By Katalina Watt
Fran Bow is a macabre point-and-click indie horror adventure game, and in terms of tone and themes, this game reminded me a lot of Alice: Madness Returns, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. I was incredibly surprised to find the studio behind it, Killmonday Games, is the brainchild of only two people, married Swedish couple Natalia Figueroa and Isak Martinsson.
One of Fran Bow’s strengths is the art style and soundtrack, and Killmonday nailed the animated cut scenes making them concise, engaging and powerful. There is no voice acting, but instead the aesthetic captures the tone and mirrors the narrative of the game through the art direction and music. The main narrative arc involves Fran trying to find her best friend talking cat Mr Midnight, make her way back home and discover the truth about her parents’ murders. Whilst the images were very powerful and memorable throughout most of the game, I did find the plot meandered tediously throughout the middle and personally dissatisfied me at the end.
Fran’s motivations seem clear throughout the game, particularly with each chapter, but sometimes the writing felt a bit disjointed and plot points were included simply to extend the storyline, create drama or confuse the player. Killmonday include so many fascinating characters and backstories that are only hinted, but then manages to overload on information that is both confusing and absurd by literally making Fran read whole tomes on the lore and physics of these alternate realities. There’s some great writing here, but a lot of that is underdeveloped whilst the game’s main plot becomes burdened by too many elements. I would have found the narrative more powerful if the plot had been stripped back to one foundation concept and built up from there.
Fran Bow utilises one mechanic which allowed me to forgive its other sins. Fran begins the game in a mental asylum and is prescribed a medicine, supposedly Duotine, by her Doctor. Under the influence of Duotine, Fran sees an alternate reality, and there are many puzzles which can only be solved by interacting with objects in characters in both realities. We later discover there are five realities. The human world is the third reality, and when Fran is on Duotine she is able to see parts of the fifth reality. This fifth reality is absolutely terrifying, filled with the fears of both Fran but also those around her, suppressed memories of trauma and guilt, and images of death and abuse. This was an aspect where the writing really shone because the player was allowed to question whether this was reality or hallucination, and the horrors experienced by Fran and the other children were only alluded to.
The puzzles in Fran Bow are straightforward, but oftentimes the solutions are illogical, even when using the irrational logic of the Fran Bow universe. The puzzles are clever and well-integrated, however as it’s the main mechanic for game progression, I found myself on tedious fetch quests which slowed the pace.
The dialogue was a bit twee and the language simple and repetitive, but I can make concessions for this because of a child protagonist and a world seen through their eyes. The narrative tone in Chapter Three is so much lighter than the rest of the game that I found it jarring. What drew me to the game was the strong opening chapter, which is the basis of the demo and sets the tone for the macabre and disturbing psychological horror which is the game’s strong suit. Luckily the game does return to this with clever puzzles and a return to motifs we had experienced earlier.
Whilst I can forgive the meandering storyline, I do take umbrage with the game’s ending. The narrative is linear, but Killmonday try to leave the player with an open and ambiguous ending. Usually I’m a huge fan of these, but the ending of Fran Bow left so many elements of the plot unresolved. I enjoyed that the game left a lot to player interpretation, but it felt dissatisfying because there were many disjointed elements with which to form any solid interpretation. Again, it frustrates me because the game had the potential to tell such a wonderfully haunting narrative! Although it is heavily inspired by Alice in Wonderland (there’s even an in-game nod) and the like, I think Killmonday succeeds in avoiding many of the tired cliches of having a ‘mad’ little girl protagonist by making Fran empathetic. She is charmingly naive at times, but wise beyond her years at others owing to the tragedy she has suffered.
Fran Bow is a disturbing yet wonderfully absurd romp. If you enjoy marrying elements of horror with adventure, are mad keen on puzzles and enjoy endings so open it’s like staring into the abyss, Killmonday’s debut is right up your street.