Something very strange has happened to the world in this new Adventure game from Rising Star Games. Nearly everyone has vanished and only a handful of people remain to wander the stricken landscape. You are one of these people. So with little food, hardly any water and plenty of unanswered questions, the adventure begins. Sadly, even with this wonderfully intriguing plot the game fails to live up to expectation.
Have you ever seen the show Survivors on the BBC? In Survivors, a lethal virus has escaped wiping out 99% of the population of Earth. What few survivors there are band together and try to get by any way they can as well as trying to find out who is responsible for the outbreak.
Fragile Dreams is much the same except presented in a fantasy world in full Japanese Anime style. What’s also different is that it is very unlikely a virus or disease is the culprit behind most of the world’s population disappearing. With a virus or flu, some bodies would remain but there are none to be found – everyone has simply vanished without a trace. According to the game’s website, finding out exactly what caused the apocalyptic event is a major part of the game. However, for the first hour of gameplay, none of its characters actually seem to care about the story. There is no more than vague references to the plight of the world and the question of why or even how it happened is glossed over entirely. It’s like waking up one morning to find the world deserted and simply shrugging and thinking ‘Oh well’ before carrying on with the rest of your day.
This lack of focus on what I consider the biggest mystery of the game does not detract from the overall experience because the story soon branches out in other directions. The developers wanted to create something few games have tried before – to develop the game as a “human drama” and ignore typical save the world type adventures. Soon, a new sub-plot opens where Seto – the so-called hero of this game – meets a girl called Ren. A fifteen year old boy sees an attractive silver-haired girl, possibly the last two people on the planet – the inevitable happens. Ren, playing hard-to-get, runs off and the rest of the game sees you guiding Seto through gloomy broken landscapes to try and find the stray female. Along the way you meet other characters – a crazy chicken-headed shop-keeper, some more lost survivors, a girl with completely unexplained vanishing powers and so on. Towards the end of the game you even form a Role Playing Game style party of non-playable combatants.
A consequence of this focus on emotional drama as opposed to traditional hack and slash games is that the gameplay is disappointingly boring. It’s just far too slow for my taste with frequent long-winded conversations – usually between Seto and the talking Personal Frame (PF) computer on his back. It seems that every time you turn a corner or approach a dangerous area a new cutscene begins, pausing the action. This makes the game feel less like a game and more like a movie with a few interactive bits in it.
The combat within those playable sections is also disappointing. You have only one form of attack – hit the A button to swing your weapon. You can string up a combo of three swings for increased damage but this is nothing special in today’s world of unlockable finishing moves and deadly counter attacks. Armed and ready, an enemy approaches you. You jab the A button repeatedly until the creature is dead – job done. There’s no tactics to battle, no animation to signify the brutality of battle, no upbeat combat music – there never really feels like there is any major threat or challenge. Combat should be a big thing, a time where you must push yourself to win and feel glad and relieved when you have done. In Fragile Dreams, combat seems tacked on to give you something to do other than endlessly explore dark caverns.
All combat requires weapons and the weapons in this game are simply too bizarre not to mention. At the start of the game you are given an amazing weapon – the super-deadly fear-inspiring combat edition stick! Actually, it’s just a normal wooden stick that’s fallen off a tree. You can actually do significant damage with a dead piece of wood in your hands. Other fantastic weapons, such as the sword made entirely of Bamboo, break after frequent bashing off objects such as the heads of enemies or wooden crates. The stick never breaks. It’s strange that I’ve never come across sticks capable of killing ravenous dogs or weird invisible flying jelly-fish in just three or four hits. Clearly, I’ve not been looking hard enough. It is amazing what you can learn from games these days.
Continuing the strange quality of items, the torch you pick up to help with exploring is decidedly square. Waving the Wiimote around points the beam of light in a certain direction, lighting up whatever hides in the blackness and even damaging some enemies. It’s a concept that works really well having been tried and tested before in such games as Alone in the Dark and the soon-to-be released Alan Wake. Occasionally it is difficult to control, highlighting the fact that if the Wiimote is not pointed directly at the screen, its motion sensitivity doesn’t work properly. This annoying problem usually turns Seto in the opposite direction to that you want him to look – extremely frustrating in a fight. Unless you keep your darkness revealing torchlight on your attacker, your swings will end up missing their target. A feature where you could lock on to enemies to always face them would have been a massive improvement, removing this infuriating direction problem.
There are some quality touches that could have been great but unfortunately do not have enough pizzazz to produce a superb game on their own. In a similar way to Resident Evil, items such as keys and coloured stones have to be collected and used to solve puzzles. Useable items are surrounded by green fireflies – little more than small glowing spheres – so you can easily spot them. It’s the puzzles involving noise finding that sets this game apart from the competition though. It’s handled in a very clever way that maximises the potential of the Wiimote in a way that almost every other game fails. The Wiimote itself has a speaker on it. When you approach any noise-making object in the game like a cat or a person, the noise it makes comes from the controller. The sound from the remote gets louder and louder as you get nearer the source, so, for example, you can search for survivors stuck behind rubble. There’s one cool puzzle were you have to find and invisible little girl using only her sounds to guide you.
Another quality feature is the addition of bonfires that magically come alight as soon as you touch them. Bonfires mainly act as save-points, allowing you to save your progress and return to it later. They also give Seto some time to rest, recovering any lost health, and the possibility of meeting the travelling merchant where you can buy or sell wares. More uniquely however, they give Seto the time out to remember times before the great disappearance of the majority of the populace. Many items you find unlock memories – short narratives between children and their parents. This is a great place for the developers to gradually reveal clues to the mysterious cause of the event. Sadly, this chance has not been taken as most memories are entirely pointless, designed to drum up some emotional response from you yet simply becoming an irritation.
The Wii generally trails behind the graphical splendour of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, but the graphics in this game are surprisingly good. The dark environments you explore ranging from derelict underground subway stations to abandoned buildings are highly detailed. Open areas usually reveal picturesque skies or the glowing face of the moon. Characters are also very nicely detailed and contrast well with the dull colours of the rotting landscape. Their animations are fluid, never producing jerky, unnatural movements. Trouble spots where body parts stick through walls are very rare indeed. Nothing really stands out as true graphical amazement – everything fits but there aren’t any places that take your breath away.
The graphics may be lacking true brilliance but at least they are consistent, which is more than can be said for the sound. The audio varies hugely in terms of quality. The music, commonly saved for longer cutscenes, is phenomenal and very pleasing on the ears. As the game box triumphantly claims it is a “moving musical score by some of Japan’s most renowned artists”. The first animated cartoon-like cutscene shows Seto wandering through the broken, washed-out world. Still images fade in and out showing how once beautiful places have decayed because no one is left to maintain them. Buildings have turned to empty shells, brown stains on the walls. Pristine grass withers and dies leaving scraggy dried out shoots in its place. Pipes that formerly produced life-giving water now give out horrible black soot. The very Japanese background music blares out, fitting the previously prosperous world fallen into ruin theme perfectly. It’s wonderfully emotional – it could almost bring a tear to your eye.
Not all audio is as fantastic though. Many of the character’s voices are high-pitched and grating, especially the young silver haired girl Ren. In addition much of the voiced dialogue contains frustratingly long pauses. Another real problem comes from the frequent gameplay interruptions mentioned earlier. Much of it is very long-winded. For example, one text between Seto and his PF computer contains the instruction for Seto to travel to the right. The PF then goes on to explain what direction to the right means – towards the hand you hold a pencil with. Do the Japanese developers think European players do not know what ‘to the right’ means? To make matters worse, Seto goes on to explain that he is actually left-handed and so does not hold his pencil in his right hand. Arrrhhhh! Just shut up. My head feels like it’s going to explode with all the worthless claptrap these people speak!
The final topic for this review is to consider the game’s lifespan – what there is to keep you playing. There is a long single-player story that will keep you going for days. Apart from that, there is nothing left to mention. There is no multiplayer. There is no randomness to item placement or enemy encounters. There’s not even any Easy, Medium or Hard difficulty settings to allow more challenging second play-throughs – the single-player game defaults at a relatively easy level. There is simply nothing to make you return to this game after you’ve finished the main story. It’s very much a once-in-a-lifetime journey rather than a frequent holiday destination.
Fragile Dreams is a confusing game to sum up. With its focus on human drama rather than typical survival horror or action adventure, its fate as a love it or hate it game is sealed. There’s plenty to like for the right sort of person. The emotional themes and the slow-paced narrative driven gameplay will definitely excite some players. The addition of clever ideas including bonfires and noise finding puzzles, coupled with the functional graphics make the journey through the wilderness more bearable. For me though, the ‘find your lost love’ story is a bit tedious – I want action and a larger than life experience. The fact that much of the game is pointless in the grand scope of things also frustrates. If you’re the kind of person who loves to watch dramas like Survivors, Coronation Street or EastEnders on TV and are disappointed by the overuse of violence in modern games, then I recommend this game as there really aren’t many other titles like it that focus solely on drama. However, if, like me, you prefer games that blow your mind – steer clear of this one.