Fran Bow is a point-and-click game about a little girl named Fran who goes on an Alice in Wonderland style journey to locate her pet, uncover her parents’ killer, and eventually find happiness.
I first heard about Fran Bow when the developer, KillMonday Games, was trying to get it Greenlit after a successful IndieGOGO campaign. The demo was enticing with beautiful artwork and melancholy music, and the mechanics for the game worked well and seemed pretty straightforward. I ended up waiting over a year and a half for the actual game to be released, because KillMonday is an incredibly tiny studio; in fact, it’s just a husband and wife team working on the art, music, programming, puzzles, and everything else except the beta testing and language localizations. The reason I’m telling you all this is to emphasize how impressive the final product really is.
The reason I’m telling you all this is to emphasize how impressive the final product really is.
Fran Bow starts off with a flashback of Fran living a happy life with her mom, dad, Aunt Grace, and beloved cat Mr. Midnight in 1944. One night a monster appears outside of her window; shortly thereafter, she wanders into her parents’ bedroom and finds their dismembered corpses. She flees the house and loses her cat before being found and taken to an asylum, where she undergoes therapy and takes medication that only seems to make her problems worse. Unwilling to give up and armed only with a purse and a bottle of pills, Fran set out on a mission to find her cat and then discover who killed her parents, all while being stalked by the monster that appeared outside her window on that horrible night.
I loved most aspects of Fran Bow, but my favorite by far was the art style. The colors were bright and really popped at you, the rooms were all well decorated and covered in things that were fun to look at, and the animation was very smooth. One of the game’s core mechanics is to use red pills to switch between realities, and the switches were quite horrifying. One minute you’d be in a beautiful house standing in front of a table of delicious-looking sweets, and after taking a pill you’d suddenly find yourself in the bottom of a well with dead babies floating in the water. The things that were meant to be pretty were gorgeous, and the things meant to be horrible were grotesque and vile. To me, it felt like the perfect blend of delightful and terrifying, emphasized all the more because of Fran’s delight with the beautiful world and her revulsion of the ugly.
The music was enjoyable as well, especially in the dark world after taking the pills. The music always perfectly complemented what was going on in the story, and at some points was completely absent to build tension. Nothing about it was really too terribly complex, but considering they had only one person working on the music I’m still impressed. I did notice when tracks were being reused, especially towards the end of the game, but this did little to detract from my enjoyment. I wouldn’t go as far as wanting to buy the soundtrack, but I was quite happy with the music while playing the game.
Real subtle there, game.
The story was overall quite nice, though it definitely borrows from Alice in Wonderland: in Fran Bow, a young girl goes on a journey, leaves her home (the asylum) by following an odd creature down a dark hole, meets many unusual creatures who often seem to be speaking riddles, and has a pet cat. Maybe these comparisons might seem unnecessary to point out, but the game actually had a moment where you could find a picture of Fran and her cat standing next to a blond girl named Alice holding a cat of her own. Real subtle there, game.
But I don’t want anyone to think that borrowing themes from Alice in Wonderland means that Fran Bow ripped it off. Yes, there’s a girl traveling through magic lands with only her wits, and it gets pretty dark at times (we’ve seen a lot of dark Alice games in the past few years), but it has its own mythos and themes. Fran’s escape was far tougher than simply falling down a rabbit hole; heaven knows if Alice would be able to solve the puzzles little Fran went through. The new lands you visit like Ithestra and the Fifth Dimension were all well designed and felt like their own inclusive worlds inside a much bigger universe with flushed-out creatures, rules, and mythos. I wanted to know more about the places Fran visited after I left; you find a guidebook talking about another traveler’s journey into these realms, and honestly that was my favorite part of the story. I’d love for KillMonday to make another game set in this world and explore it further.
heaven knows if Alice would be able to solve the puzzles little Fran went through
I also adored the characters I encountered throughout the story. Fran was a sometimes sweet, sometimes stubborn little girl with a mission she wants to fulfill, and nothing can steer her away from that. She is appropriately horrified by some of the things she sees, but this never stops her for more than a few moments before she’s back in action. Mr. Midnight was a sweet companion, always ready to offer comfort and occasionally help out when Fran got into a spot of trouble. The other supporting characters were well-written, and most amazingly of all were nice. Most of the time in point and click games, you’re fighting every NPC you come across to solve a puzzle or get an item, but a lot of the characters in Fran Bow (with a few major exceptions, of course) were willing and eager to help Fran on her journey. I appreciated that little change of pace, and it made a very imaginative fantasy game seem more realistic to me. She’s a 10-year-old girl and most people are altruistic, so of course the majority of the characters should want to help her. How helpful they can actually be to Fran is up for debate, but at least it wasn’t Fran and Mr. Midnight against the world for the whole game.
Besides this, I also appreciated how Fran Bow played around with ideas of good and bad. Although there were some characters that were clearly good and others that were clearly wicked, most of the time you couldn’t always be sure which one you were dealing with until the end of your final encounter with them. Some characters seemed kind but then turned on you, and others that screamed deviousness turned out to be the most helpful to Fran on the journey. At one point I thought that the game had pulled on obvious twist of making someone good turn out to be evil, but then ten minutes later they flipped it right back around on me. I love those kinds of twists, and because of the uncertainty in who I could trust or what would happen if I followed a certain someone’s directions, the story kept me hooked until the very end.
My only real issue with the writing was some slight grammar mistakes here and there. Neither of the developers are native English speakers; they’re both Swedish, in fact, as stated on their website. The English is pretty good throughout the game, but you can tell where a native speaker would have used a different word or phrased a sentence differently. It was actually kind of funny when the credits rolled and the section giving credit to their English proofreaders had a very noticeable spelling mistake. But these hiccups in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the game, and considering that they were working to release this game in four different languages (though not Swedish, for some reason) I expected some minor issues here and there.
So, all of this stuff I really liked. But here’s the big downside to Fran Bow: the puzzles were really rough. When you go into point-and-click games, you should expect to encounter puzzles that can only be solved by the most convoluted or drunken logic available to man, and Fran Bow was no exception. On multiple occasions I got stuck because I hadn’t collected an object from somewhere (because the items you can pick up have absolutely no differences in appearance from items you just click to look at). This was largely an issue of it not always being clear that there was a specific item I needed to pick up from a shelf or table. In one kitchen scene, I clicked on a shelf and it switched to a close-up view, so I could go through all the items and I could click on them all to pick up what I needed. I clicked on a cabinet right next to it, and all Fran did was make a quick remark, so I figured that there was nothing for me to grab. It was only when I came back later, desperate and clicking on everything at random, that I was able to retrieve an item from that cabinet by clicking a different area. So a little consistency might have made my life a bit easier.
A little consistency might have made my life a bit easier.
Other times, I had no idea what a puzzle wanted me to do because the game didn’t offer me any direction. There was one puzzle where I had to put number tiles in order, but I’d been given no clue as to what order they needed to go in other than “be patient.” I actually had to look up a walkthrough for that part, and it turned out that they wanted me to put the tiles in the order of a Fibonacci sequence. How was I supposed to figure that out? Even using random guessing, a Fibonacci sequence would not have occurred to me for ages. In the future, KillMonday Games, if you are going to make your puzzles that difficult or obtuse, might I suggest helping a player out by either implementing a hint system or using some kind of indicator around objects you can pick up? It would have made an otherwise enjoyable game that much more fun to play. Although I will say, even with these issues, the puzzles were still better than ones I’ve encountered in other games, such as the Deponia series or the Secret of Monkey Island games (though the latter series included a nice hint system in the re-release, which drastically improved my enjoyment of the game).
Finally, there were a few technical issues. There was one point where the game bugged out on me and a scene wasn’t triggered properly, so I had to back out to the main menu and reload from the last save (which fortunately didn’t set me back too far, but in a game where all the saving is done via an autosave feature, that could have ended badly). Also, for some reason whenever I exited out of the game, it didn’t shut down properly and said that the game had just stopped working. This didn’t cause me any issues while playing, but I feel that a heads up is fair.
Fran Bow is available on Steam for $15, with the soundtrack available for an additional $5. Normally I’m one to wait for a game to go on sale before buying it, but I paid full-price for this (again, I’d waited a year and a half for it already, so I wasn’t particularly inclined to wait longer for it to be discounted) and feel like I got my money’s worth since the game took me about five hours to beat. If you’re looking for something particularly unsettling to play as Halloween approaches, I strongly encourage you to buy Fran Bow. It’s delightful, it’s horrifying, and I really want to see KillMonday Games put out more games like this. The best way to make that happen is to buy their product and let them know how much you loved it. It’s worth the price and will leave you wanting more.