Maggie here! I’m very pleased to be hosting another excellent guest review from contributor Becca L. She is a huge fan of point-and-click adventure games, a genre that I don’t play as much, so for this post she’s going to take us into the dark and twisted world of Fran Bow. The small developer Killmonday Games, comprised of designer Natalia Figueroa and composer Isak Martinsson, released Fran Bow for desktop platforms (Windows, OS X, Linux) in August 2015, followed by a release for mobile (Android and iOS) in early 2016. Without further ado, I’ll let Becca tell you all about it!
“Between guilt and fear…. I choose happiness.”
Fran Bow is way too scary for me. This tells you very little about the game, though, and more about the author of this review: an unapologetic scaredy-cat.
So when I stumbled upon Fran Bow, with its screenshots of rotting flesh, dismembered corpses, and ghoulish messages scribbled across the walls in blood, the proper response would have been to keep scrolling through Steam offerings. But I downloaded it anyway. Fran Bow is Coraline meets Spirited Away meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although I wouldn’t know, because I would never in my right mind subject myself to Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I hate horror.
Fran Bow is a point-and-click adventure/horror game. You play as the eponymous heroine: a ten-year-old girl who wakes up in an asylum for (criminally?) insane children after witnessing the gruesome murder of her parents. Fran knows she needs to escape, find her cat Mr. Midnight, investigate the death of her parents, and return safely to the care of her beloved Aunt Grace.
The asylum is an evil place, full of psychologically and emotionally abused children, callous nurses, and suspicious doctors. The staff gives Fran red duodine pills, which cause disturbing hallucinations, primarily of the blood and guts variety. During the first of these pill-induced psychotic breaks with reality, Fran gets a message from Mr. Midnight, telling her that the pills are the secret to escaping the asylum. Desperate to reunite with Mr. Midnight, Fran steals a jar of the red duodine and places it in her pocket. From then on, two worlds are available to you: Fran’s gritty reality, and the bloody world of the pills.
The duodine pills add a level of gameplay that reminded me of the 2013 3DS Zelda game A Link Between Worlds. In that game, Link develops the ability to become two-dimensional, sneaking around corners and popping on and off walls. In LBW, being able to shift dimensions was an essential part of solving some puzzles. The same is true for Fran Bow. Certain items, characters, and opportunities are only available to you in the red world of the duodine pills. You’ll have to move from world to world in order to solve the puzzles, but you’ll feel awful doing it. It’s one thing to visit the horror world yourself, and quite another to ask the ten-year-old Fran to come with you.
Fran herself is polite, inquisitive, kind-hearted, and brave, a charming combination in a terrible reality. The game is organized into chapters, which seems fitting for a game that is so invested in narrative: the game is about depression, loss, acceptance, and growing up, and it’s wonderful to watch Fran grow and develop as you play in this game. Her dialogue reflects the things she’s learned. As someone who studies books for a living, I found this kind of storytelling immediately compelling.
Growth and development are built into the gameplay beyond just the dialogue. Over time, the already blurry lines between hallucination and reality disappear altogether (who thought that giving a ten-year-old mind altering drugs was a good idea?). The pills stay in poor Fran’s system, and she can no longer tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not (and neither can we).
Besides Fran herself, you’ll meet a delightfully odd assortment of supporting characters, from the skeletal Mr. Itward to the elegant Palontras to the misunderstood paper-pushing bureaucrat Dr. Deern.
The most disturbing part of Fran Bow is that the adults, especially in the asylum, are the true source of evil. In one room you meet a little girl who uses art therapy to recover from sexual abuse. When you take the pills, she turns into a stuffed dolled, with handprints grabbing her between her legs. Later, your character meets a security guard who asks you to sit on his lap and give him a kiss. It is disgusting — and horrifying — perhaps more so than the mounds of mutilated bodies surrounding the main character.
Fran Bow is made in the classic adventure-game style. For me, this was a selling point. I love old PC adventure gaming and am always on the lookout for modern versions of this dead genre. You do need some literacy with point-and-click adventure games in order to understand the gameplay, though. Your curser is interactive and will let you know when you can click on something. You place objects in your inventory, wherein you have three possible actions: use, combine, and examine.
This is a spoiler-free review, so I’ll talk in general terms. The story is divided into five chapters. Each chapter features an immersive world, complicated by the duodine mechanism which reveals a world behind the world. My favorite world (to no one’s surprise) was the location of chapter 3: the lovely Istheria, a vegetative world where the trees and insects come alive. In this chapter alone, Fran misplaces her red pills, and the game puzzle-mechanism is replaced by a charming tree clock that changes the seasons. Although the chapter still has a couple of scares, it provides a much-needed break from the relentless horror of the other chapters.
I liked the story in-as-much-as it is either a.) an exploration of mental illness, b.) an actual magical fantasy world with gruesome elements or c.) a combo of both.
That being said, you’ll have to decide for yourself what you think of the final chapter.
Spellbinding artwork. From the gritty and drab asylum to the blood-washed and spirit-haunted hallucinations to the literal bedroom full of bloodied dismembered dolls heads, the landscape is surreal.
Immersive soundscape. Headphones are highly recommended for this game. The music on this one got me. The well-planned silences. The shrieks as you moved from the “normal” world to the duodine induced hallucinations. Every time I anticipated a scare, I would yank my headphones out of my ears to lessen the spook. Now that, friends, is a well-executed sound track.
Well-designed puzzles. Seeing other game reviewers complain about overly-taxing puzzles is always an eye-roll. In this game in particular, the puzzles were intuitive (at least, as far as adventure-games go), had some kind of built-in hint system with dialogue, and kept the game moving along. A couple of times, I ran into trouble with the pointing-and-clicking part of this point-and-click game. Usually because I had solved a puzzle but the game didn’t register that I had found the solution because of either the location or speed with which I was clicking. This is a classic problem with this genre, so I don’t fault Fran Bow at all for it.
Getting to play as Mr. Midnight in chapter three! It was so cute and obviously the whole game should’ve been this (luckily for us, Killmonday Games is developing a game called Different Galaxy about a cat-scout who goes on adventures!)
Plot. If you’re looking for easy answers to hard questions, this game isn’t for you. It’s a game about how children process trauma and drug-induced psychosis, so it lends itself to open-endedness. But to be honest, the story wanted to go in ten directions at once, and since each of them seemed cool, I was hoping that the writers could settle on one. The plot goes off the rails at a certain point.
No voice acting. I know people will disagree with me here, but I think the story and characters would have been enlivened by it.
Scary as all get out. This is a pro for basically everyone else though. Why else choose to play a horror adventure game?
If you’re interested in video games about depression, or enjoy horror games, or have a soft spot in your heart for indie gaming, check this game out. If you’re a lover of point-and-click adventure games with a fear of blood and guts and scares, decide for yourself. I fell into the latter category, and I loved Fran Bow.
After immersing myself in the world of Fran Bow, I’ve recognized that the duo behind Killmonday Games, Natalia Figueroa and Isak Martinsson, are beautiful minds and wonderful people and I will play anything they make. As of April 5, 2017, Figueroa has been teasing us with the promise of a “secret game” to be released before the much-anticipated Different Galaxy. I’m so excited—I can’t wait!
Maggie back again with a final note – If you’re interested in learning more about the game or the developers, you can check out the official Fran Bow website and the Killmonday Games website. Fran Bow is currently available to purchase from several different sources for $14.99 for desktop. (Gog has it listed for only $4.49!) On mobile platforms, each of the five chapters is sold separately for $1.99 each. After reading Becca’s review, I decided I’m going to play it!
Aside from being a game enthusiast, Becca L. is an English PhD student writing on turn of the century American women authors. You can find Becca on Twitter at @SweetleyTrimmer.