While exploring 2000s era titles to further build up my knowledge base, I stumbled upon Fragile Dreams, and something in my mind just clicked then. Normally I wouldn't have bothered, given the labeling of Fragile Dreams as a horror title, but I've dealt with and enjoyed my fair share of survival horror titles this year and it felt like a great opportunity to chase down this season. It's an interesting case because when I look back upon those comparisons, Fragile Dreams certainly has its resemblances, and yet presented itself as a great antithesis to the often stressful and terrifying survival horror titles I've played this year, like Silent Hill 3 and Condemned: Criminal Origins. For better or for worse, Fragile Dreams is less focused on being scary, and more focused on being haunting; after all, what could be more affecting than the nature of human drama
In Fragile Dreams, you play as a 15 year old boy named Seto, set loose in a post apocalyptic landscape after his grandfather passes away in the prologue. After stumbling upon a letter written prior to his death urging Seto to set course for a "tall red tower" alongside a mysterious blue stone in an old locket, Seto fends off an ominous masked ghost, warning him that the end is nigh and resistance is futile. Regardless, he forges on and begins his journey across the ruined metropolis of Tokyo to scour for any remaining survivors through scores of angry and disturbed spirits, and begin to find his place amongst the remnants of civilization.
Putting things bluntly, I do think that there is a lot to be desired from the gameplay mechanically. The combat more or less boils down to quickly tapping the A button, and while there's supposed to be a specific rhythm to tap the A button to in order to execute the most powerful three swing combo for light melee attacks (blue -> yellow -> red), tapping too rapidly just executes a standard triple blue combo and tapping too slowly causes the 2nd attack to never come out and leave your character in a long vulnerability state. For what it's worth, I could never figure out the exact consistent timing to always get the powered up swing combo, though I never needed to; the quick triple blue swing was good enough at dispatching enemies, and sometimes the delay from the powered up triple swing would give enemies too much time to recover and they would simply disappear and reappear behind me, restarting the whole process. The movement's not the greatest either (there isn't even a run option), so dodging attacks usually consists of awkwardly stepping back and waiting for enemies to attack, or more hurriedly circling around your opponent with the Wii Remote pointed at the screen (otherwise, you slow to a tiptoe), and this does make combat a bit more tedious, especially when later enemies have poses that will outright block attacks, forcing you to wait around and dodge before they show their weakness. Adding onto that, the limited inventory further slows down the pace, because you'll constantly be collecting mystery pickups (in the form of valuables sold for currency, health pickups, weapons, or relics) and you can't dispose of mystery packages or shove them into your suitcase until you sit down at a campfire. You'll need to go to back to campfires quite often anyways, since weapons have pretty limited durability and again, you can't switch out weapons from the suitcase on the field. Since sitting down at a campfire has a pretty long animation and will respawn enemies, let's just say that you'll fighting a lot of enemies and spending a lot of time at the campfire, and as a result, become pretty overleveled to where most combat isn't too complicated, though rather rote. You get the idea; it's a somewhat drawn out gameplay loop that ultimately makes the game a bit too easy in my opinion.
Of particular mention are two moments in the late-game that are emblematic of excessively sluggish gameplay and unfortunately feel a bit out of place. Near the very end of the game, there's a forced stealth segment where you have to sneak past a room filled with motion sensors, and activating any of them will spawn a horde of androids that must be dispatched in order to reset the sequence again from the start of the room (leaving the room is not an option because setting off the sensors locks the door). It's further complicated because swinging your flashlight (aka the Wii Remote) counts as an action, most likely due to turning your character around slightly, and will set off the motion sensors; there's also a collectible in the motion sensor room that upon collection, will set off the motion sensors even if your character is not within their current cone(s) of detection. This unnecessary and singular stealth section is then followed by two boss battles against the final boss that are more or less the same ordeal; the boss is normally invincible to attacks and randomly switches between shooting globs of goo at you and deciding to become temporarily vulnerable, either from sudden electricity overload or after shooting three globs at a time that must be destroyed. It's a shame that the finale of the game is marred by these somewhat uninteractive sections that consist of a lot of waiting around more than anything.
Having said all that, Fragile Dreams' strengths lie not in the flawed and somewhat slow gameplay, but rather in the quality of its ideas that are presented. I'm a big fan of games that understand the system of which they're working with, and this fits neatly in that scope. Using the Wii Remote's emulated motion controls to handle the flashlight in tight, dimly lit corridors or quiescent and abandoned landscapes is phenomenal at building immersion. You can also hold up your Wiimote to your ear whenever you need a hint, and your companion will chat to you through the Wiimote speaker to offer some words of encouragement. In a similar vein, Fragile Dreams also utilizes the Wii Remote's speaker to hint at looming hostile spirits or provide echoes of distant characters to guide the player towards objectives is also a great implementation of sound design, forcing players to at least absorb every detail of the urban decay and reclaimed nature of the sprawling ruins. Honestly, wandering the abandoned vestiges of humanity has never felt quite so much like a mood.
More importantly, I think Fragile Dreams is a game that is not so much about answering, but asking questions. What does it mean to breathe? To feel? To live, to even exist? What does it mean to be human, and what brings us together as a species? And if you had one final day on this planet knowing you will be gone by tomorrow, what would you do in your fading hours? Scattered throughout the ends of the earth are the final proofs of those final moments in the form of their last possessions, and bringing them to the campfire will give you a slice of life of what happened and what they went through before they no longer were to be. Some are moments of levity and others are more melancholic moments of reflection, but nevertheless, they're moments that prove that they contributed something to this world. Silently sauntering through this forsaken world with your flashlight, taking note of every memory from a lost object or every scribbled message or graffiti-ed chalk drawing, I was constantly reminded that while even in the stillness of the earth, the echoes of the past kept breathing new life into a world where its prior inhabitants could never truly be forgotten; even in the depths of despair, there was still hope to be found and connections to be made.
So here I am again, at a bit of a standstill, yet not at all regretful in the slightest for my time spent. It'd be easy to write this off as another "style over substance" ambitious title that didn't quite make the spotlight, forever relegated as a hidden gem of the Wii. Yet, just like the communication that the game itself comments upon, Fragile Dreams is unmistakably human. It's imperfect in many ways and perhaps it'll never reach its full realized potential, but that's what makes it so compelling. Despite its often tedious gameplay, the whole is far greater than the sum of its design elements, and propel the game into something that seeks to be heard, to be known, and to be us. It's 100% not everyone's cup of tea due to its many faults, but if you're willing to put in the time, perhaps it'll move you beyond words... and ultimately, isn't that what makes us who we are?