First posted on 01 September 2008. Last updated on 30 January 2013.
Grim Fandango is a classic that is not only among the greatest adventure games ever made but also among the greatest stories ever told. It is rare for a game to maintain an everlasting eminence such that it can still best more contemporary titles year after year. Indeed, there are only a few games that, no matter how old, can sustain the quality or appeal that goes far beyond what the game industry churns out since then. Grim Fandango is such a game.
Subtle references to popular film noir culture such as Maltese Falcon and Chinatown paves the roads through an adventure of murder, crime, capitalism, greed, love and deception that is the story of Grim Fandango. The game stars Manuel "Manny" Calavera: an ambitious, unsentimental man (or skeleton) who is stuck in the Land of the Dead, a void linked to the real world where souls are tested of their worthiness for the Land of Eternal Rest and are judged for what crimes they have committed in their past lives that have sent them to what lies beneath. Manny works in a dead end job (no pun intended) as a travel agent for clients on the way to eternal rest. Lured by a hefty commission that can seal his own passage for retirement, Manny mistakenly sends the virtuous Miss Mercedes "Meche" Colomar out on her feet alone to face the long, perilous journey in the underworld that can end her life (or rather, afterlife). When Manny realizes the error of his ways, he seeks redemption by facing the same perils to find her (armed with his scythe, wit, and sidekick Glottis, the fluffiest demon you will ever meet), only to be caught in the middle of a sinister plot that aims to send the most evil members of the undead to a paradise they never deserve.
The characters in Grim Fandango are enchanting and almost indisputably likable. Every personality has a different desire, a distinctive philosophy, and a story to tell. The game is accompanied by some of the best voice acting I have come across in a game and dialog that is finely tuned to be ever so witty without droning or feeling underdeveloped. It seems no matter how many items to show or questions to ask, the cast is equipped with a machinegun of puns and gags that never gets boring. The humor is fantastic, just right so that it is playful yet sophisticated enough to impress a player of any age.
What Grim Fandango brings is a greater atmosphere that seems lost in most other adventures. Sometimes, the game demands a need for real urgency from the player, while other times the game allows the player to relax and explore freely. Whatever is brought to the table, the script never misses a beat. There is no mind numbingly protracted story to tell; there is no passiveness and neglect in what you need to know.
The plot in Grim Fandango plays out in 4 separate years, chronicling the aftermaths of both Manny's and his competitor's actions. This differs from most other adventure games where you play out just a slice of a character's life. Grim Fandango has you grow with the characters as if you have known them for life. The story is partially driven by its homage to various films from the noir period as well as classic films such as The Graduate and Casablanca. The game also infuses unusual influences from the Aztec, 1920s' New York City, and a hint of surreal fantasy to create a timeless setting. It reaches between postmodern and mythical, fitting in with the nods to the various pop culture to which the story and dialog play out. The variety of locales in this game is a far cry from the stereotypic haunted mansions, alien spaceships, or ancient tombs seen in so many other ho-hum adventures. From up upon a New York skyscraper, across the paradise port town of Rubacava, through the snowy plains surrounding the last train station, down to the final resting place, LucasArts has taken to the ends of the under earth in creating the unique settings for this game.
The graphical styles and animations in Grim Fandango are simple yet irrepressibly lovable. The game employs a brand new 3D engine called the GrimE engine that supports 3D modeling and is the first adventure game not to use the 2D SCUMM engine that LucasArts has traditionally used for adventure games. Regardless, this is a game shows that sometimes less really is more. All the characters have easily distinguishable facial features which are animated to express each character's mood to great effect. The game escapes from the underdeveloped look of character models in other adventure games where lip movement is nearly nonexistent, yet the characters are not so overplayed that you will ever notice whether the voices are synched or not. In fact, the only criticism to the game's graphics is how static many of the characters are when Manny is not socializing with them. Once Manny interacts with them, however, these characters give out a hell (no pun intended, again) of a performance.
Grim Fandango is released during a time when adventure games are rapidly falling out of fashion. LucasArts attempts to move the genre forward by incorporating a new control scheme in this game. Gone is the stale point and click interface that is synonymous with classic adventure games. In its place is a new interface that goes to the almost bare minimum: arrow keys to move, E to examine, U to use, P to pick up, I for the inventory, and Shift to run. The player also has a choice of camera relative and character relative controls for more freedom. The game even supports the use of a joystick or gamepad. Alas, this new control has a few minor annoyances. The use of camera relative control means that, for every different angle which the game switches to use, the arrow keys leads Manny to another direction that is different from that in the previous angle. Manny also has a tendency to bounce off walls if he runs into them too quickly. With some practice, however, the new control becomes almost second nature.
A handy feature in Grim Fandango which can minimize, albeit not eliminate completely, pixel hunting is Manny's ability to turn his head to look at individual items which he can then examine and interact. However, there is still a danger of missing items if Manny dashes by too quickly and does not have enough time to turn and look around. My advice is not to rush around each location that has not been explored previously.
The puzzles in Grim Fandango can be devilish at times. Because of the game's unique settings (not being based in the real world), the logics for some of the puzzles can become quite obscure to figure out. Most puzzles are inventory based that can keep the player guessing for quite some time, and many puzzles are not the simple "combine this item to that item stuck in the background" variety. Other puzzles will need the player to look around the locations at the most extreme of detail. A particularly notorious puzzle requires the player to notice the tiniest detail in the visual that is only visible on screen for a just a fraction of a second during what otherwise seems like an uninteresting waiting sequence. Unfortunately, unlike other games in which cryptic hints are given within the dialog, Manny and company sometimes seem quite reluctant not to passively mention that they feel they ought to be doing something or paying attention to something else.
Compared to Full Throttle (designer Tim Schafer's previous game) that uses only a rudimentary inventory because of the game's limited scope and the number of items that the player can use at most at any given time, Grim Fandango features an inventory system that is far more complex. This is particularly true for the fairly scoped location of Rubacava, where the amount of items to be carried and what task to be called upon the player can become so extensive to the point of almost overwhelming. Despite this, pretty much all the puzzles in the game are placed in some way to move the story forward and to make the outcome seemingly fair. Many of the puzzles are related to agendas and politics hinted by other characters with whom Manny interacts during his quest. For example, a lower class bee down on his luck and out of work fantasizes how he loves to stand up to the fat cats running the city but cannot figure out how; not too far away, a group of lazy hippies moans how there is no savior alive who is willing to stand up against the same enemy.
The soundtrack in Grim Fandango is among the best I have heard in a game. It deserves a separate kudos of its own. Composed by Peter McConnell (who has also composed the soundtracks for The Curse of Monkey Island and Psychonauts), the music consists of mainly jazz, bebop, and blues, with various influences from traditional Russian, Celtic, Mexican, Spanish, and Indian strings culture. What makes the soundtrack so great is that there is a different track for almost every location, or if not, for each character in the game. For instance, the music gives cues to the player the moment Manny steps into Domino's office that Domino (Manny's rival) is a sleazebag. In fact, I have counted a total of around 60 soundtracks in the game! A few scores are cued to the most important plot scenes; yet, for the majority, the music remains unobtrusive and downbeat, which adventure game soundtracks ought to be.
If you are an avid adventure game fan, there is absolutely no reason for you not to play Grim Fandango. It is an ageless classic that must be experienced at least once, if not for nostalgia then for what the best of the adventure genre can once offer.