Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Fran Bow - Review

Developer: Killmonday Games
Publisher: Killmonday Games
Platform: PC

Taking fairy tales and twisting them into horror games is an idea that numerous game developers have made use of. American McGee’s Alice, and its sequel, Madness Returns, take the basic concept of their source material and then warp it into something horrific. Even a game like Limbo, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, takes a similar approach, creating the appearance of a humble children’s adventure and then transforming it into a nightmare.

Fran Bow follows in the same vein. Developed by the two-person team at Killmonday Games, takes the basic point-and-click mechanics of a classic adventure game and uses them to tell a story that skirts the borders between surreal and horrific 

And, granted, it’s a hard game to dislike. The animation style is gorgeous, with its own distinct charm. Again, it’s fascinating to watch but also slightly unsettling. Fran, with her bug-eyed expression and curious personality, is a wonderful main character, and I’d argue that a lot of what makes the game work comes down to her characterisation.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Fran either, because the world she lives in is so damn repulsive. Set in the 1940s, Fran is locked in a children’s mental hospital after the death of her parents. Without any idea who the culprit was, Fran now only has one goal in life; find her cat, Mr Midnight.

Cue, the first chapter involves walking around the hospital chatting to fellow patients. It’s here where Killmonday don’t pull any punches. Kids shuffle around the corridors drugged up on drugs, it’s clear (although rarely explicitly stated, another example of good writing), that many of them have been abused. In fact, one early encounter with a lecherous security guard is possibly one of the most unsettling moments in a game that regularly throws up disturbing ideas and imagery. 

Later chapters go for even more bizarre imagery, mixing Lewis Carol with William S. Burroughs. Giant insects in a pub, a pig/woodlouse hybrid, a family of sentient pinecones. There’s certainly plenty of originality going on in Fran Bow.

Now, for the most part the game consists of the typical point-and-click affair: find items, click on things, solve puzzles, and Fran Bow sticks to this concept throughout its runtime. The one unique element however, that the game throws up, is Fran’s use of her medicine.

Ingesting pills causes the world around her to shift from one that’s unsettling, to one pulled straight out of a nightmare. Shadowy creatures crawl out of the walls, animal carcasses inexplicably appear hung across the ceiling. It’s a smart way of reusing the same rooms twice, but it also fits straight into the story’s themes and nestles itself in there as a solid game mechanic. 

One particular chapter even takes it further. Rather than the typical “reality”/”drugged-reality” concept, there’s instead the options of shifting the world through all four seasons, with different areas opening up depending on the time of year. Mechanically, it’s reminiscent of Silent Hill Origins mirror gameplay, with puzzles requiring you to frequently shift from one reality to another.

If there’s one thing that Fran Bow never quite nails however, it’s the overall tone. After an opening chapter (and arguably the best chapter) that sets the game up as a horror game, subsequent levels reign it in, ramping up the surrealism and nonsensical elements but losing the more unsettling aspects. Make no mistake, it still remains a creepy game, but it certainly loses its bite after its initial opening.

In fact, Fran Bow in general peters out as it progresses. As the horror begins to get toned down, so too does the unique reality-hopping mechanic, with later areas actually becoming much simpler and linear, lacking the unique touches that the initial chapters have. Fran Bow is by no means a short game, but there’s definitely the impression that it runs out of fresh ideas long before the credits begin to roll. 

Likewise, its storytelling suffers from a similar schizophrenic approach, which I suppose if you look at it in a certain way is actually rather appropriate. After an opening that sets itself up well with a clear quest: find Mr Midnight the cat, later chapters devolve into the more mushy Lewis Carol-style nonsensical story telling of Alice in Wonderland. This is fine of course, and fitting, given the game’s inspirations, but it suffers from an annoying whiff of “kids protecting themselves from danger by conjuring up fantasies” vibe; a somewhat simplistic and twee message for a game that starts out much more daring.

Of course, without entering spoiler territory the ending can be interpreted in several different ways but there’s a sense that the dark, adult punch that opens the game is swapped in favour of a whimsical childish vibe that sort of aims to give a Studio Ghibli feel but ends up a few notches short, instead coming across as simply being vague for the sake of it.

As you can see, it’s hard to comment on Fran Bow too much without actually discussing spoilers. Simply put, for fans of point-and-click adventure games, this is well worth checking out. It’s incredible work from a two-person team and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what they turn their hand to next. It doesn’t manage to pay off with everything it tries its hand at, but, for the first half at least, this is an engaging, not to mention disturbing, rabbit hole to travel down. 


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