Review: FRAMED Collection

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We all love a good comic book, and over the years the game industry has had more and more success drawing from graphic novels for their content. Since the humble beginnings of NES Superman and Comix Zone, games have taken inspiration not just from the heroes of the medium, but also the medium itself. FRAMED is perhaps one of the purest creations from this inspiration, a game designed entirely around the format of sequential art and the possibilities it offers for interaction. While nowhere near the depth or variety of big-budget adventures or tie-ins, it’s a wickedly clever puzzler that does a lot with its mechanics, and spruces it up with some spot-on noir stylings.

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Was it a frame job? On these mean, lamp-lit streets, who can say? Lady Luck’s left you with a case full of goods and an army of coppers on your tail. All you’ve brought to the table are your wits, but that’s not the worst bet when the chips are down. Evading the fuzz will take every ounce of those wits, arranging the fragments of your shattered hopes into the yellow brick road of your own salvation. It’s a winding road, with plenty of dead ends and dead stops to mull over. But with the right plan, anything is possible… At least until SHE steps into the scene.

This is a noir adventure through and through, following the exploits of three silhouetted movers and shakers as they move a precious briefcase and shake the police from their trail. The story is told one page at a time, entirely without text, and entirely with the flowing motions of animated comics panels. For most pages you’ll have a fixed start and a fixed end panel, with a play button on the start. Pressing that will start your smooth operator on their way, dashing down alleys or shimmying across balconies. They’ll transition to each panel in top-to-bottom and left-to-right order, and if they encounter an alerted officer or a tricky obstacle, that’s where their story ends.

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Your job, then, is to arrange the panels of the story such that that can’t happen. Your most basic method of doing this is to change their order. For example, if a cop catches you on the bottom floor of a building before you can reach the stairs in the next panel, you can move the stairs earlier in the story so your shadowy protagonist can avoid the long arm of the law. These start out dead simple but can become quite complex, with ladders and winding paths and color-coded hallways to keep track of. Some long panels can’t be moved but can be rotated, changing the layout of the page and giving you new dimensions to work with. Further into the game you’ll get additional ways to manipulate panels, including the powerful ability to rearrange the story as it is playing out.

There’s a significant degree of experimentation involved here, and not just because of the complexity. New pages will often have new mechanics or threats that you won’t know how to deal with until you run afoul of them once. Normally I would knock this sort of trial-and-error structure but FRAMED is smart about it, creating special interactions and animations for every possible failure you might encounter. It adds an extra layer of discovery to a game that honestly doesn’t have much of one to begin with, since you’re mainly running through solution after solution. One page frustrated me a little by having cops spontaneously enter frames and cut off exits after you do, but the relatively few frames to work with there prevented actual frustration from taking hold. Also I have to admit, the eventual solution was pretty cool.

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That’s what you’re getting here, a few hours of clever, artistic puzzling that never goes long without impressing you. I mentioned the presentation but good gracious, if you’re a fan of jazz or noir motifs you need to pick this up for that alone. Style can carry a game far, and the brassy tones and bold lines of FRAMED help it push past even its sharp puzzle mechanics. Again, it’s not the biggest or deepest game around, but puzzle games don’t really need to be. They need to tease your brain, and this one has the distinction of doing it with real style.

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