Pros: Great Presentation, Intriguing Premise
Cons: Episodic Structure, Annoying Item Management
In a post-apocalyptic world, a teenage boy does what any boy would on a desolate planet: he tries to pick up a girl. Like many girls, this one is quite elusive, and during his pursuit he will befriend robots, fight giant masks and play hide-and-seek with a ghost. All through the beautifully-named role playing game Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon he never stops to wonder: Is she really worth all this trouble?
The Basics: Looking for a Friend, Fighting a Lot of Enemies
Dreams begins just after the boy’s companion dies and he finds himself alone in a virtually unpopulated world. The boy, Seito, sets out in search of others, soon discovering a pretty, silver-haired girl in rather skimpy clothing who runs away. Seito follows, but is hampered in his search by spirits, hostile birds and killer robots.
Fighting enemies is a simple matter of getting close to them and hitting the A button. Starting out with just a stick, Seito eventually finds better weapons such as an axe and a crossbow. There is no way to lock on to enemies or spin around to face one behind you, so many times you will find yourself swinging at air.
Enemies are a varied lot, ranging from clusters of jellyfish with happy-face heads to weeping, negligee-clad women with spikes in their backs. Fighting is optional, for the most part; you can run past enemies. The occasional boss battles are sometimes clever but rarely all that difficult.
Weapons are fragile and often break, but Seito is constantly finding more. He can also buy useful items from an odd vendor who wears a giant chicken-head mask. Organizing items is a huge pain in the game, which incorporates the same sort of item-management system that was the worst feature of early Resident Evil games. You can only carry a small number of items on hand, with others available only at save points where you awkwardly move items around. The game refuses to offer any help in the process; even though there is nothing you can do with a broken weapon except throw it away, the game still doesn’t automatically throw it away for you.
Gameplay: Simple Combat, Unique Sound Use
Dreams is an odd mix of genres. While I think of it as a role playing game, because Seito gets stronger with each victory and because the anime-inspired presentation is typical of Japanese role-playing games, some people call it a survival-horror game because Seito explores dimly lit corridors and creepy buildings using a flashlight and battles ghosts. Gameplay is mainly combat and exploration, but there is also a stealth sequence and several places where you must track down something through sound, the Wii remote speaker getting louder if it is pointed in the right direction. This is the most unusual feature of the game, and Dreams’ use of sound is perhaps the best of any Wii game.
The first thing Seito must locate by sound is the source of a mysterious voice which turns out to be an intelligent PDA/GPS system. This device, called “PF” (for Personal Frame) has a lot more personality than a typical PDA. Her calm, feminine voice sounds jealous when speaking of the silver-haired girl and she seems to lie to cover up her mistakes.
PF is a fascinating, charming character, and I was looking forward to a boy-and-his-robot story like Zone of the Enders in which the boy slowly teaches his perplexed artificial friend what it means to be human, but early in the game PF is unceremoniously dumped in favor of a more episodic format in which Seito interacts with a few different characters, one at a time, none of whom are as interested as PF.
Presentation: Stunning Visuals, Great Acting
While the game’s story never quite regains its early momentum, the presentation is always impressive. Visually the game is, at times, stunning, and a ferris wheel silhouetted against the sky at dusk or a giant moon floating over a field and an old house are as lovely as anything I have ever seen in a game. The anime-inspired cut scenes are gorgeous, the score is entrancing, the voice acting is superb and the dialog is often rather poetic, as when Seito describes his elusive girl, “her silvery hair fluttering in the breeze.”
The weakest part of the presentation is Dreams’ insistence on displaying text while characters speak and making players press a button to move to the next sentence. This is a typical component of Japanese RPGs that I have always hated, as it adds busywork for the player and ruins the flow of conversations. It is one of these weird holdovers from the days before recorded dialogue in games that some developers inexplicably cling to.
Throughout the game Seito finds objects – a bell, a shoe, a bottle – that reveal memories of the departed. These memories tell of the final moments of their owners as they prepared for the end of the world. These memories vary from cloying to touching, but as a whole create a fascinating view into earth’s final day.
Unfortunately, much of the game is repetitive, with a huge amount of backtracking. Some sections seem almost endless, as when you must chase a mocking thief or retrieve a series of items for a young, mistrustful ghost.
In its last few hours, Dreams becomes more problematic. The visuals become less interesting, with way too much time spent in dark corridors. And those corridors get longer and longer; at times Seito is required to walk for minutes at a time with nothing to do.
For all its flaws, Dreams offers the experience I’d expect from a game called Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. A mysterious, tender, post-apocalyptic coming-of-age tale, at its best the game is utterly entrancing. I found myself so engrossed that I couldn’t tear myself away to play Red Steel 2 when it came in the mail, even though I’d been looking forward to it for months: I just had to see how Dreams played out. Yes, the gameplay is a little weak, the story a bit disjointed, the pace a little uneven, and the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the game, yet on the whole Dreams has as much appeal for me as an underdressed silver-haired girl has for a lonely teenage boy on an empty planet.