Monday, April 5, 2010

Review - Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon

Before playing a game, most people like to have some idea of what they’re getting into. There are gamers who like their shooters, gamers who like their sports simulation games, tournament fighters, platformers, etc. The thing about Tri-Crescendo’s Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is that, no matter what you’re expecting, nothing will really prepare you for the experience that is this game. That said, you get out of it what you put in.

Fragile Dreams is a third person adventure game that places you in control of a fifteen year old boy named Seto. As the game begins, Seto finds himself alone in an observatory, with only the moonlight to lift his spirits and guide his way. He has just buried his grandfather, who raised him for his entire life, and was the only person Seto had ever known. The player learns this right away, as Seto’s grandfather leaves him with a letter explaining that something has happened in the world to make it an extremely desolate place, and that Seto must venture out into the world in search of those few people left. That’s all I’ll mention about the story for now (not because it isn’t worth conversation, that couldn’t be further from the truth), but I will touch on how the story unfolds because, as with many great games, it is told in several different ways.

Of all the story-telling devices used in “Fragile Dreams,” the most consistently striking, to my eyes, are the numerous environments traversed throughout the game. They are fairly varied and escalate in a way one would expect, but also all share a brilliantly and carefully crafted quality of age. It’s as if the entire world has become a museum of mankind. This museum is very often lonely, at times eerie, sometimes frightening, occasionally boring, but almost always serene. There are even graffiti messages embedded into the environments that are directly expositional to the story, but it’s a shame that not quite all of them have received the localization treatment (minor quibble).

What would a museum be without relics, artifacts, keepsakes, or just general objects? These are some of the other story telling mechanisms in the game. In your travels, you will discover a wide variety of objects that carry with them the memories of those who owned them at one time. More specifically, they contain the last thought that their owners had about the object just before leaving this world. Seto gets his chance to experience these memories whenever he chooses to sit down at a fire pit and take a rest (also used to save and perform other tasks). This makes both for some incredibly emotional stories delivered with outstanding voice work (I can only speak for the Japanese voice acting), and a slowly exposed series of clues that help in explaining what happened to all of the people on the planet. Some of the objects you find will be part of a series of related objects and, in a move that I find both brave and flawed, its easy to miss certain objects in a connected series, and thus miss chapters of a greater story (you will most likely not find all of the objects in game playing through it once). This fact forces you to be hungry for exploration, as hungry as someone who has known no one and wants nothing more than to find others and understand why his world is the way it is. And there are others.

Along his journey Seto encounters his fair share of companions and foes, be they human, A.I., or ghostly. Early on in his journey, a young and innocent silver-haired girl strikes Seto’s eye in a moment that has him amazed and transfixed. She flees in fear, but not before her image of beauty makes such an impact on Seto that she becomes the focal point of Seto’s quest. It’s a quest that is made quite believable, thanks in part to the fantastic character design of Katsuyuki Ujinawa as it applies to the object of Seto’s affection, and every character in the game. Characters’ appearance are uniquely crafted , containing not only their defining traits but also quite a bit of insight into their past. It is thanks to these characters, their appearance, and their dialogue, that we get the major plot advancements and the most emotionally powerful moments in “Fragile” (some of which, I’m not ashamed to say, made me tear up).

Those moments are able to reach to such a high level of genuine emotion because they come packaged with the game’s stellar soundtrack, and I can’t stress that point enough. I am a huge fan of music of all styles, including music/audio in video games. I normally define great game music as easily listenable when looped, or best experienced as the backdrop to the player interaction and the motion on screen. A vast majority of Fragile’s soundtrack, however, does not fall into those categories category at all. Fragile’s soundtrack is actually strikingly sparse, but it’s because there is so much silence that, when the music does show up, the piano-heavy compositions of Riei Saito carry that much more weight. Furthermore, these are songs that I have found myself coming back to regularly since I got the partial soundtrack with my pre-order. They aren’t simply laden with time-tested and clich├ęd chord progressions engineered for emotional response. Rather, they are especially thought-out, interesting, delicate and matching the aesthetic of the game.

I can’t talk about the music in the game without also briefly going into the fully animated (out of engine) cut scenes in the game. The collective work of art directors, the cinematography team, and the movie animators and director come together to create these strikingly beautiful scenes, which play out during the major transitional points in the narrative (and are married so well with the game’s music). The only musical theme in the game that even resembles game music, in that it comes in regularly and will technically loop if allowed to, is the combat theme. While it is not a bad theme in and of itself, this point leads me in to discussion of the aspects of the game that were not quite at the level of those that I’ve mentioned thus far.

The combat in this game has been one of its most widely panned elements, being called dated, useless, and even broken. I’m here to tell you that while the combat is certainly not an element of the game that I would mention when singing its praises, it is not broken or useless, and I’d go as far as to say that the game wouldn’t quite be what it is without it. It is serviceable, and not much more. Another recent and equally overlooked Wii gem , Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, went the route of bypassing combat and focusing on escape during certain portions. The Fragile team did not want to abandon combat, possibly to allow the player the chance to empower Seto to a degree, and also allow him to level up to become more effective in combat. Despite that, you still almost always have the option to run right past most enemy encounters if your weapons are broken or you are low on health. Not leveling up will put you at a disadvantage at certain portions later on, so combat is encouraged. When it comes down to it, a videogame isn’t much without obstacles to overcome, and even if the enemies in this game (even bosses) never pose a huge challenge, they do still require focus. All this and I haven’t even talked about the mechanics of the combat.

With Seto, the player has the ability to walk forward and backward, strafe left and right while walking forward or backward, and turn/change perspective with the IR pointer. All these moves are employed in combat as they are outside of combat, and serve well enough (speed-wise) to dodge attacks or get behind cover. Actual offensive moves are handled with a press or hold of the A button, with properly repeated taps to execute different combo types. You’ll get weapons based on speed, strength, and even ranged weapons for projectile combat. In the later stages of the game I actually found some of the combat adding strategy and depth, and I particularly enjoyed the way they expanded upon the concept of light weakening the spirit/ghost enemies. All the weapons have different levels of durability, and I mention durability because weapons can and will break. They cannot be fixed, only discarded. I never found this as much of a problem because I always had enough currency to keep a healthy stock of weapons. Beyond that, however, when I reflected upon the breaking of weapons, I realized that it actually plays very well into a major theme of the game: fragility. Yes that may sound cheesy, but this game ties it in beautifully in things ranging from physical objects to mere concepts or emotions. But, since I don't want to digress too much, the issue of broken weapons bleeds into the issue of inventory management.

Fragile takes a page from Resident Evil for all things inventory. Seto has his larger loot bag with enough space to store anything and everything in the game, but what he has access to at any given moment (when pausing the game) is more limited. Weapons, healing items, valuable pick-ups, and memory objects all take up space. You will only be able to grab a limited number of things before getting back to a fire pit, the only place where you are able to go into your giant loot case, check out memory items, or save the game. Hopefully this shouldn’t keep you from grabbing story items but it might. You can always throw away/use items from your limited inventory to create space, and the size of that inventory will increase over the course of the game. Again, like the combat, this is an element that I would not mention as a strength of the game, but it never came close to driving me away, and it occasionally created instances of strategy and challenge that I enjoyed.

That’s sort of the general way I feel about Fragile; its unique and beautiful qualities far outweigh any gripes I can conjure up. Even when the game greets you with very odd and bold design choices, like extremely long and lonely corridors with the occasional enemy and various pieces of graffiti that may take literally 5 minutes to travel through moving forward non-stop, I’m not one to throw down the controller and say “F this game”. Moments like those cement the fact that Seto is truly on a long, lonesome, and arduous journey. Sometimes this journey will be dark, depressing, or even boring. The fact that I’m a very patient gamer, satisfied at times with simply taking in whatever little touches in the environment I can see that the designers made a point to include, also helped in my enjoyment of this game. That last part should possibly be taken as a warning: if you are not a patient gamer, only looking for constant action at a more break-neck pace, this game is not for you; but let me speak to the people who should play this game, if I may.

Bottom line takeaway: if you are a fan of anime and the rich characterization and philosophical/emotional realms that the genre frequently offers, and you’re also a fan of videogames and the unique way in which a (great) game can create a level of attachment to a character that film or literature just can’t quite match, you will love Fragile Dreams. It has left an impression on me that will likely never be forgotten, and I am so glad that there are still people around that had the desire to come together to craft this work of art with such a great deal of passion for it and everything it stands for. In a message on the soundtrack created for North America, Director Tomomi Tagawa said the following: “We hope that they [these songs] give you joy and bring back memories long forgotten.” This is exactly what they did, and not just with the soundtrack, but the entire game.

ps - As a quick note, I would advise anyone who is a wiimote veteran to turn the IR cursor indicator off. The flashlight beam serves just fine as an indicator and you don't have a dot on the screen to get in the way of the game's atmosphere.



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