Fran Bow PC (reviewed) and mobile platforms Developed by Killmonday Games Released in 2015
We are quite familiar with story-driven games, which today often take on the form of walking-simulators and visual novels, but perhaps one of my favorite genres that usually has a big focus on story are Point and Click puzzle games. Horror-games especially have gotten a lot of these, creating wonderful titles from Sanitarium and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, to today’s Dropsy, Cat Lady and our review of today: Fran Bow.
“If “nothing” exists then how can it be nothing?”
We meet Fran Bow, a young girl in a mental hospital, traumatized by the fact that her parents were murdered and cut into pieces. Meeting with her doctor, she is understandably a bit hostile and suffering from meetings with the “Dark creatures”. To make her more calm, she is given a new form of medicine. Unfortunately, it triggers horrific and bizarre images that make our protagonist faint. In her dreams, a dark creature threatens hunt her down, which is an entity we see many times throughout the game. But right after, Fran meets with Mr.Midnight, her cat that got lost after the murder of her parents, who tells her to find him in the forest and that her medicine will help her. Waking up in her bed, she sets out to do just so and eventually; get herself home.
For the most part the story is well-paced throughout 5 chapters, each containing certain themes that the plot tackles. Our character meets bizarre and imaginative creatures, as well as people that are either healthy, suffering from illness themselves or dead. The pills are a great mechanic for giving us two perspectives on the world, creating a bridge between reality and imagination with good symbolism. Through this, the game tells enough to make an engaging plot, while at the same time leaving room for interpretation. There is also something for those who paid attention to their history-lessons, but I’ll leave it at that. Through exploring the environment you will also gain a lot of our main-character’s thoughts as well as more personality and lore. This is one of the reasons why I believe point and clicks can easily tell a lot, and the concept of using the pills helps expand the story.
The characters you meet are interesting and intriguing, both due to their design, culture and personality. They might not always get much screentime, but are enjoyable nonetheless. Fran started out a bit nonchalant at times, which I felt was way off. Sometimes she would react calmly to dead bodies, while other times be frightened by them. This gets much better later in the game as you learn more about her suffering and her wish to simply be happy, but the first part was a bit jarring. There are also some dialogue-choices, but they serve little to no purpose for the most part. When they do serve a purpose, it is rather a choice between “tell me more” and “goodbye”. There is also one part of chapter 3 that dragged on with exposition that can be interesting for some, but I really felt it could have been told it in a better way and it did not add much to the story overall.
With a focus on what is real, symbolism and bizarre imagery throughout this fascinating world, Fran Bow is definitely an interesting title. The overall plot might be simple at times, but the world you traverse through is certainly not. By giving a story that is fulfilling on its own, and an imaginative world that leaves room for analyzing if one wished for more meat to the story, Fran Bow’s story becomes an interesting tale that will surely appeal to a broad audience.
Story Score: 9/10
I take the red one
It might be almost crystal clear what you are going to be doing when a game is a “point and click”. The focus is on exploration and to overcome puzzles, with the mouse being used for navigation and interaction, and the cursor changing if an item or a person can be interacted with. You have a purse where you can put items in, and can choose between “use”, “examine” or “combine” them. All of the puzzles feel well thought out and are never a drag or too obscure. You might get stumped, but never for long.
One of the more unique aspects of the game are the red pills, which makes you go between two worlds. You can solve puzzles in each of them, find items in one world to use in the other, or simply see the bizarre things they have to offer, making them a blast to traverse through. They also vary with the use of pills themselves. One has it traded out with something more intriguing for puzzles and one chapter might not even give you the option and so on. If they could have gone further with this concept, it might have stood stronger. I say this, because of the minigames. There are a three of them you must do, each starting before the next chapter (except for one), and they vary in quality. There is a maze that is reminiscent of a mediocre Pac-Man clone, where you have to avoid ghosts, a Frogger clone that is pretty fun, and one on-rail platforming stage that is a bore. This is a poor choice in my opinion, since the game could have done without them. Fran Bow uses autosave, and from what I noticed, it always saved after you do anything specific or quit the game, so I have no complaints here.
Nothing here can be qualified as bad really, but parts that try to make this title more than just a point and click, often fall flat. These are luckily small blemishes, due to how well the puzzles are made, none of the stages feel too big to explore and the unique mechanic with the pills gives it more strength than the average point and click.
Gameplay Score 8/10
Horror doesn’t have to be colorless
I love it when a horror game acknowledges that colors can be used. Fran Bow features not just diverse colors, but also has them more washed out at times, reflecting the grim areas she is in, and stronger colors are used in the more calm environments. The main artstyle is something out of hand-drawn paper cut-out with puppet-animation for our characters, somewhat similar to Rayman Origins, just much stiffer. Fran Bow also tackles different artstyles for the non-point and click parts, such as claymation. They do reflect on how out of place the minigames are and while they are fine, I still question if there were any reasons for them at all.
Despite the stiff animation we get a lot of expression from our main-characters. However, the greatest strength Fran Bow has, is in its creativity with its design of creatures and worlds, that can be hostile and dark, as well as more playful and fairytale-like in tone. These are well done, with subtle inspirations from other horror universes, which I welcome. On a more technical level, while it is not impressive, there are a lot of good details, such as the lightning and minor animations in the environments. The few cutscenes are done with still-images, usually only giving a bridge between chapters. In these scenes, the entire screen is black, with only white and red being used for illustration. While a departure, they still fit with the hand-drawn artstyle we see in Fran Bow and are done well.
Using only few instruments, the music gives out a calm and almost minimalistic, yet atmospheric tone. It is forgettable, but serves its purpose and helps the settings to establish a clear mood. What is more noticeable, is the sounds of whispers, screams and generally the unsettling noises. All are effective, and it seems the game puts more focus on the sound-effects, rather than the music, which was somewhat a good move due to how easily they can get under your skin. While it is not a spectacular-looking game, it is unique and intriguing, with an imaginative design. Complementing this with the effective use of sounds, Fran Bow should get you somewhat unsettled even when the game is turned off.
Presentation Score 8/10
Fran Bow was a surprise for me. I definitely had heard about this entry for quite some time, and was happy to have finally given it a shot. It really wins you over with the story, but the puzzles and visuals gives it more strength too, despite the oddity with the minigames. The plenty of videos and articles that interpret the game’s story, should give an indication on how strong it stands on its own, and it comes recommended for everyone. Even those that are easily frightened.