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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Grim Fandango

Grim Fandango (Game release date: 1998)
Refreshingly original film-noir mystery adventure steeped in Mexican folk tradition and starring affable undead skeletons. Really. It works.

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Highlights: Sophisticated humor, innovative gameworld, startlingly
unique ambience
Lowlights: Aggravatingly primitive interface

One of the most original 3D adventure games ever, Grim Fandango features an interesting plot brimming with creative puzzles and suffused in a funky film-noir/magical realism ambience. You play Manuel Calaveza, a dead soul working off a few years of purgatory as a grim reaper in the Mexican Day of the Dead. All is not as it should be in the undead city, however--it seems like Manny's coworkers are conspiring against him for some reason, and the further he investigates, the more conspiracy he turns up. Add in the mysterious lost soul Meche--sort of an Ingrid Bergman knockoff, if Ingrid were a Latina skeleton that is--and the stage is set for intrigue, romance, and festive philosophical double-takes. Grim Fandango is a game that made me laugh out loud more than a few times, and kept me effortlessly entertained throughout. Unfortunately the gameplay suffers from frustrating interface flaws, but none of them are insurmountable--and this clever, offbeat game is well worth the trouble.

Style: Grim Fandango is a third-person puzzle-adventure game with an extremely simple 3D keyboard interface. You control a single character. The plot is a mystery and there are supernatural and romantic themes. The game is untimed except for a couple of realtime puzzles. Manual dexterity is occasionally required. Combat and leveling are not elements.

Series: Grim Fandango is not part of a series. It is a completely stand-alone game by LucasArts.

Finding Grim Fandango: Like many older games, software stores are charging ridiculously high prices for Grim Fandango. But you can still find new or nearly-new copies online-- try the "New and Used" section of Amazon, where there are often reasonable prices.

Getting Grim Fandango to Work: This isn't a particularly buggy game, but it does have some trouble running on faster processors. Luckily, LucasArts is still supporting this game, and they have a nice patch here which should solve that problem.

Hints For Grim Fandango: I do not have a walkthrough page for Grim Fandango myself (it is a very linear plot and would not benefit much from my low-spoiler treatment). There is a terrific hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on. Or you can buy a Grim Fandango Hint Book, if you prefer.

Pitfalls In Grim Fandango: There are a few occasions in which you have to position Manny VERY exactly in order for him to see or interact with something, which is frustrating. There is also one timed puzzle, though you can do it over and over again until you get it right (as you probably will have to, due to the aforementioned positioning problems).

Game Length: 30 hours, about standard for a graphic adventure.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to innuendo, irreverant treatment of death, and lots and lots of smoking and drinking.

Lora's Grim Fandango Review: (Excellent)

Plot and Quests: The plot is excellent, though like most graphical adventures, it suffers from its inflexibility. There is only one way to complete each quest, only one order to complete them in, and few optional elements. No alternate endings, no choices to be made. Grim Fandango has a great story, but you have no input into it.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Primarily inventory and logic puzzles (of the "what could I use to break this machine" variety.) Some of them are quite original--it's rare for a game to really serve up several impasses a grizzled old Infocom vet truly hasn't seen before in some shape or form, but Grim Fandango really does this. The downside is that few of them are really that challenging. Even the ones you don't immediately figure out can be quickly arrived at by trial and error.
Characters: You only get one PC in Grim Fandango. As in most adventure games, you can't customize Manny at all, but you do get to choose from different conversational options as he speaks, which helps you develop his personality a little in a direction of your choice. The NPCs are pretty interesting, and most of the voice acting is good.
Gameworld: Grim Fandango is set in the Mexican land of the dead, and the writers' conceptualization of this strange in-between realm is something truly not to be missed. The juxtaposition of folkloric and mundane elements is wonderful, and any computer game that manages to inject this much innovation into its gameworld deserves a special commendation.
Gameplay: Like most modern graphical adventures, Grim Fandango is really just your standard Infocom game with graphics and sound appended. That isn't inherently a bad thing--I loved those old Infocom games--but this genre really has not advanced much since the '80's where gameplay is concerned, and it only takes ten or twelve times strolling Manny across the same six location screens for some more office supplies before you start to realize: Hey, this was much less of a pain when you could just type "E,E,N,U,N,W,look." :-o There is no way to lose this game (other than quitting); puzzles can only be done in the same, linear order.
Interface: The interface is what you might call "primitive." There's no mouse. You use the keyboard to move Manny around and access his inventory. For the most part this works fine, but it does mean that instead of being able to quickly mouse over a group of objects to see if any of them are clickable, you have to stroll Manny past and see if his head moves towards anything. This can be something of a headache, especially since he has to be positioned just right to ever notice smaller objects. And fine positioning of Manny--not to mention his #$%@!! car--is not easy in this game.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The stylized cartoonish skeletons may seem a little off-putting at first if you're not already a fan of Mexican folk tradition (they are traditional Day of the Dead decor), but they grow on you quickly, and the rest of the graphics look good. Manny has the best voice of any computer game hero in my recent memory, simultaneously witty, bemused, sarcastic, and wistful. I never did get tired of listening to him talk (a rarity for me in games with voice-acting). The overall ambience is a startlingly unique fusion of slinky Hollywood-style film noir and vibrant Latin American magic realism. I wouldn't call this one 'immersive', exactly, but it certainly did leave a lasting and positive impression on me--I've really never seen anything quite like it before or since.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Grim Fandango for gamers who really appreciate humor and have a lot of patience for older, rather rudimentary interfaces. Moving Manny around and getting him to interact with objects can be frustrating, but in a world where so many mystery adventure games are just retreads of the same concept, Grim Fandango unquestionably stands out for its originality and wit. Anyone who's ever complained about the generic sameness of so many computer games on the market will be very, very happy with Grim Fandango.

If You Loved Grim Fandango: You may enjoy the surreal psychological thriller Sanitarium or the absorbing fantasy epic The Longest Journey (Dreamfall), two other well-written and highly original graphic adventures. If it's the humor of Grim Fandango that really appealed to you, definitely consider going back to play one of LucasArts' entertaining Monkey Island games, such as The Curse of Monkey Island, or Sam and Max Hit the Road. If you loved Grim Fandango's unique gameworld and don't mind branching out into a slightly different genre of computer game, you may want to try the absorbing Gothic-flavored CRPG Planescape: Torment or the immersive puzzle-adventure game Myst IV: Revelation.

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