1997’s Grim Fandango is a graphic adventure by Lucas Arts, the most trusted name in graphic adventures. This game was met with heaps of awards and critical acclaim, but was also met with poor sales. This is too bad, because Grim Fandango is easily the most stylish video game I’ve ever played, one whose style will always remain in my memory.
Grim Fandango’s story takes place in the land of the dead. All denizens are either demons, or skeletons of departed humans. Our protagonist, Manny Calavera, works as a DOD (Department of the Dead) travel agent/grim reaper in the town of El Marrow. Based on how good or bad you were in life, your dead self can qualify for various travel packages to help you on your four year journey to the ninth underworld. Such travel packages can include having a sports car or an ocean cruise, or the best of all- a ticket on the #9 express train that reduces your journey time from four years to four minutes.
Unfortunately for Manny, he seems to be stuck with all the deadbeat clients who only qualify for walking sticks or travel by coffin. After being yelled at by his boss to get a premium client or get fired, Manny underhandedly intercepts a premium client from his rival, Domino, and vandalizes some company property in the process. Unfortunately, something’s wrong with Manny’s computer terminal and he can’t seem to find a #9 ticket for his deserving client, so she ends up leaving for her long walk. Thanks to this mess, Manny’s fired and locked in the parking garage, where he meets Salvador, leader of a rebel faction who, like Manny, think there is something fishy with the DOD.
From that point on, Manny is thrust on a four-year journey to find the lost client (Mercedes Colomar) and uncover the DOD scandal.
The story isn’t overly complex and is quite easy to follow. But it is entertaining throughout its course. The story isn’t overly serious and has quite a bit of comic value. The game exudes a dry sense of humor, which I absolutely love. If it’s one thing I can’t stand it’s ham-handed comedy writing. Grim Fandango avoids this and thus is quite enjoyable.
I cannot comment on the story without commenting on its cast. Grim Fandango has a very colorful cast. None have the kind of extensive development you find in a console RPG, but all have their own personalities and motivations for doing what they do. Manny is a terrific lead to play: his sarcastic dry wit is quite entertaining. My favorite character was Glottis, Manny’s sidekick. Glottis is a big orange demon
mechanic with a penchant for turning any form of transportation into a hot rod. He’s an entertaining character and key to the most humorous moments in the game.
Every line of dialogue in the game is voiced, and the voice acting is very well done. Tony Plana (of Resurrection Blvd. fame) was terrific as Manny. And the rest of the voice actors really sounded like they were having fun with their roles. None of it sounded flat or overacted; it all sounded natural. Kudos to Lucas Arts for hiring good voice talent.
I simply cannot get over the graphics. From a technical standpoint, they are nothing special. It’s 3D polygon characters on prerendered backdrops. Compared to the polygon pushing games of today, Grim Fandango’s character models are noticeably blocky. But that does not matter, because of the character design, particularly in the faces and facial animation. See, the majority of the characters are skeletons, but these skeletons have a cartoony look to them. Their heads and faces have exaggerated features and display emotions as only animated characters can. The female characters display a beauty and sexiness that’s eerily bizarre. Skeletons, sexy? Only in Grim Fandango. The villains look menacing and sinister. This kind of animation style is one I’ve never seen used before and I’d love to see it used in a cartoon series one day. The demons, such as Glottis, don’t have quite as creative character designs, but they are comical to look at.
For some cutscenes the game switches to FMV, and it’s smoothly integrated with the non-FMV segments. The FMV models look just like the in-game character models, blockiness and all. In fact, the only reason I could tell it was FMV was when I heard my CD-ROM drive whine. A great feature Grim Fandango has is that you can skip FMV scenes with the touch of a button.
Speaking of touching buttons, you’ll be doing a lot in this game. Unlike most graphic adventures, Grim Fandango does not use a point-and-click mouse interface. Instead, you use your keyboard to do everything. Certain hotkeys do certain things such as pressing the ‘I’ key to access your inventory or pressing the ‘enter’ key to use an item or talk to someone.
As one can expect, the arrow keys control Manny’s movements. However, the control takes some getting used to. The up arrow moves him forward, the down
arrow moves him backward, and the left and right arrow keys make him turn in those directions. Holding down the shift key in conjunction with the up arrow makes
him run. This ‘character relative’ control can be tricky at first, especially for those used to control schemes like those in the PlayStation Final Fantasy games where pressing right moves the character to the right.
However, Manny’s response to button input is quick and fluid. The only time the control presents problems is when you’re faced with puzzles that require timing, such as throwing a sheet over someone and quickly grabbing an item elsewhere before the person pushes the sheet off. Thankfully, the timing puzzles occur mostly later in the game after you’ve gotten used to the controls.
So in order to discover things, you need to walk Manny around each environment thoroughly. If there is something of interest, he will tilt his head signaling you to examine what he’s looking at, pick it up, or use it. To encourage exploration, Manny cannot ‘die.’ You won’t get any kind of cheap Game Over. Even if you did something incorrect in your dialogues with characters or with certain puzzles, you can always try again. You can never screw up so bad or get so stuck that you need to restart the game from the beginning.
The inventory is simpler than that used in many adventure games. In many adventure games, you can take an item in your inventory and combine it with other items in your inventory. This element is not present in Grim Fandango. The few times you do combine items is done on the field.
Does all this make Grim Fandango an easy game? No, quite the contrary; just like RPGs have their focus on battles, graphic adventures focus on brain crunching puzzles. Grim Fandango is not a game for a novice adventurer, such as myself. From beginning to end, the puzzles were quite challenging to me. The game started out tough and got even tougher as I went along. Some required leaps of logic I’m not used to making, but none seemed out of place within the story. All were necessary in order for the story to proceed smoothly.
A common complaint about graphic adventures arises when they have puzzles that integrate poorly with the storyline. Thankfully, Grim Fandango doesn’t have
that. After completing certain puzzles, I really felt like I pulled off a cagey maneuver.
If Grim Fandango has any flaws at all, they’re minor. One flaw is the length: if you don’t count the many failed and repeated attempts at the puzzles, then the storyline is not very long, but it is very satisfying at the end. The puzzles, particularly the crane puzzle in Year 3, will keep your brain working for hours. You won’t rest till you get through each sticky situation you find yourself in, just to see what happens next.
Another flaw is in the soundtrack. Quite frankly, I didn’t think it was that good. The back of the jewel case touts “a lush original score featuring swing-era bebop and jazz.” I love bebop and jazz music, but Grim Fandango’s score was quite bland and boring. It added atmosphere in some places, but nothing more than that.
A third niggle is the disc switching. Why is it that chapters 1 and 3 are on one disk and chapters 2 and 4 on the other? It felt odd to me to switch the two disks back and forth. It’s not something that detracts from the game any, but it just felt odd to me.
So if you enjoy graphic adventures, definitely pick this one up. It’s around ten bucks these days and well worth it. Even if you don’t particularly like graphic adventures, I highly recommend this game on its visual style points alone. We gamers are always looking for something fresh and unique, and Grim Fandango’s unique visual style and character design will definitely make you stop and say, “Whoa! That’s cool!”