[Trigger warning: Death, depression, and suicide. The entire game involves gory hallucinations. Or are they?]
In my last review, we followed Fran into a seemingly lovely home situated inside of a well. She finally found Mr. Midnight held hostage by a pair of conjoined twins who needed him for a spell to separate themselves. Fran discovers a hidden spell that eventually eliminated the twins, then they escaped together—only to come across the dark shadow once again. The log bridge beneath them collapsed and instead of falling to her death, Fran found her body missing, as she is now in the form of a tree.
The third chapter is aptly named “Vegetative State.” Fran and Mr. Midnight are graced by the presence of King Ziar of Ithersta, and as she tries to explain her current tree-like state, Ziar tells her that he will easily be able to find the reason by growing a seed from her head. According to the seed, he discovers that she’s a seeker of the truth, apparently a common Bow family trait. He also seems to know her as someone with a passion for life. Is this sequence meant to mimic a near-death experience, and where we go when we fight for dear life? For all we know, she may be unconscious or comatose.
He then tells her that her seed shows a world nobody should see—nobody except for one—and that Fran is not supposed to be here. Could this mean depression or perhaps even delusion? She pleads to go home, but the king says it’s too dangerous to do so. She also wonders if she is now dead. He seems puzzled and does not appear to understand her question. As far as he could tell, she’s very much alive.
The moment Ziar said that, “Death is nothing more than an absence of love,” I had to pause. Something about that line seems to have made me tear up, and thankfully, in a good way. Sometimes I wonder if I had died from my attempts at suicide. Maybe not physically, but emotionally. There have been moments, even days on end where I felt unloved or, in his definition, “dead.” He continues with: “Once you can’t feel loved, you die, even if your body walks.” You know what, Ziar? I agree.
Ziar wonders why the two insist on going home despite having nothing much to return to. Fran believes that returning to her Aunt Grace will keep them safe. She also wants to feel like somebody cares about her and wants to feel at home, which is relatable for most of us I believe, whether or not you struggle with mental illness. Ziar tells her that he will show her the door home, but it’s her own task to walk through it, like having to accept things when moving forward. He is unable to bring her human body back, but a Great Wizard can.
In order for her to gain arms and legs, she meets a furry, flying carp-like creature. Think Appa from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but with a fish tail and arms. His name is Palontras. Like the player, Fran is also quite fascinated, but really, really confused with this whole new world being thrown at us. The beast carries her off and puts her in a stunningly pink pond. The spirit of the Great Valokas created it, according to our fuzzy friend.
When inquiring about the Great Valokas, we learn about the Five Realities. Valokas is the king of the First. He fell a long time ago while at war with the Darkness, so badly that his heart was broken, and he was left alone. Like Fran, he came to Ithersta and his blood made the pond pink. So why did she become a tree? Palontras says that some wishes are so strong they become true and Fran did this in order to survive her fall. She wanted to live and keep her life, despite her body being destroyed in the process. This empty shell was taken on to preserve her memories, like a chrysalis.
This whole prologue of Chapter 3 was a real tear-jerker for me. All this talk of trying to survive or trying to live truly hits close to home. Maybe that’s why I took so long to start writing this review. In some ways, it’s making me confront the things I go through or have gone through.
When Fran traveled to this world, she had opened a door between her reality and that of Ithersta, leaving them vulnerable. Now other beings may enter their reality and their balance is now at stake as The Terrible Black seeks to poison their world. It has happened before, and poor Palontras can’t bear to see history repeating itself.
She mentions Dr. Deern and how he’s “evil” in her eyes, but Palontras feels that perhaps he isn’t bad, just “following the rules.” I suppose that’s true for most mental health professionals, as more exposure and study over mental health care can only make the “rules” better. Fran finally reunites with Mr. Midnight after that extremely long prologue (can you tell?) and they now seek the Great Wizard on Mountain Kotrem.
We are finally able to explore the world of Ithersta with our trusty sidekick by our side. The fruit she ate allows her to hear and speak their language, but not to read it, so Fran might need to seek help in that area. It’s truly strange to experience a bright, colorful universe after two dark, gothic chapters. The Itherstanise are quite friendly and warm in general—a huge contrast to the strict nurses and mean twins we encountered previously.
Soon, I found myself in the longest game of Tic-Tac-Toe (long because it’s my fault, I haven’t played this in a while!) in order to win some money, which I suppose will come in handy later on as there’s a market within walking distance. We also learn that there’s a library only open in Wintertime and that the seasons can change by winding a clock attached to a tree. You’re also unable to see the Great Wizard on Mountain Kotrem if it isn’t Wintertime in their world.
After getting the clock to function again, thanks to the coin I earned from the previous game, we get a little remote control stopwatch-like device that allows you to change seasons nearly anywhere in Ithersta. However, during the fixing process, the seasons flash quickly before us—one of them showing the set of shadowy creatures from back in Chapter 1. I suspect that the world of Ithersta won’t remain bright and colorful for long. We also learn from the clockworker that the name of the goat-faced monster chasing Fran is called Remor.
This remote serves as a replacement for the Duotine in this chapter, except that instead of seeing a universe on and off drugs, you are able to see a bright, colorful spring, warm summer, rainy autumn, and a cold winter. The sound design for each season is quite great—the first two seasons are nice and musical, autumn is quieter with ambient sounds of rain and a soft tune, while winter is pretty much dead silence, which feels unnerving.
When we meet the Great Wizard, he gives us a set of riddles in order to help Fran unlock the door back into her world. Once again, I found myself overthinking the riddles and puzzles, kicking myself when the solutions were simple enough. It’s a bad habit of mine to try and click and combine any and everything, then when it fails, I choose not to revisit the option, even if it makes more sense for the option to become available now. I still do believe that the game is not difficult at all, just don’t overthink it!
Visiting the mountaintop in summer shows us a large, black-feathered creature flying in the sky while in flames. Fran feels afraid at the sight, fearing it’s the shadows coming for her. Mr. Midnight seems to be a bit confused at the thought, which is explained a little later. They then arrive back at the clock and the creature crashes right next to it. Most of the feathers disappear and it turns out to be a very injured Palontras! Asking him what’s wrong brings no response, and he just flies off.
After leaving the area, my suspicions were confirmed. Regardless of what season you had set on the remote, the shadows surround a bloody patch of snow, bearing an image of her dead mother with a threat that “he” (Remor?) will come after her. We encounter even more gory creatures with the each riddle we solve. A group of corpses stand and mock Fran. It is now apparent that only she can see these dark visions, not Mr. Midnight. Could this mean that even in this world she continues to hallucinate? Does this have anything to do with the fact that she does not have any Duotine at present?
Another vision shows a shadow standing on a ledge with what appears to be the decaying bodies of the twins next to it. The shadow strips itself apart, revealing itself as Fran, urging her to jump and kill herself. The last of the visions shows an adult Fran on a throne telling her that Mr. Midnight is a traitor and that her parents are traitors for leaving her. The vision proceeds to gut an image of the cat. This appears to symbolize paranoid thoughts, which is a symptom of some mental illnesses. She asks her cat if she’s truly losing control and whether she should stay in the hospital, but Mr Midnight reassures her that it’s just lies. This feels a bit like the moment some of us feel when we’re suicidal, as if nothing but being put under the watchful eyes of the hospital could save us.
Before Fran leaves Ithersta, the Great Wizard asks why she can’t stay. King Ziar says that Fran is “not ready.” As expected, Fran is confused by the comments, but staying in Ithersta could be equivalent of staying in heaven or nirvana. In other words, Fran isn’t ready to die, or at least, not ready to escape reality. Her own reality, that is. The chapter ends with Fran traveling through a forest with Mr. Midnight via another brief game—one that weirdly reminds me of Flappy Bird for some reason—except you’re being chased by a troll. When she finally escapes, she’s now on the other side of the bridge, back in the harsh reality.
It is interesting to see how this game affects me both emotionally and mentally. I can have a rough day at home, but looking forward to the hidden messages and metaphors in Fran Bow allows me to get up and keep playing, regardless of how I was feeling that day. The game exceeded my expectations greatly in many aspects and I look forward to what Chapter 4 Part I and II have in store.
While my review is far from over, I sincerely hope that this game or any game you’re playing today encourages you to live on.