Fran Bow review
Fran Bow is a wonderfully dark and surreal adventure that is definitely worth the price of voluntary admission.
Games with dark, mature storylines really interest me, which is why Killmonday’s crowdfunded adventure game Fran Bow immediately grabbed my attention. A young girl with her cat, trapped in a mental institution and seeing twisted and surreal things, looked right up my alley. As it turns out, the story is definitely disturbing at times, but Fran’s child-like way of seeing the world around her really balances the mood and provides a unique way of presenting an otherwise horrific tale. With a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, memorable characters, plenty of different types of puzzles, beautiful graphics and awesome sound design, this is a twisted and yet still charmingly naive tale of finding a way home while learning more about yourself and the mysteries in your life.
Fran Bow had a good life. She had the support of loving parents, her Aunt Grace, and her best friend, a talking kitten named Mr. Midnight. Tragically, all this changed when she saw her parents brutally butchered at the age of eleven. Fran herself was found unconscious in the woods near her home, and was taken to the Oswald Asylum. She thinks she’s fine and wants to go back home to her aunt, but the doctor won’t let her. Now she must escape to find Mr. Midnight and get on with her life. But the pills she's been given alter reality around her, so achieving her goals won’t be easy. Even beyond the asylum the journey home is long, through dense woods and whole other worlds populated by people and creatures that Fran is never too sure if she can trust or not.
The game takes place in 1944 over the course of five chapters, two of which are further split in half. The story touches on some very adult themes, including self-harm and pedophilia, but views it all from a child’s perspective, and as such does not go into too much depth. With the fantastical realities Fran sometimes sees, you’re left to wonder if any of it is really happening or if it’s all in Fran’s head, much like The Wizard of Oz, and leaves the answer open to personal interpretation. Other aspects of the story are never definitively answered either, like the possibility of a conspiracy behind Fran’s tragedy that are hinted at but never explained, which can be frustrating.
Compounding these plot holes, the story can be confusing sometimes because Fran is not sure what characters always mean. Fortunately, the game does a wonderful job at worldbuilding. The other worlds Fran sees have their own mythologies filled with different types of creatures and their roles in the world. From the firefly-like Luciferns to the shadow Kamalas and Grim Reaper-like Deadleeworms, they’re all memorably different and strange, never relying on standard cliches.
Fran meets many such characters on her journey, and the game does a great job of making you feel uncertain who is trustworthy and who is an enemy. Besides the feline Mr. Midnight and Fran’s Aunt Grace, there’s Doctor Deern, her psychiatrist in the asylum; Itward, a skeleton wearing a top hat and suit; and Palontras, a white- and rainbow-colored flying creature. The characters are very likable, and I found myself hoping certain ones were good guys since I became fond of them. These characters talk about things in their world that don’t make much sense to Fran, and Fran herself comes out with bizarre non-sequiturs and random observations at times. But since the story is so dark, this helps balance the mood so it is not so overbearing.
With her bulging eyes, bobbed hair, short yellow dress and striped leggings, Fran is very endearing overall, calling everyone (whether human or not) sir or ma’am and perceiving everything around her, both good and bad, in a childlike way. When a wizard helps to fix a problem, Fran asks if he can fix her parents as well. When looking at a textbook depicting adult issues like psychoses, she comments that the picture of a brain looks like a turtle. One character asks her to kill him, and her response is, “Sure! Bang bang... now you’re dead!” This kind of youthful innocence further helps counter the grim themes behind them.
In terms of controls, Fran Bow is a fairly traditional third-person point-and-click adventure. Moving to different areas is done by clicking on bloody eyeballs to the left or right to go in that direction, or by left-clicking a door or stairs to move to the next screen. Sometimes Fran has to walk back into a room to trigger an event, which can be confusing if there’s no clear reason to return to places you’ve already been. The pointer changes over hotspots that can be interacted with, and left-clicking causes Fran to describe that object and pick up any inventory items. Optionally, Fran has three different descriptions for most things around her, so you’ll want to click repeatedly to hear everything. Inventory items go into Fran’s purse at the bottom left side of the screen, and from inside her inventory those objects can be examined, combined, and used back in the environment.
While there are quite a few conversations in the game, most of the dialogues are kept short. There is no voice acting at all, so instead dialogue bubbles appear over the head of any character talking. Occasionally the game gives Fran the option to pick between two responses, like “can I have it?” and “give it to me!” However, both options usually lead to the same response, so it doesn’t really matter how you answer.
The puzzles in Fran Bow are varied, both in type and difficulty. Fran is able to alter the world around her, first by using the pills the doctor gave her, which washes the scene in a red haze, with blood dripping off the walls and dark shadows looming over people. Later in the game she gains the ability to change the seasons, allowing the same scene to be viewed in the sweltering hot summer, snowy winter, rainy fall, and blossoming spring. Time is changed by clicking a certain device to skip ahead a few months, and you can click more than once to keep advancing. I kept getting kicked out of one particular scene in spring, because I didn’t know at first that you could skip all the way from winter to summer. All the same locations are present in Fran’s altered reality, but are changed according to that reality or season. This allows for puzzles that can be overcome by finding items or clues in one reality to use in another, which is a fun mechanic to play around with.
There are also three timed minigames in which Fran is able to die. If she’s killed, you will automatically restart the minigame, and there is an option to skip each one with no penalty. One minigame is an overhead maze with shadows patrolling up and down the lanes, which Fran must avoid while looking for the exit. Another is an amusing iteration of the game Frogger that depends on timing and reflexes, and the third has Fran jumping over chasms and rocks while running from a creature. The jump feature can be a bit finicky, unfortunately; leap too early and you fall.
More traditional puzzles include ciphers, sliders, number sequences, and riddles. There are regular inventory obstacles, including different recipes requiring you to collect specific ingredients. The game automatically crosses out items on a recipe once you’ve gathered them, which is handy for keeping track. There is a puzzle in which you have to put certain chemicals in their correct flasks, and a tic-tac-toe game you need to win to gain coins, which can then be used to buy the help of a certain character required to progress. (You can keep playing and winning coins, but there is no other use for them.) There is even a rendition of Space Invaders that Fran can play, though this is totally optional. The variety of activities is refreshing, and none of the puzzles are either too difficult or too easy. The math puzzles may be hard for people who aren’t good with numbers, but all of the puzzles are fair.
The hand-drawn graphics in Fran Bow are as beautiful as they are surreal, really helping to convey a disturbing atmosphere of dark things from a child’s perspective. Fran visits many locations on her quest, from the children’s asylum to a steampunk flying machine to the land of Ithersta. Filled with vegetable people, Ithersta is lovely and serene with bright colors – a floating oasis with pink trees and fluffy white clouds. Its inhabitants wander the streets, like a little vegetable boy dragging along his butterfly toy on a string. Fran’s “real” world is darker, however, both in color and tone; there is a lot of blood, plenty of blacks and reds. There is also a black ring bordering each scene, making it seem like the world is shrinking around Fran, creating some additional claustrophobic tension. Many of the characters have idle animations, from Fran tucking her hair behind her ear to Mr. Midnight licking his paws or pawing the ground. The cutscenes are done in contrasting black and white, with Mr. Midnight shown all in black with a white outline, and Fran displayed all in white with a black outline, which is stylishly effective in adding to the story’s ambience.
The soundscape is also well done, with the music and effects more than making up for the lack of voices. There are background noises everywhere, with water lapping against the shore and crickets chirping outdoors, while a typewriter clacks and a phone rings inside the asylum. There are also low, indecipherable whispers that follow Fran around, further adding to the eerie mood though they are never explained. The music is even more memorable. During all cinematics, the score is played by an old-time piano, like those used during black and white silent movies. Elevator tunes play in the asylum, but some of the music elsewhere is very beautiful and haunting. The soundtrack is pretty constant, but not overpowering. One scene has no music at all, just ominous sound effects, and its noticeable absence really adds to the tension.
The game has one autosave, with the ability to replay chapters once they are completed, though there doesn’t seem much reason to repeat any. Once through provides a decent play time in its own right, taking me around nine hours to complete, most of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Even without voices, it is a creepy and surreal experience whose graphics and sound really help establish a macabre mood, with wonderful characters that stick in your mind even after playing. The number of different puzzles makes for a fun and varied gameplay experience, as well, so if you think you might like a paradoxically dark and disturbing yet childlike adventure, give Fran Bow a try because you won’t be disappointed.