Framed is standing right on the edge between a good review and a bad review, especially considering just how much it has in common with Monument Valley (which I gave a negative review to). Unique twist on the puzzle genre? Check. Silent protagonist/s and vague plot? Check. Around an hour long or shorter? Check. Minimal actual gameplay? Again, check. Where Monument Valley managed to lack any kind of internal consistency, however, Framed at least stays clear of its own feet and manages to be just barely worth recommending despite its aforementioned short length and vagueness. It’s only recommended on the Android platform, however, because it’s inexplicably more expensive on Apple’s app store, and 5 dollars is just way too much to ask for something so short.
A kind of sort of maybe story-ish thing
Much like when I reviewed Monument Valley, this review will probably be a bit less text-heavy than most game reviews because of how short the game is. There’s no replay value, nor is there anything to be explored or found, and even the game mechanics are simplistic enough to explain without necessitating a longer write-up. Let’s start with the story, though, which is something that this game only technically has. Upon starting Framed, you get a short scene where a woman hands a man a letter. After that, he grabs a briefcase and lugs it around through several levels, avoiding police officers all the while. Partway through the game, the aforementioned woman appears again and becomes the central character as she carries the briefcase around while dodging police. A few screens here and there give you control of a mustached guy who’s also dodging police, but doesn’t seem to be affiliated with the first two characters despite also wanting the briefcase. If this seems vague, it’s only because the game is—there’s not a single word of dialogue to be found in Framed, and so you’re left with nothing but vague actions to determine the intent and motivations behind them. If you’re looking for actual reasons behind the things that are happening, you’re barking up the wrong tree; the characters exist to play out something approximating a story, but how they’re all tied together is never explored, nor are the contents of the briefcase or the reason why the police are after all three of the characters.
Change the frames, change the outcome, but only in one way
If you browse the game’s website or the stores selling it, you’re bound to see something about how you can rearrange the frames to change the outcome. I found this to be misleading because it makes it sound like the game allows for different endings based on how you solve the puzzles. That’s not accurate, though, because each scene originally plays out in a way where your character gets caught or killed, and changing the order of events only gives you the power to avoid those fates. Most puzzles only have a single solution, anyway, so this is an entirely linear game. You’re really only changing the outcome in the same sense that Mario’s ability to jump changes the outcome by allowing him to not fall into a pit and die every time you play the game. It’s technically true, but definitely a bit misleading.
This is a game about the gameplay
The meat of this game is the puzzles, which are barely puzzles at first, but that gradually become more complex as you play. Basically, the game plays out through scenes where one of the three main characters is caught or killed by police, and you’re given the ability to rearrange the order of the frames to avoid this. Sometimes the way to do this is clear, such as when you move a panel with a ladder to be before a panel with an officer so that the character can run above them and not be caught. Other times, the solution is obscure, like when you have to put a table panel early in the scene so that the character trips over it and knocks it over, providing cover against a hail of bullets let loose in their direction. It’s not always intuitive, but you quickly start to pick up on the way things work. For example, it didn’t take long to piece together that the way the character leaves the previous panel is how they’ll enter the next one. This can (and often must) be leveraged in order to enter a well-guarded panel behind police.
Spinning and reusable panels
Toward the middle and end of the game, you’re given a few new tricks that you’re required to use in order to make it past later scenes. The first is spinning panels, which can be used to change whether a panel sends your character upstairs or downstairs, as well as changing the direction police are looking so that they can sneak behind them. Later, you’re given the ability to reuse panels, which means dragging panels around while the scene plays in order to avoid enemies. This is at its most interesting when frames change ever so slightly for the character’s presence the first time they run through them, such as when the woman knocks over a luggage rack and can then climb the staircase of luggage she accidentally created when you send her through that frame again. This adds a timing element to the later gameplay, though, which may be a turn-off for some who just want a puzzle game and aren’t comfortable having to quickly respond to the action as the scene changes.
Wait, how does the character react to this frame?
This question is the closest thing I had to a problem with Framed’s gameplay, as it wasn’t always clear how the character would respond to the elements of each scene. Will they take the stairs, or walk past them? Will they run past that thing, or knock it down on their way through? A lot of the time, I had no way of knowing apart from letting the character run through and have things end badly for them, and a few frames played out in a way that I had no way of expecting (on several occasions, one character opens a door on a moving train right next to a police officer, which one would think would pique his interest or alert him, but doesn’t). This felt a bit awkward and almost like padding at a certain point, which is sad given the fact that even one’s first playthrough of Framed is unlikely to last longer than an hour.
Other irritations include the save system, which is automatic and saves after each scene is completed. There’s no menu, so if you want to revisit a scene, you have to play through the entire game to get to it. Finishing the game restarts it from the beginning, as well, and it really doesn’t seem like it would have taken a monumental effort to allow players to replay certain scenes at will. Knowing that the game restarts from the beginning when you finish it can be incredibly confusing, as well, since the last few levels are nearly identical to the early levels (but with certain elements changed to make them a little more challenging). The game’s not over until you see credits, basically, and this isn’t immediately obvious since surprisingly few mobile puzzle games actually have credits once you’ve completed them. Yes, I deleted the game data like an idiot my first time around—in my defense, I was trying to figure out the story, not realizing that it was merely window dressing—and had to play through it again. The final irritation is the “reset” button at the top-left of the screen. It’s handy if you move the frames all around and can’t remember what was originally where, but I also experienced a few moments where my finger lightly grazed that area of the screen and my puzzle solution was reset. This managed to happen enough times to become annoying.
Noir graphics and simultaneous tracks
Looking at my screenshots, Framed’s graphics appear to be pre-rendered video with some ugly compression artifacts. However, I never noticed this while playing, so it’s unlikely to show up except in screenshots. The animation is remarkably smooth, and the world is noir and stylish in the best of ways, so I really have no complaints about the graphics. The music is also a stylish blend of jazz and drums, and most of the instrumentation disappears when you’re moving frames around and the action is paused, only to pop back up in full force without the soundtrack starting over again. I’ve really come to like games that have two different versions of the same song playing at the same time (see my notes about Fire Emblem: Awakening’s soundtrack), with one or the other taking precedence based on what you’re doing. That said, the soundtrack manages to wear out its welcome toward the end by being a bit too stylistically repetitive, but only barely because of how short the game is.