If ever there was a game of
almost startling juxtapositions, Fran Bow is it.
Fran is a small girl, “suffering
from a mental disorder and an unfair destiny”. Separated from her cat Mr
Midnight as she rushed into the woods having found her parents
dismembered, she now looks to escape from Oswald Asylum, find Mr
Midnight, and make her way to Aunt Grace.
The artistic style grabbed me
from the opening moments. The inky black and white intro gave way to a
childlike something that reminded me of Tim Burton’s Melancholy Death
of Oyster Boy in the characters and feel, albeit in colour. Indeed,
Fran would likely be right at home in Tim’s worlds.
There is nothing childlike about
The stories of those in the
asylum, and elsewhere once you get there, can be dark and damaged. Then
there are the pills, which, when you find them, enable you to flip
between the “waking” world and the visionary and nightmarish drugged
world (for want of a better description). By doing so you can access and
open areas in one that were locked to me in another, or find items that
were previously unseen, in order to help with the puzzle solving.
Be warned – you will also see
other things that you perhaps wished you hadn’t. There are some quite
gruesome visuals, made all the more chilling by the stylised storybook
graphics. There are also some confronting themes, and some not nice
behaviour. It can also pull the emotional strings, and there was a
gut-wrenching moment or two to be sure.
Then there is Remor, the
Terrible Black, a demon that both stalks and haunts Fran. Other black
shapes and visions do their own haunting.
In and out
The asylum under any condition
is not a nice place, and while the different realms and realities into
which Fran eventually ventures are better simply because they aren’t the
asylum, there is still not a whole lot of happy going on. Save for one
realm, in the middle of the game, a whimsical, ethereal place populated
by talking vegetables and insects, and other equally strange critters.
It sounds a little silly, but I thought when I considered the chapter
title that it made perfectly good sense.
I say that in the context of the
story. Not the surface tale of finding the kitty and getting home to
Auntie, but the deeper musings about sanity and what is and might not be
real. I was struck more than once by a conversation or a thought that
harkened to something far more complex than simply what was said. I am
not sure I got all of it, and the end is a little vague and “out there”,
but it’s worth a good pondering and to think about as you go.
Having said that, I wouldn’t
want you to think this is a deep and insightful treatise on the human
condition. There are plenty of silly or childish moments, but there is
more substance here than just the obvious.
Most of that revolves around
Fran. As she searches for Mr Midnight, despite the events that have
befallen her, and the ones she comes across, she maintains an
appropriately 11 year old innocence, persistence and naďve optimism. She
is full of polite questions, seeking answers and making friends, and
life – even this one – seems to be one big adventure. “I am curious” she
says more than once, which by and large stands her in good stead.
You will like Fran, and it is
she you play, although you do get brief moments as Mr Midnight, as well
as a short stint as alternate reality Fran.
You won’t hear Fran, as there is
no spoken word, but the soundscape and everything else going on
compensates admirably. Like Tormentum, Fran Bow proves that you don’t
need voices to create a rich and satisfying tale, if all the other bits
and pieces are top notch. The score deserves special mention, but
ambient sound, and the various graphical treatments all play their part.
Subtitles tumble in ribbons
across the screen, mimicking the flow of spoken words. I thought it was
a nice touch, and well-paced, but you won’t fall behind, as the next
utterance won’t occur until you click to continue. Fran will often have
the choice of two responses which appear in a ribbon at the bottom,
although the second choice will fairly regularly be to end the
conversation. There is no suggestion that the choice matters in terms of
affecting how the game plays, although a rude or dismissive response may
well delay the uncovering of needed information.
You can look at so many things
in the game worlds, each of which will elicit a comment from Fran.
Indeed, click again and there will be an additional comment, and a third
for another click. Then it’s back to the start should you persist with
the clicking. These comments can be insightful or simply observations,
and occasionally childishly amusing.
Items do need to be found, as by
and large this is an inventory based game. The inventory itself is a
purse bottom left. Open the purse and choose the item you want, then
choose the action you want (use, examine or combine), and then apply the
item to the object of your intent. Clicking anywhere outside the purse
“window” will close the purse.
Open and shut
Fran’s pills, when she has them,
are bottom right. Click to open the jar and take a pill, and the
nightmare world is revealed. Click to close the jar and “normality”
returns. You don’t have the pills all the time, and in the vegetable
world it is replaced by a remote control that switches seasons at your
will, enabling you to do the various things you need to do at the times
you need to do them in order to solve the conundrums to progress.
The game does quite a good job
of providing clues, through the objects themselves and some of the other
characters. Fran might ask a character whether they can help, and they
may provide an insight to set her in a particular direction. I did dip
into a walkthrough twice, but by and large I thought the game did what
it needed to provide sufficient information to enable you to maintain,
with a little thinking and fiddling here and there, a good pace through
what took me about 10 hours.
There are some out and out
puzzles, and a few mini games at various points. The latter provided
some variety, but did seem a little “stuck on”, even allowing for the
weirdness of the world and the sequences the games were portraying.
The game world presents in a
series of single screens around which you point and click Fran. An
eyeball floating left or right of screen means there is another part of
the environment over that way. There will also be doors and paths to
other places, but no location is very big.
The game saves automatically and
starts where you left off, and completed chapters can be played again
should you wish to. There were Steam achievements, only 41% of which I
completed. I can’t ever see the point of achievements that just occur
because you progress as you are supposed to, so the fact that I didn’t
get even half was to my mind a good thing.
Fran Bow is so very darkly good.
I played on:
OS: Windows 7
Processor: Intel i7-3820 4GHz
RAM: 12GB Ripjaw DDR3 2133 Mhz
Video card: AMD Radeon HD 7800 2048MB
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