More fear than fun.
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a game that exudes ambiance. Produced by Namco Bandai, and released in America by XSEED, Fragile Dreams developed a bit of a cult following as soon as it was announced. The important question is whether it lives up to the hype or not. The answer to that: maybe.
You play as Seto, a boy who managed to survive a calamity that eliminated almost all people on Earth. He lives with an old man, who it seems is the only person he ever knew. When the old man passes away, Seto is left alone. Following the directions the old man left for him, he sets out in search of other survivors like himself. He navigates the perilous abandoned world, populated only by the restless spirits of the deceased, in order to find a young girl he encountered early in his quest.
At its core, Fragile Dreams is a survival horror game. The best way to think of it would be to compare it to the Resident Evil games that predate Resident Evil 4. The majority of the game boils down to going from point A to point B. You pass through creepy areas and fight off spirit attacks. Fighting generates experience, with which you level up (gaining strength and additional health), and money, with which you can buy weapons, which break with use, and healing items from the vendor.
The majority of the game is simply moving through the world of Fragile Dreams. This is really what the game does best. The first two-thirds of the game feature a series of awesome environments. The game places you in areas where you expect people, light, noise, and color. In this post-apocalyptic world, you find empty, dark, quiet, and faded places overrun by growth and detritus. There's something undeniably unnerving about walking around a quiet, disheveled amusement park. Every noise becomes the next threat. The game actually plays on that, alerting you when enemies are getting close by playing noises through the Wii Remote. Instead of making the game less frightening, taking away the possibility of the sudden ambush, it instead creates a feeling of dread. It's a shame that the game takes a turn away from this school of environmental design in the final third, instead moving to more sterile and over-used environments such as labs and concrete tunnels. It does pull it together for the final act, offering one more look at the disheveled world.
The game does have some limited fetch quests that require backtracking. While I'm not much of a fan of this, the game always shows you something different when it asks you to go backwards. For example, the game tasks you with returning to an underground shopping arcade, which I was more than happy to be free from the first time I escaped it. However, since I had initially left, I had been awarded a new flashlight that causes otherwise invisible ghostly text to shine bright-green on whatever it illuminates. Walls that had before shown only the sketches of the long-gone child survivors now also included macabre phrases about death and the unknown.
Seto isn't a fighter, and the combat system enforces that. There are multiple classes of weapons, ranging from swords to projectiles. I spent the majority of the game with the quick-striking swords, occasionally using a bow to strike an enemy at distance. The game also features long-reaching staffs and powerful "heavy" weapons that I rarely ever used. The problem with the combat system is that fighting is pretty repetitive. The majority of your foes are the spirits of the deceased. They take forms ranging from the seemingly benign to the hauntingly menacing. While there are a few enemies you have to figure out how to inflict damage, the majority of the game's foes go down with a just "hit it until it dies"strategy. Also, Seto does not turn quickly, so it is absolutely vital that you keep foes in front. Overall, combat isn't awful, but it isn't a highlight of the game. It is, however, surprisingly infrequent, and almost all of it can be bypassed by simply running.
The one element I wish they had left in the Resident Evil series is inventory management. Seto has his on-hand inventory and a bottomless case. He can only put items into the case or remove them when he is at a save point. Thankfully, there are many. The Tetris-style grid of Seto's on-hand case needs to be managed or you'll be forced to pick between throwing an item out in order to pick up another when you might not even know what the new item is. Given that there are so many classes of weapons, and that you need to bring spares along since weapons can break at the most inopportune times, it is an annoyance.
The controls are simple, using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. The A button attacks, the D-Pad opens the menu, and the analog stick controls movement. The Wii Remote's pointer directs your flashlight as well as aims ranged weapons. You turn by pushing the Wii Remote cursor to one edge of the screen or the other, much like the cursor in a first person shooter. This is the biggest issue with the control scheme, because if an enemy gets behind you, you can't hit them. A button to turn around would have been a welcome addition. The flashlight, in the dark world, is the most important lifeline you have. Mapping it to the Wii Remote gives a level of immersion that makes the feeling of being alone work.
Graphically, Fragile Dreams is able to deliver on the ambiance its designers worked so hard to produce. Featuring detailed environments, characters, and enemies, everything looks sharp and well rendered. The game's lighting effects are also great. The flashlight changes everything when its beam crosses a surface, and the shape of the light is distorted by distance and the surface it is illuminating. Darkness is punctuated by natural light, and when you set foot outside the bright light of the sun, it feels like a life preserver to a man adrift in an ocean of dark. While it is a technical achievement, the art design is what really sets Fragile Dreams apart. Characters, enemies, and settings all help set the story. In many cases, it is what you observe as you scout the game's settings that tells the story. A ruined hotel, an empty lab, and even Seto's appearance say things about the new world. It feels that the placement of every tiny element is designed to perpetuate the feeling of loneliness, and it sucks you in by doing so.
The sound is another achievement in both the technical and design realms. In the lifeless world, silence is fitting. Even in the quiet, the footfalls of Seto's steps echo in the empty halls. When danger approaches, the combat music begins to play and the noise of the impending foe begins to play from the Wii Remote's speaker, long before you can see your foe. The cackle of a witch shattering the silence is a highly effective way of creating tension. The game also features a very good soundtrack, that mimics the feeling of the game, though much of the game is fittingly without music. Almost every song is a melancholy piano solo; it like Seto is in this world alone. The game also features a lot of voice acting, of solid to good quality.
Clocking in at about 12 hours, Fragile Dreams' length is normal for games in its genre. It does peter out towards the end, but it recovers for the last hour. The game is not especially difficult, having only killed me a single time. The primary reward isn't the feeling of accomplishment, but rather the ability to dive further into the world.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. It delivers its story well, features great design and technical prowess, and fills a niche not currently met on Wii. However, the uninspired combat, control irritations, and vestiges of survival horror games of days past bring the experience down. Fragile Dreams struggles to live up the hype, but does manage to deliver a journey through a world that is both moving and haunting at the same time.