Developed and published by Splendidland and available now on PC comes indie JRPG Franken. In Franken you play a hero who is out on a quest to defeat the villainous Hell’s Knight who is ravaging the land, raiding, pillaging, and killing innocent people. It is a dark time, a time of desperation, an age without hope. That is until your hero steps forth to save the day and rid the land of evil once and for all.
Franken is a short game, weighing in with a run time under two hours. But don’t let the length of it put you off. As this particular indie title features some of the best character and monster designs I have seen in a videogame in a long time. And it could well be the funniest and best-written game I have played in 2022 so far. And you know that when your ol’ buddy Chris tells you something is well written that it means something. Of course as brilliant as it is to look at and read I’d be lying if I said that the game was a total slam-dunk as far as the gameplay was concerned.
Franken is available now on Itch.io for Free.
STORY – ONCE UPON A FRANK
Franken takes place in the province of Fentisenark, your typical fantasy realm of wizards, warriors, and monsters who are waiting for passers-by to trigger a random encounter. However, all is thrown into chaos as a sinister warrior known as Hell’s Knight has emerged to ravage the land and assault the good people of the province. To make matters worse for the good people of Fentisenark his arrival was foretold in the Lunar Prophecy, which states that the entire world will soon be thrown into an eternal night. However, all is not lost, as you play the role of a hero who sets out to defeat this evil once and for all.
The best way I can describe the overall scope of Franken’s story is to imagine a typical JRPG style story but hyper-condensed into an hour to two hour-long story. All the story beats, all the character archetypes, and all the moments you’d expect to see there are all present here. But with almost all of them being sent up and made fun of throughout the course of the adventure.
Franken is a very tongue-in-cheek affair. From the opening text crawl, you know that you are in for a wacky adventure. However, I wouldn’t call Franken a satire. While it does poke fun at some of the typical JRPG story beats it doesn’t really explore or deconstruct them as much as it just points at and makes fun of them. This isn’t a criticism, as the jokes (as well as the main story itself) are still impeccably well written.
As I said in the intro Franken is possibly the best-written game that I have reviewed this year. Even from a purely mechanical sense of the word as everything is clear and concise, nothing feels overly written, and the story is paced perfectly. As a whole, the game itself might only take you an hour or two to complete. But those two hours are a lot of fun. And I am sure you’ll find more than a couple of jokes to tickle your fancy along the way.
Franken is written in a way that is often sharply witty and is consistently funny. With every single gag being perfectly timed; no joke goes on for too long, and no joke undermines the story. It is a textbook example of how you should integrate humour into a videogame. However, it isn’t all endless mirth, as there is a more serious story within the title. One that I wasn’t expecting when I started to play Franken for this review.
Without giving too much away said ‘serious story’ is not the kind that radically recontextualises the wider adventure. Nor is it the kind which reveals itself as though to say “Surprise! It was about X all along!” and thereafter reveal the story was an allegory for one thing or another. But, it is every bit as well-placed and well-paced as the humour. And it adds weight and gravitas to the proceedings. It really enhances the experience and shows a level of storytelling flare which makes Franken more than just a gag/meme game as it might appear on first impressions.
GAMEPLAY – SUCH AS IT IS
Franken boils down the turn-based JRPG formula to its absolute most basic form. Every fight is just pressing enter repeatedly until your foe is defeated. And that is it. There is nothing more to learn or discover. You are just tapping one button over and over again and that is all. I’ll be honest with you dear reader, I have often joked that JRPG games are just a case of “Tapping the A button until you win”. And Franken is literally that. I have to admire the sheer audacity of actually doing it. There isn’t much else to really discuss, as there isn’t much else to be had. The controls are good for what they need to be. And outside of battle, there are a couple of puzzles which are easy to complete and it is easy to navigate around the world map.
The battles themselves aren’t random and commence when you walk up to your target and initiate the fight yourself. And, like I say, when you get to the fight all you can do is select Attack and that is it. A quick animation of a sword swinging will play and then repeat until you win. To be blunt, I feel that the gameplay of Franken is just a vehicle for the writing and art of the piece itself. It is a platform to show off the skill and talent of its creator. And to its creator’s credit, there is a great wealth and abundance of that on show. To be fair the title isn’t bad by any stretch or means of the imagination. Just don’t go into it expecting some in-depth gameplay experience.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND – NAME THAT TUNE!
Franken’s soundtrack is very well selected and feels apt for every level and sequence that it is used in. Note I say ‘selected’ and not composed, as the title’s soundtrack is made up seemingly almost exclusively of pre-existing songs and compositions. Something I honestly didn’t realise until I recognised the theme of Blake’s 7 during one of the fights (The piece in question is linked below). There might be a couple of original tracks within the soundtrack but I cannot easily tell either from the credits themselves or the research I have done.
And to be honest this is a bit of a disappointment. So much of the game feels fresh and original that to use this much pre-existing music from TV shows and animes feels like a missed opportunity to make something as unique as the rest of the game. It isn’t a deal breaker. But this might make streaming the game on Twitch or Youtube an issue for some of you. Sure, it is a fine selection of music which sounds better than stock music or some free royalty free track. But it regretfully makes the soundtrack the weakest part of the title. In fairness to the developer, they actually credited the original artists in the end credits. Which some indie devs I have come across over the years (and even some studios to be frank) haven’t.
Franken is a master class on pixel art character design. The game features some really innovative and beautifully designed monsters. And with so many crossing your path there is this constant buzz of excitement to see how the crude overworld sprite will be translated to their battle version. And as one would expect with the tone of the game there are a few intentionally goofy and silly ones which are always fun to see. Given the retro feel to the overworld, I was expecting the monster designs to follow a similar path. But no, Franken is a treat to the eyes with its monster design and this adds a world of enjoyment to my play-through for the review.
The monster designs brim with personality and creative flare. It is almost worth playing through just to see what they all look like. The overworld sprites and world design might look a little too crude for some. Though it is intentional; the design philosophy seems to be to recreate the look of classic JRPGs. And Franken is a fine translation and interpretation of that. And I’m sure there are a wealth of references to other series which will likely have flown over my head. But even if they have there is a bounty of brilliant writing, art, and character designs to enjoy.