I had high hopes for Fragile Dreams. It seemed to have an unusual story, focused on post-apocalyptic loneliness and exploring a more or less empty, shattered world. And, even after moderately bad reviews, I looked forward to trying out what I still hoped would be a good game. After all, Opoona and Baroque both got worse reviews, and in my opinion they are a couple of the best third-party titles on the system.
Then I started the game. And therein lies the problem. Fragile Dreams, despite its nifty artwork, decent plot, and great music, purports first and foremost to be a game. And although it does not completely fail at being a game, it does come pretty damn close. It has a decent atmosphere – chilling, occasionally with that edge of tension that only decent survival horror games can manage – and then you get into combat and everything turns awful.
Among the larger complaints of certain older RPGs is that weapons break. Permanently. Can’t fix ’em. So what does a veteran action-RPG developer like Tri-Crescendo do? Throw in a chance for your current weapon to break after every battle in which you attack. The worst part is that it seems like it’s a static chance; I had a weapon break after I swiped at an enemy, thought better of it, then ran for my virtual life. Then I had the same weapon – for although you can’t fix weapons, you can buy more of the same type – survive 20 or more battles with no problem. The descriptions for the weapons imply that some of them are more fragile (ha) than others. These are lies; I bought a particularly expensive weapon, thinking that since the description said it was solid that it would not break. Broke first battle I used it. The breaking mechanic only seems to make battles more annoying – since you get money via the items that drop in battles, the weapon breaks and you buy another one whenever the shop guy comes along at the next save-point.
All right then, enough about weapon breaking. The actual combat is, if anything, even more painful. Perhaps it was to add realism – Seto is, after all, just some kid using improvised weapons to fight things that may or may not be figments of his imagination – but Fragile Dreams has just about the hardest combat to control that I’ve seen in a game since Resident Evil. The movement is fine, but weapon combo timing is painful and attack ranges are difficult to estimate. For many of the easiest (easiest!) enemies, you’ll probably be swiping at the air twice for each of the times you hit. Once I gained access to the polearm weapons, which make it feel more like an action RPG, I used them exclusively in all the battles I could.
Although that leads me to the one, happiest point about the combat; much of it is completely meaningless. That’s right; the best thing about the combat in Fragile Dreams is that there is pretty much no reason to do it. I beat the game at level 22; I had reached 20 by the 6-hour mark and ran from (through) every single encounter I found after that point. The final battles were made a little tougher by this, but gaining levels increases only max HP and damage slightly. You probably need level 12 or so to survive more than a couple hits from certain bosses.
That’s not to say combat has no benefits besides levels. Some of what I like to call “junk scenes” (you find random stuff and get to witness a text-and-voice memory of its last owner) can only be seen by acquiring the requisite things from fallen enemies. The vast majority can be found simply by exploring, which is one of the few pleasures of the game.
I’ve vented plenty about the combat – but you know what? That’s the only part of this game that’s really bad. There are genuinely touching scenes in Fragile Dreams, and while I’m not sure I could recommend buying it at release price, I enjoyed it enough to say the time spent playing it was still worth it. There’s plenty of exploring to be done – roughly halfway through the game, you get a green light that reveals hidden messages on the walls, and (partly by accident) I went back through the first area of the game and found a pretty cool subplot. The music is great, the atmosphere is pretty well done, the sad parts are appropriately sad, and although the final areas are pretty standard JRPG claptrap, the ending seems appropriate (and not all super-happy). One of the nicest surprises about the music is that the entire soundtrack is actually available on iTunes.
Among the more interesting aspects of the plot that drew me in was its ambiguity. It’s never explained what is really going on, and like its counterpart (long-lost brother?) Baroque, this forms one of the more substantial parts of the plot. One of the first things that tipped me off to it was a part of the dialogue that just didn’t seem to fit – and it made me notice bits and pieces of the game that seemed to have a second meaning. I’d like to think that this was entirely deliberate. If so, it makes for some minor mind-games in an unexpected genre, and I’m all the more impressed by Fragile’s plot. If not, well, I guess I’m crazy.
Is Fragile Dreams a good game? I’m not really sure. I think it is a worthwhile experience. Had it been, say, a story or an anime, it may have been better. Fragile shines the brightest outside of combat. If it had about 1/10 the enemies and they killed the weapon-breaking, it would have been a really great adventure game. As it is, it’s a mediocre Action RPG attached to what feels like an adventure game’s plot.