In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.
Game: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (2009)
Genre: Action/Adventure, RPG
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Developers: Namco Bandai, Tri-Crescendo
Publishers: Namco Bandai (JP), Xseed Games (NA), Rising Star Games (PAL)
The Wii was a weird console.
It sold approximately ten hojillion units during its lifetime (give or take a hojillion). It was the undisputed sales champion of the seventh generation, and in its early years managed to achieve a level of mainstream popularity that most consoles only dream of.
And yet, so many people only bought it to play games like Just Dance, or Nintendo’s first party offerings. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that… I love to Kart and/or Smash some Marios as much as the next person.)
But there’s also a weird, experimental, and criminally under-discussed corner in the Wii’s library, a corner full of games that were sometimes good, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes pretty awful–but always interesting. Let’s talk about one of those games. Let’s talk about Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon.
What is this game?
Fragile Dreams is an action-adventure-RPG brought to us by Namco Bandai in collaboration with a smaller company called Tri-Crescendo, who you may have encountered if you’ve ever played the game Eternal Sonata. Fragile Dreams is the story of a fifteen-year-old Japanese boy named Seto who must travel across an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Japan in search of human friendship after the death of his adoptive grandfather. Without delving too deeply into spoilerific territory, Seto encounters a young girl named Ren who almost immediately runs away, and he spends much of the game in pursuit of her. Along the way, Seto meets and befriends a handful of characters, ranging from a sentient portable computer to a merchant wearing a giant chicken mask to the ghost of a long-dead young woman. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Okay, well, maybe not. But more importantly, the storytelling itself is the secret sauce here.
In terms of gameplay, Fragile Dreams plays an awful lot like the bastard child of Kingdom Hearts and Resident Evil. I don’t mean that you’ll see Mickey Mouse decapitated by a chainsaw in this game, although that would be pretty incredible. Instead, imagine some good old fashioned “hit it with a stick” combat combined with a strict inventory management system, limited item availability, and a strong reliance on unsettling atmosphere and flashlight mechanics. And make no mistake–the word “atmosphere” is of paramount importance here.
So what makes it so special?
To be completely honest, Fragile Dreams is one of the most emotional experiences available on the Wii. It might even be one of the most emotional experiences of its generation. The scenario, penned primarily by director Kentaro Kawashima, doesn’t just tell a story about loneliness–it basks in it. Every element of the game, from the muted art style to the gentle and somber riffs of the score, is engineered to reinforce a feeling of profound melancholy. And it works, man.
Take, for instance, the game’s prologue scene. Seto, voiced with remarkable vulnerability by Johnny Yong Bosch, narrates the story of how he buried the body of the old man who has cared for him his whole life. He reflects that “at that moment, I was truly alone in the world,” and suddenly the tone of the game and the motivation behind Seto’s actions are clear: this is a game about finding companionship, and to play it is to explore what loneliness really means. The game never hits you over the head with blatantly emotional music cues, nor does it dwell on overly long bits of dialogue. It simply builds its atmosphere by putting you in the mind and body of a frightened child, gently easing you along the decidedly uneasy path of surviving in an abandoned world.
That’s not to say that Seto is alone the entire time. His journey, as I mentioned earlier, allows him to cross paths with some interesting personalities. Yet none of them are human like him, and many of them are forced to leave Seto behind just as quickly as they arrive. The game’s writing and pacing are spectacular in this respect. As a player, you learn to quickly welcome the addition of new companionship, yet you are given only just enough time to appreciate it before it’s taken away from you. It never gets easier.
Each of these companion characters has their own story to tell, of course–their own history, and their own struggle to come to terms with the ruined state of the Earth. The game explores these stories to great effect during your short time with them, and in doing so begins to explain the origins of the apocalypse itself. Each new story is in many ways sadder and more tragic than the last. It is, for lack of a better word, heartbreaking.
Special mention needs to be made of a few of the game’s secondary elements, as well. While exploring, the player can collect mementos of human life from before the destruction of the world: children’s toys, letters exchanged between lovers, family heirlooms, and the like. Each is accompanied by a small piece of writing, usually a vignette or a poem that gives a glimpse into the life or emotional state of the person who owned it. Needless to say, these bits are absolutely fascinating. Despite their brevity, you feel a great deal of emotional weight by reading their words. Interestingly, these pieces were written by a variety of third party authors who contributed their work to the game. From a development perspective, it’s a remarkably creative idea, and one that goes a long way toward reinforcing the game’s wistful tone.
Okay, so you’ve probably noticed I haven’t talked about the quality of the gameplay very much. There’s a reason for that.
Mechanically speaking, the game is rough around the edges. It can be hard to come to grips with the finicky controls at times, which I’m sure is a familiar feeling for anyone who has spent some time with the Wii Remote in third person action games. One scene in particular has you traversing the upper portions of a roller coaster while being hounded by flying creatures, all of which are absolutely hell-bent on knocking you off. (Naturally, falling off the rollercoaster is followed with the dreaded “rinse and repeat” cycle of slogging all the way back up to the top, only to be knocked off again.) There are many scenes of this ilk, and they can be infuriating to say the least. Most of the time, though, Fragile‘s gameplay is simply pedestrian. That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world, of course, but it doesn’t do the game very many favors.
The restrictive inventory system can be frustrating sometimes too. Seto can only carry a small amount of things with him at a time, and most of the equipment you pick up is easily broken through repeated use. While these concepts are fairly common staples of the survival horror genre, they simply don’t feel necessary in Fragile Dreams. It all ties into a combat system which frankly does a disservice to the game’s delicate atmosphere, and which has grown even more antiquated over the years since its release. I understand the reason behind the inclusion of these mechanics: it wouldn’t feel much like a game if they weren’t there. But with a game like Fragile Dreams, I wonder if that’s not such a bad thing after all. The game could easily exist today as an indie “walking simulator” and be just as successful at telling a thought-provoking story, if not more so. When the key to the whole experience is keeping the player in Seto’s shoes, frustrating combat and survival mechanics only make those shoes feel harder to wear in the long run.
Why was it overlooked?
While the success of the Wii gave developers and publishers the confidence to branch out into more experimental games like this one, I’m not sure that the Wii’s largest demographics aligned particularly favorably with the notion. The Wii was a console whose success was birthed on the back of games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit, family friendly and active experiences that appealed to people outside the traditional console gaming audience. I suspect that a game as niche and difficult to approach as Fragile Dreams simply couldn’t have made very many inroads with that audience.
To make matters worse, many reviews for the game were less than favorable. I understand where these reviewers were coming from, as the lackluster mechanics can sometimes make the game feel like a chore. But it’s important to keep one thing in mind: video games are often reviewed on a schedule, with hard deadlines, by people who typically don’t have to spend their own money on them. With all of its mechanical shortcomings, Fragile Dreams is a game that could never hope to impress a writer who needs to play as quickly as possible and finish in time to meet their deadline. It’s best experienced at a leisurely pace instead, allowing time for patience to overcome short-term frustrations. Nonetheless, review scores matter, and I have no doubt that the low review scores combined with its niche appeal became the kiss of death for Fragile Dreams.
How can I get a hold of it?
The disc is no longer in print, sadly, but the internet is your friend. Used copies can still be purchased on eBay and Amazon, though the prices have risen considerably in recent years, with copies now selling from anywhere between 40 and 80 dollars. I want to believe this is because people are now beginning to recognize the greatness that is Fragile Dreams, but it’s probably just because the used market for Nintendo stuff (even third party) is ridiculous. Take a gander at the prices of classic SNES games on eBay if you don’t believe me.
When I think about Fragile Dreams, the word I keep returning to in my head is saudade. If you’re unfamiliar, saudade is a Portuguese word that has no direct English translation. It refers to a feeling of melancholy and longing for something that is absent. Whether that’s a person, a memory, a period of one’s life, or whatever else, saudade implies that the object of longing could be gone forever.
The Earth may not be ruined in real life, but Fragile Dreams is remarkable in its ability to elicit saudade toward the forgotten people, lost loves, and faded memories of its fictional post-apocalyptic Earth. The characters you meet, including Seto himself, are reminders of how valuable relationships are and how painful it can be when they’re gone. So when the credits finally roll, you’re left with a lot of profound and bittersweet emotions toward everything you experienced and everyone you met. There’s really not another game quite like it, on the Wii or otherwise. And for that, it deserves to be remembered.