Review: Fran Bow
Asylums and insanity tend to be a crutch in horror games, but Fran Bow manages to avoid the usual tropes of haunted hospitals and delusional psychos. It actually avoids a lot of storytelling tropes, forging off in an uncharted and often bizarre path towards its final revelations. You can be sure it’s a beautiful and entertaining ride, but not one without a few bumps.
Fran Bow is the name of the spindly, doe-eyed ten-year-old you guide through this grotesque adventure. Her happy homelife was interrupted by her parents getting filleted and her cat vanishing, so the game opens in an asylum for children. What starts as a quest to break out and reunite with your lost kitty spirals into an insane journey across… I’m not even sure what nouns to use here, honestly. The story is going to go places you’re not going to expect in the least, and the surprises never really stop coming.
The actual gameplay is plenty familiar for adventure fans, with clicks to move and a plentiful inventory to Use, Combine, and Examine. For most of the game you’ll have an additional gimmick in the form of pills that warp reality (or how you see it, anyway) around you, essentially giving you two scenes to explore for every one you find. Chapter three of this five-chapter adventure also has an additional gimmick that’s used to great effect in some rather clever puzzles. You’ll come across NPCs to chat with as well but don’t expect dialog trees or complex interactions, as your part in the conversation is usually a binary choice between “continue talking” and “bye”.
As for the puzzles themselves, they’re pretty logical despite the insanity blossoming around them. Items tend to have clear uses, explanations abound, and there’s something of a hint system present for most of the game. There’s even a few with multiple solutions that can earn you achievements for working out the less common way. As long as you have a modicum of patience you won’t be needing a walkthrough. Scene transitions are often instant and can be double-clicked through if not so the quality-of-life elements are there to stave off frustration.
The only thing that might put you off a bit is the story, and in an adventure game that’s admittedly huge. I mentioned before that the plot goes off in some bizarre directions, and if anything I’m understating the point. Fran Bow is ostensibly a horror game, and while there’s plenty of gruesome scenery and creepy beings, the entire third chapter is something I never expected to see in a horror title. The chapters themselves are a bit disjointed in terms of tone, pace, and mechanics as well, so much so that the game might feel episodic at times. It all comes together in the end but does so in a very jarring, sudden way that still doesn’t answer all the questions it raises.
Flawed though it is, the story is still an entertaining one and is carried on the backs of its charming cast. Fran is incredibly upbeat and pleasantly irreverent for being a disturbed orphan, and the people and creatures she meets often echo her childish exuberance. There’s an excellent balance here against some darker and more serious characters, and Fran herself has a morbid streak that’s used to great effect. It’s a good pairing with the gorgeous hand-drawn graphics, giving the game a look somewhere between Tim Burton aesthetics and stop-motion animation. I wish I could say the same about the sound design but it’s honestly pretty lacking, with little more than a competent soundtrack and some simple effects that don’t always fill out the scene.
The adventure genre is a bit heavy on the horror side but Fran Bow does plenty to stand out. The look, the feel, and the story are all unique draws and come together to form an impressive experience. It might not always make sense, but you’ll have so much fun chuckling at Fran’s black humor and marveling at the beings she meets that I doubt it’ll hold you back much. There’s a full six hours or more of exploring to do in this dark and beautiful world, and plenty of reasons to dive right in.