Corridors and ladders and stairs, oh my!
I’ve played my share of creepy games, but it’s the ones that don’t seem to try to go out of their way to be creepy which are truly unsettling. Subject matter and setting are just as important as execution, and the degree to which these items are unorthodox and fresh also contributes to the game’s effect. To that end, it’s been a while since I’ve played a game as… odd as Fragile Dreams, both in terms of subject matter and execution.
It’s a creepy game for sure, and it’s wholly unlike just about everything else on Wii at the moment. Thoroughly Japanese, it introduces a story where the main character, Seto, is left completely abandoned after the death of the “Old Man he was living with”. And I do mean abandoned; he quickly begins to believe that he may, in fact, be the last remaining human alive. He encounters a letter from his late elder instructing him to head toward the tower to the east, offering that he might find some signs of life along the way. And at that, he picks up his stuff (read: flashlight and stick) and walks, making his way there.
This can be one heck of a beautiful game when it wants to be
Along the way, Seto crosses paths with what actually seems to be another human. It’s a young silver-haired girl, and she’s singing something. She takes a spill, and he quickly makes his way over to check on her. No sooner than had he touched her warm cheek, however, does she awaken and become spooked, running off in the other direction. And so you begin your quest in search of said girl—your last true hope of a living companion—navigating a world now decrepit, once bustling with life and familiar activity.
A dead world
Your journey takes you through underground train stations, shopping malls, old warehouses, amusement parks, abandoned hotels, and more… all filled with nothing but artifacts of the past and the occasional hostile ghost. It’s the mystery of Seto’s situation and the details of what apparently cataclysmic event occurred that keeps the player interested throughout what might otherwise be considered annoying and vapid gameplay. It’s almost Metroid or Myst-like in its sensation of recent abandonment and eerie vacancy; and really, it’s this atmosphere (fused with a bit more of the paranormal and horrific) and the ever-so-slowly unfolding storyline which carry the entire experience. Later on the game picks up the story and tragically wanders away from the explorative elements which are responsible for its initial appeal, but that’s a point of discussion for later on.
Instead, let’s back up for a moment to the gameplay. It’s all third-person; three parts exploration, one part action. You simply move with the analog stick as usual, pointing the Wii remote to look and shine your flashlight in various directions. By holding B and pointing, you can get a closer look at any particular scene. You won’t have to search for too long, however, as most of the critical elements are indicated via a swirling group of fireflies hovering above them. You’ll also be tasked with following the source of noises on occasion, and the game implements a clever system which supposedly increases the volume of the sound when you are correctly oriented. Oddly, this mechanic doesn’t always seem to work perfectly, but I digress.
The action is limited to equipping a weapon and attacking somewhat underwhelming groups of assailants: floating jellyfish-like ghosts (“malicious thought entities”), birds, robots, and hovering dames with eyes embedded in their backs, to name a few. There isn’t much of a variety in terms of your enemies overall (they frequently repeat and even engage in forbidden palette-swapping activities—right up until the very end), and none of them is really all that interesting or requires much of a different strategy than any of the others. The combat system, meanwhile, is equally vanilla, providing no more depth than basic “press A to strike” mechanics. There’s no shortage of sheer numbers in terms of your enemies, however, meaning that you’ll quickly grow tired of fending them off as you just try to make your way from A to B.
Some other quick gameplay notes: C crouches, which will get you through tight places and across crumbling platforms which require delicate movement. Saving is performed at regularly-spaced fire pits, where you can sit to warm up and recover health. You’ll also run into one of the freakiest phenomena in the game here: a wandering merchant wearing an effing oversized chicken head costume with a missing eye who pushes a baby carriage, all set to circus music (can it get much more disturbing than that?). He’s bizarre and completely out of place—at least, so it seems at first.
Good old fashioned nightmare fuel
This chicken-headed fellow seeks to purchase “interesting” artifacts from you, most of which really aren’t really all that interesting at all. But many finds—called Memories—do hold a secondary appeal: you can bring them back to a bonfire to listen to their story: the last thoughts of their owners before they were lost. There isn’t any real purpose to these little tales, but they do add a certain somberness to an already uncommonly depressed mood. They’re completely voice-acted—so it does cut back on the reading to some degree—but don’t get too excited, as the voice acting is another of the game’s weaker points. It’s excruciatingly slow and overexpressive all at once, making it seem somewhat unnatural and forced at best, and just plain boring at worst. As a result, you’ll probably end up skimming through most of the Memories tales just to get back to the game.
A series of menus can be accessed via the D-pad, where you can then equip items (both a particular flashlight and weapon of choice simultaneously). The game adopts some other RPG elements as well, such as a level-gaining system and a very Diablo-esque equipment management approach where you have limited space for each possession to occupy. This all works pretty well, but in context with the lackluster combat, it doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose.
Battling foes is hardly the draw of the overall package, and it’s completely uncool when they respawn with every entrance/exit and you’re frequently forced to retread your steps thanks to some pretty boneheaded (pointless) gameplay objectives (for instance, chasing one character over and over through the amusement park hardly qualifies as good fun; it’s simply excessive). The backtracking subsides later on, but the enemies and combat never improve… I think I counted maybe ten or twelve different enemies total in the entire game. The bosses, while few in number, are equally forgettable.
The cut scenes are better. Or, at least, the FMV cut scenes, which are hand-drawn and beautifully animated, staunchly artistic, and at times almost poetic in their wording and introspective disposition. In fact, the in-game atmospheres in general are all powerfully authentic, featuring a sort of naturalism to them that discards the game world sensation which is often so palpable in this genre. Half of the equation is the beautiful visuals; the other half is the believable and human construction of the environments. Practicality trumps gameplay convenience in many situations, and it manifests itself in the form of unbelievably long and repetitive passageways, ladders, and stairwells, all of which could have been greatly reduced in iteration and still probably achieved the same effect. Again, the game loves the excessive.
The exploration is where it's at
Still, the explorative aspect of the experience is considerably more gripping than the rest of the gameplay. The game truly succeeds at building a solemn, lonely sensation… but there’s just one final gripe that I haven’t yet touched on. What is it? Simply that, all things considered, the game is just so damned depressing. I saw it through to the very end before beginning my review write-up here, and I was severely underwhelmed by the “closure” provided in the epilogue. It’s just too dreary and misleading in all its “hope floats” undertones right up to the fizzling conclusion, which, without spoiling anything, doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to the uncertainty the rest of the game creates. Nevertheless, as long as you don’t expect a blockbuster, if this sort of thing resonates with you, you might justify a rental. Just be sure to carry a positive outlook and hide the razor blades beforehand.