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Review: Fran Bow

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: T - Teenagers
My Rating: Ages 13 and up
Genre: Point and Click Adventure
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2015
Review Published On: June 6th, 2016
Played on: Martha

Available from:

Humble Store, Itch.IO, Steam

Save System:

Fran Bow uses an autosave feature, saving your progress at the beginning of a chapter or after the story progresses. Alternatively, since time does not pass until you click on something, you can leave the computer for a minute or two at anytime.

Summary of
Major Issues:

Fran's world is a blend of multiple, layered realities, and for most of the game she switches between them by taking some pills she found. On her journey, she encounters things that are frightening, demonic in appearance, or quite gory.

There is also a section where she performs a magical incantation using a pentacle.


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Wandering in the asylum

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Itward gives Fran some good advice

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Run Fran, run!

Game Overview

Sometimes, you can just tell when a story isn't going to be all sunshine and rainbows. From the dingy and worn atmosphere to the unsettling character designs, it's pretty obvious that Fran Bow is going to be one of those times. Even during the happy moments, it feels like there's something inherently wrong just below the surface. But, considering that the story is based around a young girl who is dealing with severe emotional trauma, it's very fitting.

Unlike a lot of horror games these days, this is a point and click adventure game. This means that the player is removed the actions, and only has limited control over what the main character does. That said, Fran has quite a unique perspective on the world around her, which ensures that everything remains strange and weird even during the most normal situations.

One of the key mechanics of this game is the affects Fran's medications have on her perception of reality. Although they were prescribed by a psychiatrist, she experiences some very strange side effects from them. When the pills take effect, her surroundings shift into a grossly distorted reflection of reality. This alternate world frequently features an abundance of blood and gore, but the more unsettling feature is the presence of shadowy otherworldly creatures.

As Fran progresses through her journey, the lines between everyday reality and surreal illusion breakdown. By the time her adventure is over, she'll have traveled through a forest, flown on a skeleton's flying machine, visited a world of vegetable people, and even visited a doctor's office for monsters. This description hardly does the story justice though, as there's just so much to see as you travel through this dark and twisted wonderland.

Fans of horror games will love this one; just be ready for the graphic nature of the visions Fran experiences. There's a lot more blood and gore than you would expect, though there is actually a point behind it -- you'll just need to have finished the story to see where everything was leading.

Points of Interest

Unique style
Everything looks like it belongs in a children's storybook. A really, really, messed up storybook that only adults should read, but a storybook nonetheless. This also helps keep the graphic content from being too gross and realistic.
Multiple Solutions
Most of the problems Fran encounters in her journey can be solved in more than one way. Sometimes it takes some careful conversation to open up another option, but there is often a way to work things out without overworking your brain. This is a great way to avoid the usual problems of moon logic that crop up in point and click adventure games.
Replay any chapter you've unlocked
As you play through the story, you'll unlock the ability to replay chapters you've already completed. This lets you go back without having to start a new game or losing your progress, which is especially useful for achievement hunting or just for people interested in poking around the detailed environments. With everything there is to see, it can be easy to miss something.
Skippable minigames
At several points in her adventure, you'll be presented with a minigame. These are based around the current events in the story; for example, escaping the asylum through the woods has you guide Fran through a maze of bushes. These minigames aren't exactly the funnest ways to spend your time, but they are a decent break from problem solving and all of them feature a different artistic style. However, if you don't feel like playing through a minigame, you have the option to skip them. You won't be penalized if you do, so don't worry about it.
Steam features
Naturally enough, there are achievements and Steam trading cards available. Many of these achievements are based around finding the less common ways of solving problems, so be crafty and clever! You can also earn achievements by completing the minigames rather than skipping them. Most of the remaining achievements just record your overall progress for the world to see.
Despite everything, you can still get stuck
Most of the time, there are characters that will give you hints about what you should be doing next. In some cases, detailed instructions are even provided for you. But, as useful as these are, there are still parts of the game that can really be hard to figure out. For example, there's a puzzle where you need to fix part of the flying machine mentioned above. One of the problems with the machine is that several parts are missing, and it's not exactly clear if you've replaced all of the parts or not.

Concerns and Issues

Blood and gore
Blood is practically omnipresent in Fran's visions and the twisted reality she explores when she's taken a pill. In some cases, someone has used blood to write something on the wall, but mostly it's just spilled everywhere. The one major exception is that various characters, including Fran herself, sometimes cry tears of blood.

Gore on the other hand, isn't as common as blood, but it's not rare either. Most of the gore is shown near the beginning of the game, as it manifests itself in the altered version of the asylum in various dramatic ways.

Unlike a lot of games that are notorious for their enthusiastic and nearly gleeful approach to graphic content, the blood or gore Fran encounters is never considered to be a good thing.
Moderate violence
Throughout the game, Fran has the opportunity to hurt others. A lot of the time, she doesn't want to take this approach, but when she can justify her actions against her own moral code, she's incredibly brazen about what she's willing to do to other people. Granted, she's just a little kid, so her morals are very simplistic and often centered around how other people have treated her.

There are two examples that come to mind regarding her reaction to hurting others. At one point, Fran believes that a creature called a beetlepig has eaten Mr. Midnight. In order to save her pet, she needs to kill the beetlepig and cut it open. This seems straightforward, but the beetlepig is cute and even appears friendly. Fran is not very comfortable about killing it, but it has to be done and she does so reluctantly. Later on, she encounters a skull that's holding a key in its mouth. When she's unable to reason with it, she doesn't have any reservations about tearing its teeth out with a pair of pliers. Ouch!
Extremely unsettling subjects are shown early on
This game begins in a mental asylum. Now, asylums like this are a dime a dozen in horror games, but since this one is filled with mentally ill children it's more unsettling than usual. It's pretty clear that Fran's very disturbed and probably does belong in such a place, but as you interact with the other children, there are some frightening concepts being shown. One of the girls at the asylum uses "magic pills" that help her sleep. Another patient needs distractions to keep from cutting her own wrists, and some of the patients were sexually abused. Pretty heavy stuff for a game.

Making things a bit worse is that the staff come off as ill tempered and in some cases, openly hostile towards their charges. The security guard is especially noteworthy here, as he's disliked by the rest of the staff and has some disturbing dialogue with Fran that has led many players to seriously question if he's intended to be a pedophile.
Drug use
At first, Fran's method of switch to and from the different realities is a bottle of red pills. Originally, the psychiatrist had put her on this medication in an attempt at helping her symptoms, but after horrifying side effects, he forbade using them again. Of course, Fran steals them back anyway and takes them throughout her adventure.

On the other side of the coin, there's another patient in the asylum that uses "magic pills" to help her sleep. If you play your cards right, Fran can use one of these "magic pills" to drug the security guard, allowing her to escape.
Two types of magic
At one point in her travels, Fran is forced to perform a ritual that, frankly, is straight up witchcraft, complete with black candles, a pentacle and strange chanting. Despite everything that's happened so far, this is still treated as blatantly wrong, and it's made apparent that the previous person to try this ritual ended up very much dead. Fortunately, Fran finds a similar but different ritual and uses this to perform an exorcism of sorts, which takes care of her captors and saves the day.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is one of the other realities, which is populated by kindly vegetable people. They use magic too, but their magics are treated as wholesome and pure; a stark contrast to the ritual used earlier on.
Unsettling character designs
The world of Fran Bow is designed around a concept of multiple entwined realities. However, these realities are quite different than each other, which means that just about every non-human Fran encounters looks like walking nightmare fuel. This is particularly evident with Mabuka, Remor, and the Kamalas.

Mabuka is basically a "goddess" of sorts, and is the embodiment of all of the world's suffering and fear. Her primary motif is a white mask that bleeds from its eyes. This is also why various characters shed bloody tears: it's a sign that someone is under her direct influence.

The Kamalas are sinister looking shadows that feed on (and cause) misery and misfortune. Unsurprisingly, the mental asylum is crowded with them; there's one hovering over almost every patient. The one exception is Fran, and this may be because Mabuka's son Remor is actively haunting her. Like the Kamalas, Remor feeds on Fran's suffering and despair.

On an interesting note, Kamalas can be exorcised, and they eventually become creatures called Valokas. Valokas appear to be good angelic spirits that spread comfort and light, which is a huge contrast to their previous existence.

Another frightening character Fran meets is a well dressed skeleton named Itward. Although he appears menacing and is blamed for some of the bad things that have happened to some of the evil characters, he's actually a pretty nice guy and a good friend. Notably, he has been known to comfort little children by telling them stories when they were scared at night.
Fran's hallucinations are horrid
Throughout the game, Fran experiences vivid hallucinations. These frequently involve Remor taunting or threatening her, but she also witnesses many other events that none of the other characters see. One of the more graphic hallucinations depicts Fran as a crazed queen on a throne of hands. In one hand she holds her knife, and in the other, she's holding Mr. Midnight by the throat. Declaring him to be a traitor, the evil queen kills her copy of the cat by stabbing him in the gut. Seconds after this, the illusion fades away and the real Mr. Midnight tries to console the real Fran, telling her not to let the lies get to her.