mento's Fragile: Sayonara Tsuki no Haikyo (Wii) review

An ephemeral, ethereal JRPG full of slow-pacing and melancholia.

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, beyond having an unwieldy name, is something of a dark horse among tri-Crescendo's library of more straightforward RPGs, like Eternal Sonata or Baten Kaitos. At times it has the slow cadence of survival horror: The foreboding darkness of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo is an eerie environment to stage a game, with protagonist Seto constantly requiring the use of a flashlight and his wits to fend off the many restless spirits that now occupy the various dilapidated ruins of the city he passes through. Other times it feels more like a visual novel, in that the centerpieces are Seto's conversations and interactions with other survivors, even if most aren't actually human. It becomes difficult to explain what exactly Fragile Dreams is, because it tries to be so many different genres simultaneously.

Boiled down to its core essences, though, Fragile Dreams is an action RPG. The player, as Seto, explores each new environment with a specific goal in mind, either finding a way out or locating a certain item or person. Encounters with the game's menagerie of spooks, which run the gamut from basic and almost passive jellyfish creatures to the creepy disembodied legs of schoolchildren at play, their laughter and taunts coming at Seto from some echo-y void beyond, are actually fairly straightforward: Seto finds makeshift weapons as he explores, from sticks to brooms to sledgehammers, and combat relies mostly on a common action RPG system of strafing, dodging, observing the opponent and choosing the ideal moment to strike. When outside of combat, the player is left to explore rooms, find keys and solve environmental puzzles (many using the Wii's motion-sensing tools) and the like, a trait indicative of its aforementioned resemblance to a survival horror type game. If I wanted to make a direct correlation to an otherwise very disparate game, I'd say the gameplay of Fragile Dreams is very similar to that of FromSoftware's Souls duology: The chief goal of each area is to progress to the next, fighting enemies in pre-determined spots throughout each area, taking some time to explore beyond the boundaries of the critical path for useful and occasionally necessary items and slowly checkpointing one's progress via a series of bonfires, which provide both respite from injuries as well as a means to save the game and manage/store items from the player's limited inventory. It's a spurious comparison in many ways, given Dark Souls' stronger emphasis on difficulty and trial and error gameplay, but ought to suffice as a basic clarification of what Fragile Dreams is on a purely mechanical level.

As the action RPG gameplay is at times largely perfunctory, it becomes clear that the game's developers were more interested in conveying the story and atmosphere of this world. Seto awakes one day in his lighthouse home to discover the only other living human being he had ever known, an old man who rarely spoke, has passed away in his sleep. Digging a shallow grave and taking what few items he would need on the road ahead, he follows his caretaker's advice from a letter he left behind to head towards the "red tower to the east", a tacit reference to the famous Tokyo Tower, as his best bet to find other survivors. Along the way Seto meets with a group of oddball characters, one after the other, and his interactions with them are what punctuates each section of the game: Whether it's a trip through an underground mall with an analytical and upbeat robotic backpack companion, meeting a rebellious and obnoxious youth in an ominous theme park or the ghost of a flirtatious and helpful girl in a crumbling luxury hotel. As well as these companions, Seto can find objects lying around that reveal to him the final thoughts and memories of their previous owners, little text- and speech-only narratives that fill the player in on the sort of despair the general population was feeling knowing their impending doom and that of mankind's. As with Lost Odyssey's similar interludes whenever its protagonist Kaim recalled more of his chequered past, it's a series of well-told stories rich in melancholy and regret, which won't be everyone's cup of tea. The way this game revels in the sadness and hopelessness of the end of the world might even seem overindulgent at times - there are small moments of levity and joy to be found as well, even if they're just as often bookended with moments of loss and horror. If you've ever seen Isao Takahata's/Studio Ghibli's Grave of the Fireflies, and was so traumatized by the experience that you swore you'd never see anything so depressing ever again, then Fragile Dreams is perhaps not for you.

The biggest issue with the game, besides it being sadness porn, is its glacial pacing. The game's developers struck upon an interesting realization that a post-apocalyptic world with no humans left should, at almost all times, feel empty and desolate. This will, unfortunately more often than not, lead to many situations where the player is passing through a quiet, empty area almost without incident. Ghost attacks are fairly regular, especially underground, but whenever the game comes up for a breather and lets the player walk some half a kilometer to a utility shed outside the underground railroad system, or across the embankment of a massive hydroelectric dam towards the end of the game, the tedium of having zero encounters along the way begins to take its toll. It's a shame that something that works as a device to enhance the game's atmosphere and personality doesn't quite work as well towards enhancing the gameplay, since I could name several situations in my recent game playing habits that are infinitely more exciting than jogging through a series of utterly barren environments without meeting a soul, whether that soul is still tethered to a living being or otherwise. Environments like the hotel and underground mall are exciting enough, with the high number of enemy encounters and optional areas to explore, but the amount of empty locations and occasional back-tracking (a particularly egregious set of side-quests around the mid-point of the game has you do this three times) can really spoil one's enjoyment of the game.

I should mention the graphics and music as well. Tri-Crescendo has something of a reputation for its music, which is as excellent here as it is in their other games: They did begin life as a soundtrack-producing studio for other developers, like sister company tri-Ace, after all. Riei Saito's hauntingly beautiful soundtrack entirely befits the mood of the game, and though the sound direction is often sparse - to match that of its equally sparse environments - the emotional moments when the music swells up are made all the more effective by its prior absence. Visually, the game juxtaposes the child-like mannequin character design of tri-Crescendo's earlier 360/PS3 JRPG Eternal Sonata with a semi-realistic depiction of a filthy and decrepit Tokyo. The intention of this, much like with the music, is to highlight moments of beauty and let them stand out against the ugly, broken world in which the game is set. It's effective, but again works better to enhance the story the game is telling than as something to enhance the game itself.

Ultimately, Fragile Dreams has a fantastic concept at its core that perhaps isn't realized to its full potential. Its myriad survival-horror/action-RPG/visual-novel aspirations can feel a little schizophrenic at times, its pacing can be all over the place and its characters and world might seem a little too bizarre (especially with the fan-favorite and walking convenience store character that is the Item Merchant, colloquially referred to as Chickenhead around these parts) and depressing for the casual player, but truth be told there's really nothing quite like it out there. It's yet another Wii game that defies any neat and tidy genre descriptors and is subsequently worth the time of anyone who desires more curios in their game library, in spite of its many faults.

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