the sad little ghosts that populate most of the world is not their biology or even their friendliness, but rather their ability (and desire) to talk with him. Speech is at the core of all the game's emotional relationships.
Fragile Dreams universalizes this idea when it reveals the cause of the Glass Cage disaster. Shin apparently had used the technology on himself initially and discovered that the friendly words of those around him masked their "jealousy and contempt." As is typical for a video game villain, he decided that since nobody loved him, the only thing to do was destroy mankind. As it turns out, Sai, who was being used to power Glass Cage, actually did love him. He was unable to sense this because, as Sai herself explains, "when it comes to the important things... you have to put them into words."
This is perhaps a worthy sentiment, but it's not one particularly well-adapted to America. The culture of Japan is sufficiently reserved that vocal expressions of love might realistically go without utterance for an entire lifetime. America, by contrast, is orally expulsive to the point of madness. Our problem isn't that we never say what we feel, it's that we never shut up about how we feel. Consequently, we value demonstration over vocalization: actions speak louder than words.
Cultural questions aside, Fragile Dreams has an unfortunate tendency to work against this theme. While the overall plot values speech, the side-stories collected in the form of various "memory items" tend to emphasize the inadequacy or needlessness of speech. The longest of these stories, involving nine different items, hinges on the unspoken feelings of its subjects, and the imperfection of the only manner of speech its protagonist possesses. A four-part story collected earlier describes a situation in which ill-spoken words ruin a relationship. These memories and others like them are arguing for Shin's point of view.
Moreover, the script of the game doesn't treat the characters' conversations as something to be valued. Since I do not speak Japanese I cannot attest to the quality of the dialogue as it was originally written. If the script was a work of poetry to rival Bashō, though, the translation did it no justice. This was a game that called for a free and artistic translation, one that put a higher priority on producing poetic and powerful dialogue than on preserving the literal meaning of each line.
Instead we have conversations that are prosaic and awkward, not only when it is appropriate (Seto spluttering after his kiss) but also at moments of critical emotion. Ideas and even particular lines are repeated, sometimes within the space of a few sentences, and most of those ideas aren't explored with any particular competence. This tendency pervades every aspect of the game; as Brad mentioned in his review, Fragile Dreams also has a tendency to revisit areas without engaging any new perspective on them. As much dialogue as the game has, a startlingly small amount of it is at all interesting, either on its own merits or for what it conveys. The speech that actually occurs in the game is almost uniformly disappointing.
Fragile Dreams convincingly depicts a world that has begun to crumble after most of mankind quietly passed away. In the silence of the surviving world, the last few humans desperately long for the sound of another person's voice. Seto's relationships and reactions make a compelling case that speech is an essential part of human nature. In contrast, the creators of the Glass Cage believed that humanity's problems existed because speech was a deficient way to convey emotions and ideas. The reason Fragile Dreams fails is that it does more to substantiate those claims than to refute them.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Wii. The game was completed once.