Hi there! This is Sarkygit from Gigagamers.com with a review of the classic Lucasarts adventure game, Grim Fandango. This was originally going to be a video review,but due to technical difficulties it is now a written one, apologies for the problems with page formatting, it was originally written in Notepad. Enjoy!
Grim Fandango was written and designed by adventure game veteran Tim Schafer, known for such gems as Psychonauts and The Day of the Tentacle. The game was an attempt to revitalise the adventure gaming genre, at this point in sharp decline. Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception the game received at time of release, the game sold badly, and was considered a commercial failure, contributing to the closure of Lucasart’s adventure gaming wing and dooming the company to forever milk the Star Wars cow.
The game stars Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a dead soul working off his sins in life by selling travel packages to those souls who led a good life and are eligible for high-speed transport to the next stage of the afterlife. Manny has had a streak of poor luck however, and gets nothing but dead-beat clients, dooming him to work in the Department of Death for eternity, selling walking sticks and coffins full of packing material to hoods and losers. After attempting to steal a client from his suspciously successful colleague, “Dean Domino”, Manny is thrown into a story of corruption and crime spanning 4 in-game years. The story is, for lack of a better word, “Schafer-esque”. Taking fantastical characters and concepts and framing them in a mundane setting, (or vice-versa) is somewhat of a hallmark of Schafer’s work (see also Psychonauts). Not a lot more I can say about the story without giving things away, but rest-assured that the story is engaging and the dialogue is both clever and genuinally funny.
Grim Fandango is visually stunning, and continues to be influential in adventure game design even today. The game features over 50 three-dimensional character models and over 90 pre-rendered sets. Unlike most adventure games of the time, the sets were rendered using 3D models, this allowed dramatic changes in angle and lighting – a method that’s executed fantastically well. The game’s engine, the “GrimE” engine, was adapted from the “Sith” engine used in Jedi Knight 2 – substantial changes were made to allow Manny’s head to move seperately from his body. Sounds like a small thing, but it’s essential in a game like this with no UI, visible mouse cursor or on-screen text or visual hints. The engine also allows more complex choreography with the character models, really bringing the characters to life. What really sets this game apart however, is the design. Based on the Mexican Day of the Dead “Calaca” figures, the character models are varied and emotionally dynamic (a difficult feat considering that most of the characters are skeletons). The sets, inspired by film-noir, are characterful and great to look at – with some truly top notch lighting and cinematography. Obviously modern games are way ahead of this one technologically – however I still prefer the all-over visuals of this game over many new, more well-funded titles. Grim Fandango proves that you don’t need to have top-grade technology or funding to be visually stunning.
So, the game is great to look at, yes. But how is it as a game? Well, the first thing to know about is that despite new design and gameplay elements, Grim Fandango is an adventure game to it’s core; and thus comes with the standard positives and negatives indicative of the genre. When stuck, you will end up rubbing your inventory all over the sets and characters looking for a solution. This shoudn’t happen too much however – the puzzles, although often quite tricky, are nearly always logically based with solutions that make sense. If ever you’re forced to check an online FAQ (like I was) you’ll immediately facepalm for not thinking of something so apparently “obvious”. This is always a good sign in an adventure game. When replaying Fandango to get footage for this review, I had no problem doing all the puzzles again – the solutions are obvious and memorable. Like most adventure games though, Grim Fandango has almost no replayability. The puzzles are often nonlinear – different puzzles in an area can be done in any order, but there’s no particular reason to do so as it does not affect the outcome of the story at all. The only reason to replay the game is to experience it again, in the same way one re-watches a favourite film or re-reads a favourite book.
The complete lack of a UI was an interesting design choice. It does create a marginally more immersive gaming experience than with most adventure games, but it does raise it’s own problems. The only way to target one specific object in the environment is to move Manny around until he turns his head to look at it, then press the “use” key. Sounds easy enough, but this becomes frustrating when you’re forced to interact with objects clustered together, or to interact with something while the camera is taking a long shot, where you can’t see Manny’s head very well. This all contributes to the fact that Grim Fandango has possibly the WORST INVENTORY IN ANY ADVENTURE GAME. To access your items, you have to go into this close up view of Manny’s bottomless jacket pocket, and scroll through the items. This may seem fine early on, when you have maybe 3 or 4 items in your inventory, but later on in the game this is really going to annoy you. To be fair, this would be a lot worse if there was an item combination mechanic – but there isn’t, thankfully. To give credit where it’s due, Grim Fandango’s minimalist approach has heavily influenced modern adventure games – notably the Telltale Games Sam and Max titles – where the UI is as unintrusive as possible. The controls are pretty awful. You press the right and left movement keys to rotate Manny around in a strange tippy-toe motion, then forward and back to move him. The rotation is aggravatingly slow and inprecise however, making getting around occassionally extremely irritating. Entering doors and lifts is a paticularly annoying recurring problem.
Overall, this game is a complete classic. The occassional recurring technical problem is, for the most part, forgotten as you become more and more drawn in to this Fandango’s great atmosphere and likable characters. If you want to try this blast from this past, you’d be best off finding a download or torrent online, as you’ll have little luck getting a physical copy to work. To run on modern computers you’ll need several patches and fan-fixes – and there is one particular moment where the speed of modern processors make a puzzle uncompletable. Thankfully, fan websites have downloadable save games from almost every point in the story, so you can easily skip this bit.
I hope you enjoyed the review. Stay tuned for my next article planned in conjunction with Adam Thomas: Sort of Like Chess: A Look at Historical Wargaming!