Horror as a genre requires a particularly elegant approach to be successful. It is certainly possible to scare someone through blunt manipulation of disturbing images and a reliance on proven tropes, but horror that lingers, sticking to its audience like the aftermath of a bad dream, that takes something more. To its credit, Fran Bow initially understands this to a level that is truly chilling. But as developer Killmonday Games takes on more and more plotlines, shuffling the player deeper into an incomprehensible madness, Fran Bow falls inside the depths of a convoluted narrative mess from which it is never able to crawl back out of.
Beginning within the bloodstained hallways of a children’s mental institution, Fran Bow has access to no shortage of unsettling narratives and images to pull from, drawing heavily from horrific historical medical practices and occult imagery to craft an aggressively grim premise. 10 years old going on 11, the eponymous Fran Bow is plagued by violent images of her parent’s slaughter. Trapped now in a categorically inhumane asylum, her day to day life consists of being carted from psychiatric evaluations to routine drug administrations, forcing her madness back into her mind and leaving her in a vegetative state. Her one out from this hellish existence comes in the form of a bottle of red pills, which upon ingesting allows Fran to see her grotesque visions manifest in the real world, in the process instructing her on how to escape and setting her off on a quest to find her cat and only friend, Mr. Midnight.
Setting aside its narrative baggage, Fran Bow operates on what can be considered two distinct levels. The first is that of a decidedly traditional adventure game, with a heavy focus on jerry-rigging items together in order to solve an inordinate amount of inscrutable puzzles. Fran Bow makes little sense by design, but while this is largely excusable in a narrative drawing heavily from the likes of Alice in Wonderland (and even more so the macabre video game reimagining, Alice: Madness Returns) it effectively turns each puzzle into an inventory jigsaw puzzle as the player is left to attempt to combine items until something clicks into place. This is made all the worse due to Fran Bow’s level design, which assembles a collection of screens for the player to scavenge through as they slowly chip away at a levels exterior until being whisked away to the next hub. At its best, Fran Bow’s puzzles are tedious and archaic, and at their worst they completely break the game’s façade and reveal the rusty gears grinding to a halt underneath.
Somehow more unpleasant to contend with, however, is Fran Bow’s second chief objective: to be as grotesque and violent as possible within the span of 7-8 hours. Fran Bow’s morbid tendencies should be readily apparent to anyone who has seen any portion of the game, but what screenshots don’t relay as readily as playing the game does is how quickly Fran Bow’s violence and gore becomes routine. It is nauseating, to be sure, but there is never any method to Fran Bow’s madness. It wants to shock and appall, but solely for the sake of proving how depraved it is. And that’s perhaps all well and good to a certain subset of player, but the point at which Fran Bow quit attempting to justify its perversions was the point they stopped being effective. Fran Bow’s horrors fail because on some level they never really aim to be horrific. At most Fran Bow seems to seek to establish a palpable unease, but the anxiety it manages to create is so constant that it can only sustain itself so long before even the sight of bodies diced and organs strewn about elicits little more than a moderate cringe.
If Fran Bow had anything more to offer beyond these two elements it might be possible to dismiss them as tolerable gripes, but at some point roughly halfway through the game, it becomes distressingly clear that Fran Bow is just as lost as the player is confused where they are being taken. From the third chapter of five onward, Fran Bow takes aggressive, woefully conceptualized measures to arrive at something approximating a conclusion. Alternate realities and timelines are employed, split personalities are discovered, characters are drawn out of the air with elaborate backstories in hand, and proceedings become radically more unhinged as the game buckles under the weight of a plot that feels more false and contrived than any of Fran’s visions. Fran Bow begins as a mysterious if meandering horror adventure game, but by its conclusion, adopts the worst narrative conventions of bad fantasy and sci-fi to form a genre blending monstrosity that is all too eager to write off every inexplicable story beat as mere madness when it is more convenient than an explanation.
Fran Bow begins with the trappings of a deliberate authorship, but by its conclusion becomes so enamored with introducing new characters and plotlines to support ones which were never well developed to begin with, that the whole game falls in upon itself. On an artistic and conceptual level, Killmonday Games are experts at finding ways to capture the players’ attention and compel them forward, but when every path leads to a deus ex machina and an exposition dump long enough to chock on, it’s hard to feel anything but regret for having gone down them.