Framed Collection (Switch) review: Picaresque Perfect

Framed and Framed 2, originally released for mobile in 2014 and 2017 respectively, are two of the most unique, clever puzzle games to come out in the last few years. They start with a simple concept–you face to rearrange panels in a comic so that each scene plays out as it should–and then build those into some truly creative, brain-bending puzzles. That’s polished off with a gorgeous high-contrast art style and minimalist noir getaway narrative, turning the games into two of the most stylish and compelling in a generation.

The Framed Collection brings both games to Switch (and Steam) in one neat bundle. There isn’t much new here to entice people dive already played them on mobile, but if you’re new to the world of Framed, like I was, then this collection is a great way to jump in.

Each game tells a wordless noir story about a getaway, though many of the details are yours to fill in. In each case, you’re guiding a pair of protagonists as they flee, briefcase in hand, from the police but the rest is up to your imagination. Are they underdog heroes working against a corrupt police state? Charming picaresque antiheroes in the aftermath of a Robin Hood heist? Villains we were never meant to sympathize with in the first place?

That’s not to say that the stories are bland or uninteresting. Quite the opposite: each game is a series of daring escapes and dramatic interpersonal confrontations, but it’s left to you to contextualise all those moments and characters in your own subjective way. For a medium known for its interactivity, video games tend to rely on a very passive form of narrative; Framed wants to involve you in the telling

This is particularly true of the first game. The protagonists are a pair of morally ambiguous escapees seemingly working together in a marriage of convenience, hunted by cops and a mustachioed antagonist—a detective? A rival? A boss they betrayed? There’s little to push you one way or another.

By contrast, Framed 2‘s central rogue is accompanied by a young child, who inherently carries an air of innocence. She’s introduced as a stowaway, suggesting that she’s fleeing some sort of awful situation rather than being a young jewel thief on the run, and her clumsy, awkward animations inspire a certain level of sympathy. None of this is a bad thing of course—it easily makes Framed 2 the more emotive of the two—but it comes at the cost of some of that minimalist charm.

The stories play out through the puzzles themselves. Each one is a comic book scene, but with the panels arranged in such a way that would bring the tale to a premature end—usually with the protagonist staring down the barrel of a cop’s gun, or falling to their doom. But by rearranging those same panels, you facilitate a successful escape, letting our rogueish heroes live and reach the next phase of their escape.

Here’s a very early exampled from Framed. Set in a hallway of what is presumably an apartment building, the scene is made up of six panels:

  • Panel 1 shows an empty hallway, and is where this level starts (it can’t be moved)
  • Panel 2 is home to a cop, whose back is facing a door
  • Panel 3 has a similar door, but no guard
  • Panel 4 has two doors, with another cop standing with his back towards them
  • Panel 5 is another unguarded single door
  • and finally, panel 6 has another door beside some stairs, leading to the exit (this also can’t be moved).

If you just let the scene play out as it is, the protagonist runs straight into the cop in panel 2, failing this “level” right away. But by swapping panels 2 and 3, he can slip into the unguarded door before emerging from the similar door behind the cop and knocking that cop out with his briefcase. Running straight into panel 4 from that would similarly lead to an arrest, but swapping panels 4 and 5 creates a smooth route to the exit: into an unguarded door, out the next door behind the cop, sneak past to the second door in that same panel, and out the door by the stairs.

That’s a simple example, but it gives you an idea of how puzzles work in Framed and Framed 2. As each game moves along, the challenges get more complex and creative, and new wrinkles are mixed in—like panels that can rotated, affecting how the protagonist(s) enter and exit, or those that can be moved and reused even while a scene is in motion.

Put simply, it’s genius, in both concept and execution. We’ve seen “fill in the blanks”-type motion comic puzzles in games before (Danganronpa comes to mind), but Framed‘s approach to such an idea is wholly unique, and the puzzles are incredibly satisfying as a result. On top of that, they’re a perfect vehicle for the stories that the games tell, bringing each scene to life in a captivating way while putting you in the director’s chair to some extent.

As I said right at the start, Framed and Framed 2 are two of the most brilliant puzzle games we’ve seen in a long time. The mobile versions are still well worth a look, but if you’ve yet to play them, the Framed Collection is the best way to do so.

Essential


Framed Collection is developed and published by Loveshack. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC. Framed and Framed 2 are available individually for Android and iOS.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.