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Grim Fandango Review

by Stephen Granade

Wow. That was one heck of a fun game.

In case you missed the title of this article, I'm talking about Grim Fandango, the LucasArts adventure which was released on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

The adventure takes place in the Land of the Dead where, according to Aztec legends, dead souls spent four years travelling to the ninth underworld. Tim Schafer, the designer, has taken this legend, mixed in film noir and 50's-era hot rods, and crafted a sparkling adventure.

You play Manuel Calavera, an employee of the Department of Death (DoD). He can't travel on to the ninth underworld; he's stuck in El Marrow at the DoD, working off a debt from his life. He spends his time selling deluxe travel packages for travel to the ninth underworld to newly-arrived souls, hoping to make enough in commissions to begin his own journey.

Grim Fandango is a first for LucasArts: an adventure which does not use the SCUMM engine. Instead, it uses a new 3D engine, in which some objects are pre-rendered and some generated on the fly.

A word on the interface. You control Manny either through keyboard or joystick. There is no mouse support, and no icons to click. When Manny walks close to something he can interact with, his head turns and he looks at the object. When he's noticing something in this fashion, you can have him describe it, use it, or try to pick it up. His inventory is kept inside his coat, and you can have him pull out the objects that he is carrying one at a time.

The interface works well, with only a few minor annoyances. In a few instances there are two or more objects near each other which you can interact with, and it's easy to overlook one of them. You can force Manny to change what he's noticing, but you have to think to do that. Also, when Manny is far away from the camera, it becomes difficult to see if Manny is noticing anything. An optional text line which would print out what Manny was noticing would be a welcome addition.

Enough of that. The plot of Grim Fandango is enticing. Manny discovers that things are rotten at the DoD. He's no longer getting good commissions, and souls are being cheated out of their rightful rewards. This discovery leads Manny on a four-year journey across the Land of the Dead, in pursuit of a mysterious woman named Mercedes Colomar. On the way he meets revolutionary leaders, mobsters, gamblers, and one very large, very orange demon named Glottis whose sole purpose is to drive cars.

The game is tightly designed. I've grown to love LucasArts' policy that you cannot die in their adventures and that you cannot render the game unwinnable by your action or inaction. It takes away a lot of the anxiety I feel when playing adventures, wondering if I forgot to do something in the first five minutes of the game that will keep me from winning. Grim Fandango is designed well in that regard. The tricks employed to make this possible are not too blatant, unless (like me) you're deliberately looking for them.

The puzzles get harder as you go, which is a difficult thing to pull off. I appreciated that. I also appreciated how most of the puzzles were integrated well into the plot. What I did not like was how, as the puzzles got harder, some of them became more obscure. Don't get me wrong: the solutions made sense in the context of the game. I never finished a puzzle and thought, "Huh? What was that?" However, there were occasions when I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Even knowing where to begin seemed to require a minor act of telepathy. Fortuantely, there weren't a lot of those puzzles around.

Grim Fandango has a cinematic sense of scope and presentation. The graphics are lush, with Aztec and Mayan images blended smoothly with Art Deco design. They look good whether rendered by 3D accelerator card or by software. The cut-scenes merge so smoothly with the game itself that, at the end of the first one, I sat there for seconds before I realized it was time to play. Making the cut-scenes look like the game itself kept me involved and made the game feel seamless, an effect which I hadn't anticipated.

Let me spend a moment on the characters who people the game. Manny has a distinctive voice and personality, thanks to the vocal talents of Tony Plana. Most everyone he meets is well-fleshed-out, within the limits of film noir. Of them all, though, his driver Glottis stands out. Glottis is a lot of fun, sitting in the car and making "Vroom! Vroom!" noises from time to time, playing the piano in the restaurant Manny eventually owns, and being the best side-kick I've seen since Floyd from Planetfall.

In fact, I so empathized with many of the people that I felt bad at how I had to use them in the grand tradition of adventures. Glottis has a certain addiction which you must use to your advantage at one point, and there were several characters whom I exploited shamelessly in order to continue my adventure.

Kudos to the Grim Fandango team for not emphasizing all the plot points. Have you ever watched an episode of "Murder, She Wrote"? In the first five minutes, the camera will zoom in on some seemingly innocuous item like a pitcher of water, letting us all know that that water pitcher will be the key to solving the mystery. Too often adventures do the same thing, almost going so far as to put big flashing signs reading "Plot Point Ahead!" around certain events. Grim Fandango was much more restrained, trusting that I would figure out what was going on on my own.

You also get the opportunity to revisit some locations years after you were first there. The game takes place across four Days of the Dead, so you see how your actions early on affect the world. It's a nice touch, and one which displays how the characters change to full advantage. My only gripe is that there is little sense of climax. They can't use death or failure to motivate you, a problem that Curse of Monkey Island had as well.

The main problems I had with Grim Fandango were its bugs. There were occasional glitches in drawing, and at one point Manny ended up half-way inside Glottis. More worrying were the crashes, which seemed related to my 3D acceleration card. There were several of them, and if I turned off 3D hardware acceleration they went away.

Fortunately the bugs didn't come close to ruining the game for me. They merely dimmed the lustre of a fun, funny, inventive game.

Can you tell I've become part of the media crowd that's currently fawning over Grim Fandango? I'm embarassed, but I can't help it. This is one of the best games I've played in a long, long time, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Stephen's Score
2.9 out of 3


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