August 27, 2015 7:30 PM | Joel Couture
No matter how awful things get or what horror you find yourself looking at while playing Fran Bow, it's hard not to be charmed by its main character. Fran's politeness and innocent cheer infuses her every action despite a life spent wandering dark landscapes filled with shadowy creatures sowing misery. She often manages to find something to be happy about no matter how terrible things get, smiling while combing the hair of frightening spirits or helping a skeletal man repair his flying machine. Still, she's not just a cheerful child facing horrors with an unbelievably unshakable courage - she's a frightened child coping with what she sees as best she can. Knowing just how scared she is, yet seeing how she still reacts to things, makes your time with Fran feel special despite all of the gory, sickening truths the game has in store for you.
On one level, Fran Bow's story is about multiple worlds layered on top of each other, one 'normal' one and another filled with monstrosities and violence. The most common shifting mechanic is Fran's medication, which doesn't seem all that helpful at first. Life in an asylum is bad, sure, but changing from a world of mentally-ill children to one filled with bloody beasts and corpses doesn't seem any better. You have to travel there, though, as items and puzzles from one side are often used to clear things up in the other.
Having two versions of the same world to look for items and puzzles in might sound like it makes for a lot of work in a point and click game, but most of its environments are quite small, narrowing down your search area when you're stuck on a puzzle. Even if I got stuck on an answer, I usually only had a few rooms to search through, even factoring in alternate versions of those rooms. The third chapter in the game is quite a bit more complicated, sprawling across many different screens and four different versions or reality, but beyond that chapter, the game typically restrains the player to cut down on getting lost and confused while stuck on something.
Not that having a smaller space to search makes me want to go to the alternate world all that often. It's a ghastly place, especially when you consider Fran's nature as you drag her back to that world. It's hard to make a child look at her own dead body, chest splayed open in a blood roomy while a shadow with teeth gnaws on her organs. It's stomach-churning to see her parents' bodies spread out across a platform, a child wrapped in its own intestines, or the various other gory, agonized people that inhabit the world beyond Fran's pill container. It's also hard to look in on this stuff as a player, as the things you're seeing are just sickening. You never really want to spend time here, but to finish the game, you, and Fran, must peer into it.
The art style makes this both good and bad. It's reminiscent of a children's book, its characters moving like pop ups through painted landscapes. In the third chapter, which takes place in a fantastic world filled with friendly insects and living roots, it looks wonderful and happy. It's an art style that seems best suited to communicate wonder and imagination, which is why it makes gore seem that much more horrible. It's hard to watch moments of extreme violence (of which the game never shies away nor glosses over in any way), but seeing them in this child-like style makes them worse. It also ties in well to Fran's innocent nature, implying a child-like outlook on all the horrific events around her.
The strangeness of this world works with the unique oddities of point and click logic, too. There are some strange puzzles in Fran Bow, involving thing like getting berries to get an engine running or using a fish to know you need dancing shoes. The thing is, that kind of weirdness works in the various dreamy places you'll explore. This isn't a realistic world in any sense, so sometimes you're just going to have to do some downright strange stuff. Personally, I get frustrated in most point-and-click games when the solution is outlandish, but in Fran Bow, the game's surreal nature makes the stranger answer seem more likely. Nonsense is sensible in this weird world, so it's less frustrating when the puzzle solution is a little bizarre.
It's still quite good at hinting at the items you need, though. While some puzzle games put in a hint system, Fran Bow uses its characters instead, often having them strongly hint at the item you need to find the solution. Barring that, there are clues in the art design and environment that are built to help a struggling player out. At times, the developers do go a little too far, basically putting in a grocery list of items or giving you explicit instructions on a puzzle that make it feel like busywork, but for the most part it's a straightforward game if you've been paying attention. It feels much more natural to have the game world lead you in this way, and helps the player get unstuck in a more natural way. There is one sliding box puzzle, though, which is just...no. Don't do that.
I also found that I didn't really mind doing favors for all the various people and creatures in the game due to Fran's helpful nature. She's keen to help, even though she's in a bad situation herself, and her heartfelt need to help others out is infectious. It's another way in which the game tells us more of Fran's character, showing us a child who's still kind despite years of cruelty and horrific visions. I mean, the girl can't even outright steal an item from other characters without feeling guilty about it. All of the puzzles, strange as they are, tell us something about Fran's character, whether in broad strokes or more subtle ones, and help us get a better glimpse at who she really is, tying gameplay into character development.
Learning about Fran's true character is where the story gets quite complex. She is more than just a polite little girl, something the game hints at explicitly and subtly over the course of a playthrough. It's up to you to figure out what it all means for her, especially during the vague, surreal ending. Some aspects may seem easy to see as the credits roll, but they're muddled by what you've seen of Fran's character over the course of your playthrough, leaving things open to interpretation. If you're looking for straight answers at the end, you won't find them. Although some aspects of the story and ending did feel tacked on and poorly-implemented, for the most part this is a game you'll be mulling over for some time once it's done.
You may also still be sour about the stages that show up between chapters when it's done, though. The game has minigames that appear after each chapter, most of which are frustrating and have clunky controls. Navigating a maze without touching creatures with huge hit boxes, playing a clumsy version of Frogger, or platforming with dodgy landing detection isn't much fun. Luckily, the developers stuck in a fast forward function for anyone who doesn't want to wrestle with these stages. The shame is that the art on each of these stages is lovely, creating neat departures from the regular style like the claymation world of the Frogger stage. They're nice to look at, but most may want to skip over these major tripping points in an otherwise fun game.
Fran Bow makes you love its main character even as you hate her for dragging you to these gruesome places. It tells a story of a charming little girl caught up in a terrible life, all through some solid point-and-click puzzles that make sense in its strange setting. It makes you want to help her through all this, and leaves you questioning if you understood anything at all as the game ends. Gut-wrenching and heart warming in equal measure, it's a jarring experience in witnessing true horror when you're truly innocent.
Fran Bow is available for $14.99 on Steam and GOG. For more information on the game and Killmonday Games, you can head to the game's site, the developer's site, or follow them on FaceBook, YouTube, and Twitter.