There’s a sincerity to Fragile Dreams that’s very appealing, but that weighs heavily on the game over time. After burying his grandfather in his front garden, main character Seto explores the post-apocalyptic world with a heaviness of step that should make clear this isn’t a game full of sunshine and rainbows. If you like a drop of sorrow in your gaming, Fragile Dreams delivers by the bucketload.
Exploring the world for human survivors, the early enclosed spaces are oppressive and claustrophobic, with tight corridors and storage rooms hiding cackling enemies and ghostly apparitions. The Remote functions as a flashlight, used not only to illuminate areas but also to slow down enemies and reveal hidden messages later on in the game. It makes a great change from the usual design mentality that any character using a stick as a weapon must use waggle control, and is just the first example of many smart touches throughout.
The Remote speaker is used similarly superbly from the beginning, alerting you to impending enemy attacks as well as a lot of hot-and-cold segments that break up the combat. Lift the Remote to your ear and your companion Personal Frame gives words of advice through the speaker, bridging the gap between screen and your senses. There’s plenty of speech from the controller and it’s always loud, clear and adds plenty to the game whenever used, drawing you into the world with ease.
The speech coming from your regular speakers is pretty good, too. With some emotive and often subtle voice acting – in English or Japanese – the characters seem authentic and show plenty of range, with the campfire examination of mystery items quickly becoming a highlight. Here, discovered items reveal their owners’ memories, ranging from recorded phone conversations to dog collars, milk bottles to photographs and more. Each memory is sensitive, well-written and often genuinely moving, and makes those respites from battle all the more poignant and memorable.
It’s not all grief and loss, though – there’s actually a lot of quirky humour in there to enjoy, though it may not be apparent at first. Take a look at film posters and advertisements in the underground mall, or listen to the oddball chicken-headed merchant who gargles “have a nice daaay!” after he’s sold you a cat toy and some old sweets. Something always seems to come along at the right time to deflate the heavy mood a little, an achievement in itself.
Atmosphere aside, the gameplay is enjoyable and just varied enough. Exploring the world Seto will come across the departed souls of its residents, manifested as anything from flying jellyfish to flame-mouthed mastiffs, and defeating them yields experience points as well as useful items and the memory-holding mystery items. The biggest problem is the simplistic combat – although there are different kinds of weapons, from iron pipes to slingshots, the lack of manoeuvrability in battle hinders the game somewhat. A step or strafe move would have helped, though it’s worth pointing out that Seto is no swordsman, just a normal boy exploring the world, so it stands to reason he’s not rolling about like Link.
Each style of weapon handles differently, from the wide swinging arc of the butterfly net to the blunt power of the steel pipe, but they have something in common: they break. Batter enough ephemeral spirits with a bamboo stick and it’ll snap, dropping your attacking power and preventing you from performing combos. If you need to defeat a certain set of enemies to proceed and your weapon breaks you’re in trouble, though you soon develop an awareness of when to avoid combat. Still, with no tangible warning of when your weapon’s about to give in, it’s still irritating to get caught out: after the first few breakages you learn to prepare by carrying replacement weapons at all times, something made easier by the upgrades you find allowing you to carry more items.
That’s really the only major criticism we can throw at Fragile Dreams. Although the earnest talk about enormous mounds of earth and dreams amounting to nothing can weigh heavily from time to time, it’s all too rare to find a game with such a well written script and voice acting that genuinely improves the game by its presence. The game also displays some of the finest design on the Wii, with beautiful high-resolution graphics well in advance of most of the machine’s output, and the music is on a similarly high plane. What could easily have been a muddy and indistinct post-apocalyptic mess turns out to be one of the Wii’s most compelling worlds yet, and one that deserves exploration.
When Fragile Dreams is good, it’s excellent, with great cutscenes, a beautiful decaying world to explore and enough mystery to make Professor Layton hang up his hat. The combat is the only downside, though you soon learn to avoid where possible. Graphically and aurally the title excels in offering a world unlike any other, and for fans of intelligent, emotive gaming there’s no brighter torchbearer than this.