I like you a lot Fragile, but let's stay friends.
A game like Fragile could not have come at a better time. Last year, the the very landscape of Arkham Asylum captivated gamers with its detail and density. Silent Hill made a surprising comeback on the Wii with its new exploratory format. Fragile has been knocking on America's door for quite a while, touting its original environment of a ruined uninhabited Tokyo. Having a personal love for exploring abandoned buildings, this rushed right to the top of my 2010 anticipation list. And now upon completion, it's going right into the 2010 disappointments bin.
You play as Seto, a teenager who up until the passing of an old man taking care of him, has never left his house or seen another human soul. The world is indeed vacant, and seemingly yours to wander; although the game is strictly linear in where it wants you to go. Fortunately your tour is a fascinating one, with tons of nooks and crannies to explore. All you need to have fun is a flashlight and a map, and this game is good to go. Unfortunately, the designers decided to pack the game with a few big distractions from that fun.
The biggest problem with this game is combat. There shouldn't be any enemies in this game as it is to begin with. As you play, you'll realize fighting things not only takes you out of the atmosphere, but doesn't gel with the melancholy and lonesome tone of the plot. Not only that; it's late nineties old-school survival horror combat. Meaning you're just running up to things and hitting them with pipes and sticks; not really getting a sense of your range and sometimes succumbing to long wind-up animations that leave you wide open to attacks. On top of that, your weapon will break randomly with no indication of wear. There is nothing fun about the combat at all. It's a total unnecessary chore.
You also have a very limited inventory, which means many trips back to save points to unload. Combine this with enemies that respawn every time you re-enter a room, and you've got a very impatient gamer on your hands. Which is a total shame because if you rush through this game, you're skipping the meat and potatoes of it. Not only will you miss the fantastic environments, but arbitrary "memory items" as well. These items do not provide any statistical benefactor, but each of them shed a little bit of light on the plot told through individual dramatic tales of the deceased.
Have you figured by now that this game is incredibly depressing? This is actually a good thing. The plot to Fragile is fascinating to the very end. Those "memory items" really set the tone. Unfortunately, I can't think of many people willing to backtrack and suffer through tiresome combat to obtain them all. I don't know why the developers bogged down the game with this, rather than instead created a series of adventure style environmental puzzles to challenge the player.
This must have been a rushed title. Most of the final 4 hours of the game is a singular environment with featureless underground corridors that stretch for almost half a mile. A total reversal on the first half of the game. It's not until the final hour do you fall upon some interesting rooms yet again. The only thing keeping the dull parts interesting was the map screen, which Seto draws as you explore. He even adds in commentary where he met certain characters or what he refers to as "scary ghosts". Remember to check the map screen often! It brought a smile to my face every time.
It's so frustrating that this game has such a delicious center of innovation and charm, but is lined with a rotten crust. I wish I could recommend this game to most people, but the combat is just too distracting. The only person I'd recommend this game to other than an abandoned buildings nut like myself, would be a die hard otaku. XSeed did an amazing job with this port. You can play with the Japanese voice track if you please. Nothing about the environments have changed. All the signs and posters are in Japanese. Most of the characters have a bit of the anime cliche in them, but not enough to annoy someone who is generally turned off by anime (like me).
Fragile is a 12 hour game, with no game+ features. Not even a stats screen at the end! There is a whole lot of love here, but an incredibly botched execution; leaving us with a product that is a joy to watch, and a chore to actually play.