Fran Bow

I think I purchased Fran Bow during a Halloween sale.  It got lost in my vast backlog of adventure games until I was finally in the mood for a point and click story experience.  I spent the next few hours sending messages to my friend which all said something along the lines of “Wow, this game.”  “WTF.”  “This is like the most fucked up game I’ve played in awhile…”  It actually reminded me a bit of Year Walk, although not nearly as ambiguous and without the same level of puzzle solving.  Both games come from Sweden, so perhaps that’s less of a coincidence than I first thought.

Fran Bow is a ten year old girl who survives a terrible family tragedy, and is then placed in a mental asylum.  The game takes place in 1944, so this is an old-school asylum environment with all of its various mental illness stigmas.  Fran was separated from her beloved cat, Mr Midnight, and she embarks on a mission to escape the asylum and find him.  The game has some mental illness themes that I found intriguing, and unraveling what’s going on is an engaging journey.

The game has quite a few mixed reviews on Steam, and I think that’s because there’s a huge tonal shift in the third chapter.  The opening chapters are fucked up.  There is a lot of really disturbing imagery and suggestions of some really dark content, which is probably what a lot of people dove into the game expecting after looking at the synopsis (and possibly got even more than they bargained for).  The third chapter, though, loses a lot of that imagery and becomes a fairly generic point and click story.  It doesn’t really return to its disturbing roots until closer to the end, and even then it doesn’t seem to reach the same heights.  I can easily see how someone who was engaged by the opening chapters would lose a lot of momentum in chapter three and not really manage to stick it out.  And the ending was… strange.  Many reviews point it out for being too abrupt, but I felt it had enough closure to seal off the story.  I wouldn’t say it was disappointing, but it might have been a little more effective if they had been more concrete rather than leaving some of the lines to interpretation.

If you can handle the disturbing underlying suggestions of the game, it’s probably worth the 4-6 hours that it will take to see Fran through her story.

Gemini Rue

Gemini Rue is a classic adventure game, complete with pixel graphics.  It’s so nostalgic that, even though I was aware it was fairly recent, I actually went and checked the publishing date, and was surprised to discover it said 2011.

I love adventure games.  I grew up on them.  All the horrible adventure logic in the world cannot make me not enjoy an adventure game, so this review can probably be considered biased to some degree.  That said, this game really kicked up some nostalgia.  It took me straight back to playing Space Quest on my god damn Tandy computer (I’m so ollllddd…).

Getting it running was practically an exercise in nostalgia, which is perhaps not quite to the game’s credit.  When I first booted it up, it started in default resolution, full screen.  Default resolution is 600×800 which is nostalgia for ALL the wrong reasons.  On a 1920×1080 monitor I think each pixel was the size of Texas.  The options had video settings for gamma and nothing else, so I did some quick googling and discovered you can change the resolution and set windowed mode via an executable in the game’s install folder.  That is so clunky it could only have been designed in the early ’90s.  Oh wait, 2011…
To actually change the resolution, you have to change the rendering mode, rather than change the resolution directly.  I switched it to antialiasing and it looked an awful lot like someone had dumped a vat of vaseline on my monitor, so I went back to nearest neighbor.

I set the options and booted it up again, only to find half the screen was not rendering.  I messed with settings a bit more only to discover that this pretty much happens on first load no matter what, but it’s easily (?) fixed by walking to a new screen and forcing a re-render.  It’s probably worth it to use windowed mode, I guess.

In the process of all this, I had gone through the intro sequence and gotten to the point where I could save a game.  I figured I could just load that game and skip the intro again.  I played for about an hour, then got distracted by something and went to save, and saw that my old save was no longer available to write over.  I figured all my settings fuckery had busted something and oh well.  Except when I came back, it loaded my original missing save – back at the start of the game (it autosaves at every important event, too, but the autosave claimed to be corrupt.  Ugh.).  I essentially lost an hour of progress to that, but since I was able to skip all the “flavour” exploration it only took me maybe 10 minutes to catch back up.  Still a bit disconcerting, but I’m done fucking with settings so we should be good from now on.

Now that I’m done bitching about the setup, we can talk about the actual game!  The story is intriguingly written.  It’s set in the future and bounces between a couple of player controlled characters, including a cop searching for his brother, and an inmate who keeps getting his memory wiped because he tries to escape.  There are plenty of hooks to keep you playing, and just enough left obscured that you want to dig deeper, but you don’t get frustrated.  Good job.  It’s a pretty typical adventure game setup, where you click to wander around a pixellated landscape, and right click to interact with certain designated interactable points.  The old standby of look, touch, talk, and um… kick… are the options on the right click menu.  In typical fashion there are plenty of interactibles in the environment which are just there for flavour and worldbuilding, and the occasional red herring.  Your inventory is accessed from the same menu, so you can take an item and attempt to use it on stuff.  Like your gun!



One of the clues that the game is actually modern is the fact that it is entirely voice acted.  Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that the budget “spared no expense” on the voice acting.  The main characters pull it off pretty well, but some of the side characters could take lessons from Shatner in how to read a line.  There are some really obvious pauses where you can just feel them looking down and finding their place in the script.  Then they over-emote to make up for it.  Fortunately the characters you spend the most time with are a bit better at delivery.

The game does have a bit of adventure game logic in that things tend to need to progress in a fairly linear fashion, but unlike many games, it actually tends to make some sense when it fails an action.  There are also multiple solutions to a number of the problems that pop up, which is always nice.  That said, I have noticed a LOT of cases where an action that should be obvious and completable is not actually completable until you attempt it to see that progression is not possible without further action.  Example:  There is a stick stuck in a sliding door.  The stick is visible (such as it is, in its pixellated glory) from the start, but you can’t actually interact with it until you yank on the door and realize it won’t open.  One of the things that really impressed me about the original Myst is that you could solve the game in a few clicks if you knew where to go and how to open things.  Actually solving those things and learning how to open and use them took the entire rest of the game, but once you had solved it once you could be all smug with your friends and go *click click click* “oh what, you couldn’t figure that out???”.  It really added to that sense of “this is a world that exists but I don’t know enough about it so I must explore and learn.”  Adventure logic such as that in Gemini Rue is more along the lines of “I am in this world and I quite possibly am smarter than this character but I have to walk them through it step by step until they figure this shit out.”  It’s just not as engaging…

As the story progresses, you are instructed in how to engage in combat.  Combat.  In a point and click adventure game.  I was pretty terrified, but I found the system kind of interesting.  You can duck behind cover (by hitting left or right, depending which orientation you are at) and from there you cannot fire.  The enemy is going to pop out and unload their clip at you and then duck for safety as well, so you have to time when to shoot at them.  Additionally, if you just pop out and start firing, your bullets will probably go wildly all over the place and not hit the guy, so you can hold your breath and get that perfect headshot.  The headshot system is sort of “golf game” style power meter thing, where the cursor moves around and the optimal time to fire is when it’s in the green.  Of course, you need to make sure the enemy is out of cover when it’s in the green or you’re shooting at nothing, too.  I was pretty interested in this system and ready to talk about how good it was, but then this happened:


And it happened over and over and over again.  (Also pictured: the screen only half rendering because I have been loading so god damn much.)  Fortunately, there is also an option to change the difficulty of the combat.  I am probably going to be a big pussy and change that, eventually.  I DID finally get the hang of it and got an achievement for a one-shot kill, so that’s something.

I confess to not being very far in this game yet, so I don’t have a lot of commentary on the story.  I have heard nothing but good things about the story though, and what I’ve seen so far makes me excited to dig in and see what happens.  If the gameplay and execution quirks are the worst it has to offer, I think I’m in for a good ride here (although the save bug kind of worries me).  As such, I’m going to go ahead and recommend this now.  If it turns out to suck by the end of the game, I will quietly edit this and destroy all of the evidence.

I suspect it is not going to suck, though.