Version tested: Wii
The aesthetic may be one of anime warmth: bold androgynous characters with wide eyes and over-pronounced gasps, reams of childlike dialogue and an atmosphere that's more sentimental than melancholic. But with its young, semi-amnesiac protagonist, stumbling lost and confused around a deserted town, raw with the grief of bereavement, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Wii adventure Fragile Dreams is Silent Hill: Pre-Teen Edition.
Meaning and metaphor certainly runs as deep as it has been known to in Konami's dark psychological series. Seto's progress through a post-apocalyptic dreamland mirrors the journey of any child lost in search of answers following a death in the family. The game and its locations look the survival-horror part, too, packed as they are with all the usual destinations in the modern horror vernacular: abandoned fairgrounds, merry-go-round seats rusted and strewn about; deserted malls, with crumbling floors and walls daubed with strange symbols; corn fields bowing from the wind as windmills creak, silhouetted on the moonlit horizon.
But Seto's weaponry is the makeshift arsenal of the playground. He swings bamboo swords and fishing nets in eager but awkward swipes, and his foes are oversized dogs and frantic pigeons. There's the odd apparition - translucent, jellyfish-like souls that haunt the streets and houses - and, certainly the torso-less, cackling phantoms you occasionally chase will give youngsters a rough nightmare. But on the whole, Fragile Dream's brand of terror is more spooky than distressing.
Darkness in this game is put to more effective use than merely - as it is in so often elsewhere in the genre - shrouding the shoddy handiwork of the game's artists. Here it's a stylistic choice as much as technical one, allowing for colour and texture as the game's swash of blues and purples seeps into the odd crimson sunrise or yellow glow from a health-restoring bonfire. Your primary reach into the world is down the barrel of a torch too, the Wiimote's angle bisecting the darkness and revealing the detail and geography of Seto's vicinity. The result is one of the best-looking Wii titles in the anime tradition.
Fragile Dream's fortes are its ambiance and, to a lesser extent, its storyline. The world in which Seto finds himself may be crumbling and forsaken, empty of humans, but emotional connections are there to be made through the non-human talking characters Seto encounters and the memories that can be found scattered around the world. Taking the form of short stories and sketches linked to random objects Seto comes across, these narrative vignettes build a rich picture of the recently departed past.
You might hear about a dog that comforted its master when you find a discarded dog collar under a park bench, or a young girl eagerly awaiting her father's return at the end of the work day. Though less potent or well-written than the character reminiscences by Kiyoshi Shigematsu that peppered Lost Odyssey in a similar way (some of Fragile Dreams' short stories were written by Japanese fans before the game's release), these memories add detail and texture to the world.
The main story itself is vivid and interesting, and doesn't shy from sorrow. You soon learn that no character with whom Seto forms a relationship is beyond being stolen from you, and there are numerous Aeris-esque shock moments in the game. However, there's also a tenderness to the narrative, one that demonstrates the game's writers were aiming for something more than mere surprise with their twists and tragedy.
Less successful are the systems that fire the game. The puzzles are generally tedious, and the item management, which has you arranging items in a cramped, Resident Evil 4-style inventory, is fiddly. Survival horror games are always as much about coping with a scarcity of resources as they are about jumps in the dark, but Fragile Dreams' economy is so weighted toward the player that you'll never find yourself unable to afford a new weapon or bag of health-restoring sweets.
Nevertheless, as in RPGs of yore, your weapons constantly degrade, eventually breaking and becoming useless. So you must endure the hassle of keeping and managing standby fresh weapons at all times, with none of the real jeopardy in learning when to hold back attacks - frustrating, as there's no indicator of the durability of your weapon.
The combat system, too, is poor, with no lock-on to aim your swipes. Too often you'll find yourself in an awkward dance with a foe, wrestling the camera into position to strike while simultaneously backtracking to avoid their attacks. There's no flow, the staccato rhythms seeming antiquated, even if, perhaps, they are realistic.
The puzzles, most of which are introduced by a stylish but invasive tutorial, are simplistic and clunky in execution. More problematic is that they often lack imagination. Breaking crates to find a path through a storehouse is never going to be an enjoyable or engaging pursuit, no matter how well executed the interaction or compelling the prize at the end of it.
Even so, the game's eager use of the Wiimote's functions pay more than mere lip service to the hardware's capabilities. Listening for clues through the controller's tinny speaker, or lifting it to your ear in order to trigger a piece of advice on where to get next, are neat touches and sit well with the overall ambiance.
Somehow less than the sum of its parts, Fragile Dreams fails to match its ambition with its systems and imagination. To call it a flawed gem would be too generous, as the problems run too deep and critical to make this an engaging proposition for any but the most patient and forgiving of players. But it seems churlish to put the boot in too, as there's something fragile and beautiful at the game's core: a vision that's worthy of celebration, but one that's ultimately obscured by its maker's shortcomings in realising it.
5 / 10