Classic point-and-click adventure games tend to say little but with many words, even with indies. But Swedish developer Killmonday Games‘ Fran Bow shows that the genre can still tell great stories for a mature audience without compromising puzzle design. What better way to start the final part of our modern game reviews for the post-Halloween week?
Fran Bow (PC)
(Sweden 2015, developer/publisher: Killmonday Games, platform: PC)
Young girl Fran Bow finds herself in a mental institution after having found her parents dismembered, but soon has to go on a fantastic journey through different realities to find her cat Mr. Midnight.
Behind the storytelling glass
It would be remiss to discuss the story of a girl thrown into another world without mentioning Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Fran Bow is much darker, more violent and disturbing, but it’s also about self-discovery, of innocence and the perception of a child, coping with life/death, (in)sanity, reality/fiction. This dual concept permeates the whole game, and while it sounds like heavy material, the way it’s handled is astonishingly simple at times.
Without spoiling the whole story, suffice it to say that there’s a constant uneasiness about what Fran experiences and what is really happening, how her dreams/nightmares connect to past/present/future events. The concept of reality is often turned upside down, which is due to the excellent writing. Despite confusion of missing background details, the player always shares her sentiment of seeing things as they are. It’s difficult to exactly pinpoint this sentiment without actually playing the game, but it mostly has to do with the girl’s macabre descriptions of ordinary objects or people. Usually, in an adventure game one can get tired fast when clicking on every point of interaction and listening to uninteresting observations. But with Fran, every time she comments on something, the text descriptions evoke different feelings, be it sadness, laughter, or astonishment.
There will be sadness and happiness
The sensibility in writing has sadly been missing in many adventure games. Even indies tend to get too over-dramatic (as in the Wadjet Eye Games titles). But Fran Bow manages to use a literary, poetic writing style that is often reminiscent of darker children’s books. The best books are those which make the audience look for other meanings even if the characters don’t seem to consciously know or speak them. It’s too bad that decapitated heads and the depiction of bloody violence which at first and in some instances work are overused, coming across too controversial at times.
As mentioned before, Alice in Wonderland is an influence that can’t be overlooked, exemplified by the way characters speak in riddles, how the worlds/realities Fran visits are fantastic reversals of norms and standards. They have their own laws and languages, reminiscent of The Longest Journey, the only difference being the connection to Fran’s psyche, being more along the lines of Sanitarium or The Cat Lady.
Otherworldly places and people
The environments which range from feverish nightmares to serene dreams reflect the girl’s state of mind or sanity as well as her emotions, although this is only a personal interpretation. This is another great thing about the world the player traverses. It always answers a few questions, only to pose more and leaves some unanswered. It’s for the player to find connections. Sometimes one can see people in the fantasy/alternate reality as equivalents to those in the real world, sometimes one can’t. This dichotomy makes for many possible interpretations, something not even the ending solves, which is again an example of how finishing a game doesn’t necessarily mean to be disappointed because of a rushed or easy resolution.
However, characterizations aren’t perfect, because Fran herself and the people/creatures she meets lack what games like The Longest Journey or books like Alice in Wonderland offer: memorable and identifiable real persons. Maybe it has to do with searching for identity or the ambiguities of the characters. But it’s sometimes difficult to really get attached to both Fran and the others. Still, there are a few interconnected stories that are touching, e.g. the deep friendship between her and the cat Mr. Midnight, or two mountains who grew apart and have to be reunited.
Where the game truly shines is in its puzzle design. The tasks Fran has to complete are varied, often imaginative, are always logical (even if they’re quite weird at times) and usually very well implemented in the story. One of the most unique features is the ability for Fran to see into another world/reality, a nightmarish version of the here and now (or then?) by swallowing red medicine pills (a weird take on Alice in Wonderland). Some objects can only be found this way, while certain characters are only responsive in the other reality. Switching back and forth is essential for progressing. Later one can also change the seasons which makes for some very cool time travelling puzzles. They might not be as memorable as in Day of the Tentacle, but some solutions are still inventive to stand out from the typical point-and-click adventure fare.
Unfortunately, the quality of the puzzles changes when it comes to logic conundrums which have been used in so many other games before (e.g. mixing certain ingredients or pushing levers in the right order). These can usually be solved even by those who don’t like Myst puzzles, but the game could have done without them, as they stop the flow of the game. There are also a few mini games like navigating through a labyrinth, evading shadows or jumping on logs and leafs Frogger-style. These work for the story, but not for the gameplay, as they’re often quite fiddly to play.
Going nowhere and anywhere
Controls could also be more comfortable. While the absence of a hotspot key isn’t much of a problem, because important objects are usually easy to spot, using items or combining them requires unnecessary mouse button pressing. It would have been better to simply click on an item and have it immediately used on other objects, characters or the environment. Instead one has to choose the option “to combine” or “to use”, then click on the object and then again on what it has to be used with. Fortunately, exiting screens and getting from one place to another is easy, as it only involves clicking on eyeballs on the appropriate parts of the screen, although certain exits aren’t highlighted and can be overlooked. Getting lost at times happens as well, so a map option would have been nice.
Speak, silence; look, sad beautiful
Technically, the game can’t hide its low budget indie roots, although this is mostly negligible. A missed opportunity is the lack of voice acting. If the game becomes a success (and telling from the first month sales it seems very much so), then a good localization would work wonders. There’s quite a lot of text to read, and while it’s always difficult to listen to a young child’s voice in games, the missing voices for the creatures can be felt throughout the game. It’s not a big concern, as one can easily have the voices in one’s head like in a good book. But their inclusion would have been welcome, especially in the more dramatic or shocking moments which lose something of their impact (although it could also work the other way around with forced emotions).
The soundtrack is great and changes between melancholic, elevating, but also fantasy themes throughout the game, perfectly accompanying the scenes, even if they don’t stand out. Graphically, the title has a weird gothic art style reminiscent of the often referenced Tim Burton-style. But maybe it’s more accurate to call it a mixture of Dali, Picasso and a children’s book drawings. Like the story it tells, the game’s art direction is quite unique despite few character animations and less than perfectly drawn faces. Just like The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav, there are fantastic vistas to visit, but also very dark, creepy and bloody places to escape, as in The Cat Lady. The addition of black and white stills for cutscenes also adds to the artistic style of the game, as if one watches and plays a dark fairy-tale.
Storytelling of the year
Killmonday Games’ Fran Bow is one of the best point-and-click adventure games I’ve played since The Cat Lady. It’s of course very different in style and gameplay, but the excellent writing and use of bloody imagery share the same DNA. With a playtime of around 8 hours, it’s also satisfyingly long enough for an indie game. Unfortunately the great puzzle design shows a bit too many logic puzzles in some chapters, which is a shame, because the object-based conundrums are extremely well-done.
Switching between different realities is not only a great storytelling device, but works for solving puzzles as well. It might have been a long, hard journey for the developer to fund the game. But the outcame is nothing short of amazing. Unlike many other serious adventure games, it actually invites the player to make up his/her own mind about the story and characters and encourages him/her to play it again to see all the connections. Simply put: Adventure game of the year (so far).
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