Review by Gregg B
Released October 30th, 1998
Available for Windows
Time Played Completed
“How you gauge the score above depends entirely on what you look for in an adventure game. If you couldn’t care less about awkward controls, a cumbersome interface and a plethora of illogical puzzle solutions then Grim Fandango rightly deserves your attention — it’s nigh on perfect in every other way. For me though, these flaws couldn’t be overlooked and irretrievably bogged down the whole experience, making me a very sad panda.”
Note: this game is Revisited. You can find earlier reviews of the same game by checking out the links at the bottom!
A Grim Tale
I started Grim Fandango with Lewis and our mum shortly after it was released nearly thirteen years ago, but after getting stuck in the Petrified Forest we stagnated and Lewis finished it on his own sometime later. Since then it’s been an itch I’ve wanted to scratch, and with the many lists over the years ranking it up there with some of the greatest games ever made I was determined to conclude Manny’s tale at some point. That point came a couple of months ago after my girlfriend Hailey said she’d join me in a fresh playthrough. I seem to remember telling her that at the very least she’d enjoy the premise, the writing and the art direction in the same way she did with Psychonauts. Thankfully, on those fronts I was correct. Unfortunately as the game wore on it became painfully clear that neither of us were particularly enjoying the overall experience.
You play as Manny Calavera, a travel agent at the Department of Death who ushers souls of the recently deceased into the Land of the Dead, hopefully providing them with a travel package to help them on their four year journey to their final destination, the Ninth Underworld. The available travel packages depend entirely on how well a given soul lived their former life; so a person of questionable moral fibre may have to take the long road and walk it, while those with a clean slate have the opportunity to travel on the express Number Nine train, which cuts the journey across the Land of the Dead down to four luxurious minutes. Unfortunately for Manny, he seems to be getting all the good-for-nothing low-lifes who are incapable of providing him with a decent enough commission to pay off his debts, with that in mind his first task is to get some better leads. No sooner does Manny pick up a virtuous soul by the name of Mercedes Colomar who is eligible for a trip on the Number Nine, he finds that his system is incapable of giving her a ‘Double-N’ ticket. While he tries to get to the bottom of this problem she leaves to start her long and dangerous trip to the Ninth Underworld on foot…
Grim Fandango is separated into four parts, each one representing a different year in Manny’s journey through the Land of the Dead. These parts are usually played out at a particular location with a specific overall objective. The first year is one of two halves; the former takes place in El Marrow and is home to some of the best puzzles and solutions in the game — they’re clear, logical and at times facepalmingly clever. The latter half is the arse-end of the first year and takes place in the Petrified Forest outside El Marrow, and somehow manages to squeeze in more nonsense per square pixel than perhaps any other part in the game. It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.
There’s a daft puzzle involving a spinning-tree-thing with leads trailing across the floor to a control panel and a wheel barrow full of rocks that in some way interacts with the leads causing the spinning-tree-thing to slow down and then there’re these fork things that need to be aligned and, well, I still have no idea. In the end we managed to fudge it somehow.
Just around the corner from this slice of bat-shit insanity is a gate that requires unlocking to allow you to progress. After a divisive but ultimately logical puzzle involving a… unique signpost, you come across the key conveniently hung on a post in the middle of the forest. Walking off of this screen leads you directly to the gate, but perversely not the other way around. To put it another way: the key is off-screen right next to the gate but you’re not allowed to walk in that direction because… well, uh, I suppose that would put the signpost puzzle out of a job.
The madness doesn’t end there though. Behind the gate comes the attack of the fire beavers. These flaming buck-toothed beasts reside in a pool of tar that is breached by a solid dam of bones which provides an escape route out of the forest. When you attempt to traverse the bone dam the beavers jump out of the tar and chase Manny off-screen, so you’ve got to get rid of them or keep them back somehow. The solution to this puzzle involves hiding under a nearby precipice, luring the beavers over the edge into the tar by using bones as bait, and blasting them in mid-air with a fire extinguisher found earlier on in El Marrow. I’m presuming that by extinguishing their flaming hides they can’t sear through the tar, so they end up getting trapped as they plop into it. I suppose it’s a logical enough theory, but it’s let down by the fact that if you walk out onto the dam and extinguish the suckers as they approach Manny, they slope off back into their tar pool and keep coming back anyway until you carry out the aforementioned solution; which is exactly the same thing but with a totally different result. It’s just pure nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong, Grim Fandango has its fair share of smart, well thought out solutions, but for every one of those it seems there’s a stinker to spoil the show. The examples above are probably in the first couple of hours of the game (depending on how quick you are), but to further flesh out my point I’ve briefly listed a few more below off the top of my head for those who’ve already played it through and for those who don’t intend to: (spoilers!)
- Taking Nick Virago’s cigarette case to customs and having it detonated as a potential bomb threat just to open it up.
- Getting Manny’s business closed down so that Glottis no longer has the funds to continue gambling at the cat races.
- Alternating two anchors on either side of a ship in order to hook them onto each other, then pulling their chains back and forth to ‘chew’ the hull in two.
- Using the Bust-All on the safe door lock to expose the locking mechanism but having to additionally use Manny’s scythe on it due to the safe wheel being incapable of opening the door on its own.
- Having to give Glottis some “Coffin Shooter” that causes him to run off, consume a whole keg of it, come back and throw up all over the garage floor (thus submerging the precarious dominoes set to trigger the explosives rigged to his car — as if that wouldn’t topple them anyway!), then having to freeze the puke with a drop of liquid nitrogen allowing you to walk over to the bomb and disarm it.
- Hanging up a mug full of packing foam in the demons’ kitchen so that when you put a rag doused in gasoline into the toaster next to it (as you do) it ignites and the demons come running in to realise that the packing foam is a viable fuel to help blast Glottis back to full health.
- Having to pull some sort of sticky ball off a shop doorbell so that when it rings it snaps Bowsley out of his hysterical stupour.
Some of these solutions were only discovered because we either looked at a walkthrough or were idly and blindly trying things out. For instance, we only found out the mug solution because, well, mugs can be hung on mug racks can’t they? That was the only shred of logic underpinning the entire thing. Which begs the question: where’s the fun in just fudging your way through a game like this? It’s difficult to pat yourself on the back when your actions yield entirely unpredictable results. “Oh look! …uh, yay?”
Grim Fandango differs most notably from previous LucasArts’ adventures in two distinctive ways. Firstly, point and click is out the window in favour of a direct control system via a gamepad, joystick or keyboard. There are two methods in which to control Manny: character-relative handles like the early Resident Evil games where Manny can be rotated using left and right, and moved forwards or backwards by pressing up or down; camera-relative handles like Final Fantasy VII for example, where movement is determined by the camera angle, so up always moves Manny up on the screen, right always moves him right etc. Secondly, seeing as there isn’t a mouse pointer in which to search the game world and select things with, there’re no text overlays or icons to speak of other than the dialogue options during conversations. Instead, Manny looks at points of interest when he passes them by, and the inventory is handled through a screen which shows him searching through his jacket, revealing each object individually. Using an object is as simple as ‘equipping’ it and interacting with something that Manny is looking at.
This seamless integration of the interface and doing away with the usual on-screen fluff helps tremendously in keeping the cinematic feel of the game — it’s refreshing, elegant and aesthetically pleasing. The replacement of the humble point and click controls is a bold move too and one that hints at a team trying to shake off the fusty traditions of a dying genre; trying to make an adventure game that’s more accessible and one that could work on a console. Unfortunately, the utility and implementation of both of these changes — changes made with the best of intentions — left me cold. Manny handles like a bar of soap slipping and sliding off of the environment unpredictably. The problem is that obstacles don’t stop Manny, they just redirect him, so hitting a doorway or staircase at the wrong angle or clipping a piece of furniture often sends him running off in some other direction. The bar area of Casino Calavera felt like a mini room-escape game at times thanks to all the tables and chairs everywhere as well as the unhelpfully low (but rather cool) camera angle. Turning, too, is a slow and irksome task somewhat alleviated by pressing the run key or switching from character to camera-relative control, but doing that only makes directional movement a massive pain in arse. I’ve used these control systems before in other games circa ‘98 and aside from the camera-relative issue of walking on to one screen and immediately leaving it because of the camera angle switching, I’ve had few problems with them, if any.
Exploring the environment with Manny only being able to recognise certain things when he’s in close proximity to them — as opposed to sweeping the screen with a mouse pointer — is a very neat idea. Unfortunately, getting Manny to look in the right direction, specifically at the right object or person, can be a hit and miss affair, a problem only exacerbated when the camera is some distance away and his head movements become minuscule. On a couple of occasions Hailey and I attempted certain solutions and were given the usual ‘that doesn’t work’ sort of remark only to find an hour or so later, after consulting a walkthrough, that our solution was indeed correct but Manny had simply been looking at something else when we hit the use key. It’s one thing to be stuck for long periods of time not knowing what you’ve got to do to progress, but another thing to try the correct solution and it simply not register because of an inept interface. Very annoying.
The inventory system too, as super slick as it is, only becomes more unwieldy with each new item you pick up. Thankfully it’s rare to be carrying more than five or six items at a time, but nevertheless cycling through each one of them individually — in a game where using items is central to your progress — feels much more of a hindrance than it really should be.
The irony in all this, is that in making the interface practically invisible it has become glaringly more apparent because of how unwieldy it is when compared to a humble — but tried and true — point and click interface. It simply doesn’t feel as fit for purpose. I can’t help but think of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, where LucasArts scaled back the graphical user interface, ridding the screen of Give, Pick Up, Use etc., and in doing so made a steaming mess of the original’s point and click controls — if it ain’t broke….
I feel like I’m being pedantic here or too utilitarian, but even by the end of Grim Fandango I still felt like the controls and interface were getting in my way rather than helping me out and just letting me get on with it. They reminded me of just how much I missed indirect character control, automatic pathfinding, the precision of a mouse pointer, and an inventory that could be browsed in a blink.
Since I started writing this review, Hailey and I have begun playing Heavy Rain. The two of us (as well as my brother) noted that it has exactly the same control system as Grim Fandango as well as a very similar interface, the only differences being that a) the character movement is camera relative (whether you like it or not), b) you can manually direct the character’s head/focus and c) with the game being more of an action adventure there’s no inventory screen. Heavy Rain currently has me enthralled and so far I’ve had only a few issues with the controls, so what makes them different? Firstly the characters collide with the environment predictably so there’s no slipping around and careering off in the wrong direction. Secondly, because looking at points of interest isn’t automatic like in Grim Fandango, there’s more finesse when scouting the environments and additionally you can do a full about-turn if you try looking behind you. It’s unfair to compare a thirteen year old game to something so modern but I thought it was worth bringing up because it’s clear that Tim Schafer and co. were on to something with Grim Fandango’s controls and interface, I just wish they’d been implemented better.
This Little Light of Mine
Aside from the above, there’s little else I can criticise about Grim Fandango. It still looks and sounds fantastic; the pre-rendered Art Deco and Art Nouveau environments look sublime, the Mexican calaca figurine inspired character designs are a revelation, the film noir direction is as sexy as ever, and the brilliant, brilliant soundtrack perfectly suits the feel of the game and transitions seamlessly as you explore the Land of the Dead. The script and voice acting is as characteristically sharp and consistent as we’ve come to expect from a LucasArts adventure, and the premise of the game is quite frankly pure genius and simply irresistible. Everything surrounding the gameplay itself is nigh on perfect and hasn’t aged one bit (and with the exception of the character models I can’t see it ever doing so either).
The excellent story did confuse me and Hailey a few times, mainly due to us doing certain things in a different order to what the game expected, so for instance, characters we hadn’t met yet would be spoken about as if we’d already encountered them — this occurred a few times when we arrived in Ruba Cava (the main location in the second year and the place where the game really opens up). One particular character that we were supposed to have met early on didn’t appear until the end of the second year because, unbeknown to us at the time, we had prematurely solved a certain puzzle causing him to leave earlier than expected.
When we finished Grim Fandango and the credits began to roll Hailey said something along the lines of “Finally, it’s over”, and I couldn’t have agreed more. At the end of the day, we just weren’t having fun working out the bizarre solutions, and the story alone could only carry us so far. Some of the most enjoyable moments in Grim Fandango were spent exploring and talking to the Land of the Dead’s zany denizens, but unfortunately these activities began to thin out as the game wore on. The annoying thing is, it all started off so well but after the Petrified Forest the two of us became very wary of the puzzle solutions to the extent that whenever we got stuck we were unsure whether it was us or the game being dumb. Consequently, a walkthrough was kept open in my browser throughout the latter half of the game just in case, which sort of defeats the purpose of playing really.
Grim Fandango represents exactly the sort of off-the-wall adventure game I don’t think I can handle anymore. I simply don’t have the time or the patience to be second guessing a developer’s crazy-ass abstract solutions — and that’s before factoring in the controls and interface. It was only several years ago that I played Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky (again, a game that I started back in the day but never got round to finishing) and I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, presumably because the puzzle solutions were altogether more determinable and straight forward, not to mention the interface and controls were simple and unobtrusive. The troubling thing is, Day of the Tentacle was one of my favourite adventure games when I played it many moons ago and if I remember rightly it was stark raving mad. Could this Gregg stomach that now? And could that Gregg have enjoyed Grim Fandango? I don’t know, but I’m reluctant to revisit Day of the Tentacle if it makes me react like this again.
REVISITED: If all that hurt too much, here’s Jen’s review.
Email the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org