Living in press-event isolation as I do, I did not go into Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon with more than a teaser trailer –as seen below — to go by. What I saw in that years-old video was one boy's struggle with isolation in a stunning but decaying RPG world. What I experienced in this widely underrated game is hard to explain, but I know that going into it without expectations opened my mind to the work more than those who immersed themselves in the hype.
I want to convince you that most reviews you read about Fragile Dreams fail to take in the — I hate to phrase it this way — artistry and dedication to telling a story not only with words but through sensation. It saddens me to see probably the best Wii game not made by Nintendo be cast aside because it does not meet the often impossibly high standards of people asked to review it. I wanted to play this game, and I want you to play it, so I'll do my best sway your opinion from here.
The tone is set from the moment you start the game. The main character Seto, a 15-year-old survivor of the abrupt end of the world, greets you with the announcement that he just buried the old man he lived with in a shallow grave. He is not entirely remorseful, but he is not heartless. Their relationship was awkward and one of necessity. He never knew the man's name, and his death was inconvenient but vital to him venturing out on his own.
Seto is alone in a decaying and dim observatory and is left with the mission of seeking out other survivors that could be in the looming red tower on the horizon. His defense against this eerie world is a flashlight and whatever wooden item he finds in the area. His first weapon is a stick, and it is immediately put to use slaying the angry spirit that killed the old man.
Seto is a perfect example of a lost, defenseless, yet determined survivor, and his limited fighting capabilities reflect this. He does not possess strange magic abilities or even a fancy fighting style. His movements are desperate and awkward and, as several reviewers dislike, imprecise. Combat follows a pattern similar to Namco Bandai's Tales series but does not offer any form of locking on. Precision comes from anticipating enemy movement and whether or not you stunned your typically spectral foes with your flashlight before attempting to strike. As foes become more mobile, a sense of dread fills your motions. You're fighting off the angry ghosts of people who died in the destruction of civilization who want nothing more than to destroy you as well. That's not the most uplifting situation to be in.
Fragile Dreams is not a happy game. You move from one dilapidated area to the next with the purpose of finding someone or something to ease your loneliness. Seto meets up with several characters over his journey, but each leaves him once their purpose is fulfilled. Their separation is wrapped up in a heart-wrenching but astonishingly beautiful cutscene that seeks to shed some light on the world and the depths of emotion. I find this aspect particularly effective as it draws the player into the emotional turmoil of the character without the rage and bravado of most game characters. These characters feel as anyone might when stranded at the end of the world.
Perhaps the most effective story element in this or any RPG I've played recently is the frequent messages of the past. As Seto explores, he discovers various items that do not have a purpose in the world, at least not as a usable item in your inventory. Whenever you stop at the numerous bonfires to save, you have a chance to examine the unusable items. These little trinkets offer glimpses of the past through often painful stories of people living on the edge of the apocalypse. They offer you an extensive view of what happened to the world and of how people lived, sacrificed, and regretted their actions.
I compare this burden of knowledge to Isao Takahata's adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka's novel Grave of the Fireflies. That film, though animated, brings out intense emotional responses from its audience. It can be sadness, anger, frustration, but it does elicit a response.
This is likely not the best example to use if I want you to play the game, but I recommend everyone watch Grave of the Fireflies even though I dislike the movie. The richness of the response and of the emotion displayed by the characters is masterful. That makes it a proper comparison for Fragile Dreams, which is the single most depressing game I have ever played, but I am pleased that I experienced it. No game has made me hope for the best and cry so much when the best is impossible.
My stance is that Fragile Dreams is an experience rather than a game, and you do not go into it wanting a satisfying outcome. You go into it to see the evolution of storytelling and the creative blending of art styles, character animation, and music. I am a firm believer that if we want the game medium to evolve we need to support efforts like this even if they do not immediately satisfy personal definitions of what game should be.