A little girl witnesses the grisly murder of her parents and is summarily institutionalized. The only thing she wants is to escape so that she can find her cat, Mr. Midnight, and they can both go home. KillMonday Games has been working on Fran Bow since 2013, and I first saw a demo of the game on a friend’s Twitch stream that same year; I was instantly enthralled. (If you read our demo preview in 2013, you already know that the journey is not that simple.) Looking forward to a game can make for a dangerous review mindset, but I’m pleased to say that Fran Bow more than lives up to the hype.
It’s very difficult to get into why the story is so great without giving out major spoilers, but the story is also so insane that nothing makes sense until you play it, anyway, so I won’t even try to elaborate. Fran Bow is ten different flavors of messed up, and even going into the game knowing as such, I was gobsmacked by the end of the 8-hour playthrough. There is a significant amount of gore, even if it’s stylized, and there are themes in the game that are very disturbing; those sensitive to the topics of child abuse, suicide, and murder should be aware that those come up quite a bit, particularly in the first and last chapters. KillMonday has done such a great job layering these horrors, however, that Fran Bow simply won’t work if any one theme is removed. To make a comparison to another indie point-and-click, The Cat Lady, would not be inappropriate, but based on the story, neither would a comparison to Broken Age.
At its core, Fran Bow is a point-and-click horror game, full of puzzles and even a few mini-games between chapters. Players collect items from their environment, and combine or use them to accomplish tasks in the game. There’s nothing complicated about it, honestly. The puzzle solutions aren’t even that difficult, for the most part; I was provided with a walkthrough so that I could complete the game fully before giving the review, and I only really needed to consult it twice, when I felt my frustration creeping over my problem-solving skills. Fran Bow, to me, is proof that a game doesn’t need to have impossible puzzles to be complete or enjoyable. Less time spent raging at a knot (sorry, DoubleFine, but you earned that one) is more time being engaged in the story, and as I’ve mentioned, this is definitely a story worth paying attention to.
The gameplay mechanic that sets Fran Bow apart is the introduction of Duotine, a medication given to Fran early in the game by her psychiatrist, Dr. Deern. After taking it, Fran sees visions and passes out, and her doctor tells her that she is not to take it, any more; then Mr. Midnight comes to her in a dream and tells her that the Duotine is the only way for her to escape the asylum, and, well, a little girl is more likely to listen to her cat than her doctor. When players click on the pill bottle to activate the Duotine, images that are invisible in their reality become clear as an Ultrareality, highlighting items that can be picked up and used, and revealing hints and secrets throughout the entire game. Clicking the pill bottle again will turn off the pill’s effects, allowing for (slightly less demonic) progression. There’s no limit or consequence to using the Duotine in-game.
Speaking of Ultrareality, the graphics in Fran Bow are a mix of macabre and innocent that is at once disturbing and delightful. I was reminded of paper dolls, with the character movement and facial expressions, and KillMonday’s Natalia Figueroa does not sacrifice color for the sake of creepiness. Even minor characters are animated in such a way as to be memorable and unique, and I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I could see many references to fantasy/horror pop culture throughout; even with what I saw as head-nods, Fran Bow retains its identity very strongly. Having said that, these little Easter eggs made the experience that much more enjoyable, to me.
Music and sound design are vital to any game experience, but especially so in a horror game. The atmosphere must create tension, but too much tension removes the player emotionally from the story (who remembers the details to the entire plot of Amnesia? Anyone?), which just wouldn’t work, here. Fran Bow‘s soundtrack is a blend of whimsy and sadness, undercut by dynamic sound effects that give players a more tactile response to actions. It’s difficult to point out the icing of this game, but I’d say the sound design comes closest to filling that role; it enhances without overpowering, and is tasty in its own right. (Music from Fran Bow, as well as other KillMonday projects, can be heard on composer Isak J. Martinsson’s Soundcloud.)
As you’ve no doubt guessed, I recommend this game very strongly to those who like point-and-click adventure, who either love horror or can at least put up with it for the sake of a good story. Fran Bow is releasing on Steam and GOG (DRM-free) today at a price of $14.99 USD, and is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Those who’d like to play the demo can download it from either the two storefronts mentioned, or through the game’s website.