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.