Mature Content/Trigger Warning: “This game contains depictions of alcohol abuse, physical abuse, mental and physical illnesses.” - Developer description
I make an active effort to not be overly negative when it comes to reviewing games. Not to get preachy but there’s enough anger and cynicism on the Internet today and I don’t want to contribute to the vitriol. However, there are moments when my patience wears thin and it’s all I can do to not lash out at a product I find so thoroughly frustrating and untenable like Fragile Fighter. I feel scummy for my anger towards a game that is clearly a passion project by its six person development team. When all is said and done, a game has to be engaging enough in some way lest the practice of hitting inputs on a controller or keyboard becomes so laborious and monotonous that all you want to do is shut the game off and forget it exists. I may have hated the plodding movement in Dear Esther but I was drawn in by its passionate narrative enough to live with it so that I may reach its conclusion. Fragile Fighter’s partially overwrought drama of a girl from another world bearing witness to some of humanity’s lowest moments (presented here as the personal struggles of disparate individuals) is rendered moot because of its unbearable gameplay.
I’d like to tell you about the blue-hued Kira and how her adventures in her world are affected by the changing lives of certain people on Earth but the fact of the matter is, I don’t care. I reached a full, hard stop after a minute or two into the game. Whatever Kira’s goal in this game is, it involves traversing extremely short and linear levels infested by various creatures, most notably black cloud-like monsters. Kira wields energy which she uses to defend herself, something the game doesn’t even hint to its existence unless you hit the Escape key (or Start button on a controller) to pause the game, where a control menu spells out Kira’s moveset - which actualy displays the wrong keys for movement. Hitting a key or tapping the bumper buttons (I was using my old Xbox 360 PC controller) switches between shield, projectile, and a giant energy sword that activates when you push the right analog stick in any desired direction. Deaths. The game’s first level is a disaster of a first impression because it quickly introduces all the problems associated with input lag, floaty character movement, and an unfair “one hit, you’re dead” mechanic caused by unpredictable enemies. I very much want to stress that Fragile Fighter’s difficulty is not on the level of any From Software joint and has nothing to do with analyzing mob patterns or trial and error. The game actively screws you over with enemy behavior that is unbalanced and unnecessarily ruthless. I died a half dozen times within the opening moments of the first level because of sudden and wild enemy spawns, often in places where they were masked by foreground elements. I’ve never had a video game fight with me as relentlessly as Fragile Fighter does and on more than one occasion, I wanted to punch a hole in the wall to vent my frustration.
Fragile Fighter’s monumental gameplay problems are not limited by the enemies but also the bizarrely complex nature of the platforming sequences. While some stages are mind-numbingly dull and outright confusing, others are a deranged mess of skinny, sky-high platforms that would cause vertigo in even the most seasoned Cirque du Soleil performer. There is no sensible logic for these jump-a-thons. The second world in particular is a good representative of everything I don’t like about this experience. Framed around the plight of a young man whose future is cast into doubt because of failing eyesight, each stage in his story gets progressively darker until you can only see a few millimeters ahead of Kira. This is absolutely moronic because the player barely has time to react to the sudden appearance of foes and the bamboo platforms are super thin which makes the floaty movement harder to compensate. But what really made this sequence a real pain in the ass is how the enemies - the same black smoke creatures from the first world - are practically invisible because they blend in the background, which is also pitch black. Like, what the hell?
There is nothing fun or engaging enough to keep Fragile Fighter in my memory other than being a game I warn others not to play. Games with serious messages don’t have to be “fun” in the entertainment sense -That Dragon Cancer certainly wouldn’t benefit from being made to play like Super Mario Bros. However, if the goal is to set out to tell an emotionally charged story about the frailty of life and the very real mental, physical, and emotional problems that affect people and their loved ones, there are better, more compelling ways to go about it. Given the punishment the player is forced to endure, I’m left feeling like this game was designed with a sadistic streak.
Marina Hova, the developer behind Fragile Fighter, built the game using her personal experiences in helping people deal with certain physical and mental illnesses and abuses and while I get that the game is meant to highlight problems surrounding alcoholism and anorexia, those messages are so easily lost because of the unnecessary difficulty. In this case, how can I develop any sort of attachment to the characters and their struggles when I’m forced into restarting a level for the umpteenth time because of something I could do nothing about? I feel bad tearing apart a game that so clearly wants to impart a message, but when it actively pushes against you at any turn, how is one supposed to care? Maybe I’m the problem. Just maybe I’m too dumb to glean any sort of message that’s connected to the nearly undigestible gameplay. But I am no means a glutton for punishment and trying to derive any sort of satisfaction or enlightenment from Fragile Fighter earnestness was a Sisyphean task.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.