This is a late review. Last we heard of Fran Bow was in a September interview conducted by a former TechRaptor writer who may have followed up on his interest if he hadn't vanished under mysterious circumstances. The senior staff claims he quit, but I'm convinced they consumed his essence and are coming for me next. As I rub various objects together in preparation to combat the forces of darkness, let me tell you all about Fran Bow.
Fran Bow is a point and click adventure developed by a Swedish husband & wife team starring ten year old Fran, a little girl committed to a mental health hospital after the death of her parents. Fran’s mission is to get home to her aunt along with her black cat, and during her journey she’ll explore fantastical realities filled with wonders to ignite the imagination, and terrors to freeze the soul. Is it all fantasy or is there something more sinister at work here? The hospital’s authority figures are a suspicious bunch, ominous clues suggest world events have taken a turn for the worse, and a malevolent entity follows Fran’s every step. There’s just enough doubt to obfuscate the road ahead, and some theories don’t necessarily invalidate others.
If Fran Bow’s psychological horror story sounds a little like American McGee’s Alice, you’re on the right track. It’s a dark fairy tale supported by an innocent visual style that accentuates the wrongness of the game’s unsettling moments, and distinct music which never grows tiresome when stuck on a particularly problematic puzzle. These things combined give Fran Bow a strong sense of identity to help it stand out amongst the dime a dozen point and clicks littering the market.
The character of Fran herself is perfect for a point and click adventure, her curiosity and compulsion to create useful objects providing an excuse to grab anything that isn't nailed down. She shifts between realities by taking medication to solve puzzles, she interacts with the bizarre natives and pieces together answers from their vague responses, and she is constantly reassessing who she can trust. Overall she’s a likable protagonist with a firm moral compass, though at times her awareness seems inconsistent as the game juggles her perspective and the player’s. One moment Fran registers she’s looking at a corpse, the next she’ll try chatting to another mutilated body as if it might respond. This is only noticeable in the first chapter, before the idea of talking corpses sounds implausible!
Considering this is the developer’s first commercial foray into game development, Fran Bow’s design is fairly polished. Double clicking on exit points fast travels through areas which have already been explored, item combinations are logical, and longer puzzles are tackled in stages with helpful reminders from your feline companion. That said, there are a few things that could use improving. The right mouse button goes entirely untouched, and the interface requires players to reselect items on a failed attempt to use or combine them. Aside from that, most of the modern amenities expected from one of the oldest genres in gaming are thankfully here.
If I had to pick out the biggest potential issue which is sure to divide gamers, it would be the ending. After the veneer has been peeled away, once you get all the answers you’re going to get and the credits roll, it ends up feeling a tad rushed. A lot of new information and revelations are packed into a short time frame to open up more unanswered questions, and the ambiguity helps it get away with bloody murder. It’s difficult to point out plot holes when anything can be explained by the ‘maybe it was all a dream!’ Get Out of Jail Free Card. Perhaps I'm just jealous I can’t whip out such an impervious defense whenever the need arises.
On the whole Fran Bow is a journey worth taking and plays to the strengths of its chosen genre, selling itself on visuals and music over gameplay. Chances are a glance at the enchanting artwork is enough to tell if the game is for you, but if not, there’s a free demo available for download.
Come for the artwork and soundtrack, stay for the compelling mystery. Fran Bow slips a bit on the details, but its charm wins out.