In an industry where triple A releases are dominated by such gems as Military Shooter: Modern Terrorists, Sports Franchise With Next Year On The Cover (with updated team roster!) and the always top-selling Yearly Sequel to Popular IP, it’s always wonderful when we get a new, truly unique game that still has a good budget behind it – something that can stand alone as an experience and isn’t abruptly finished with obvious sequel bait.
In 1998, the LucasArts shoved a cool $3m – then considered a big budget for a videogame, though many modern titles end up at $20m+) in front of legendary designer Tim Schafer (who now heads up Double Fine Productions) to make another game for them, continuing the legend of LucasArts’ excellent adventure games, then including The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, Sam & Max Hit The Road, Day of the Tentacle and the awfully short but somehow epic Full Throttle – most of which featured Schafer as a programmer/designer or, in the case of Full Throttle, the director. All of these adventures were considered hits; it was hard to find a sub-8 out of 10 score for any of them. Sadly, however, the second half of the nineties had seen gamers drift from adventure games and the FPS had cemented itself as king of video game genres. Everywhere you looked there were Doom and Quake clones on the shelves, and despite some seriously incredible releases in this time the sales of adventure games continued to disappoint. Part of the blame for this decline can be placed squarely on the adventure games themselves: while the new wave of shooters gave gamers immediate, visceral gratification, many adventures were still filled with irritating puzzles that ranged from the baffling to the downright nonsensical. While LucasArts were typically better about this than their contemporary Sierra On-Line (and I’m sure many of you have heard about the utterly stupid ‘cat hair moustache’ puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3), there were inevitably puzzles in every game that amounted to ‘attempt to use every item with everything else in order to progress’. Don’t forget that it wasn’t as easy as googling a walkthrough – the web was still largely in its infancy and you’d probably have to wade through a bunch of hideous Geocities fan pages in order to find anything remotely useful. Or you could call the premium rate phone number on the back of the manual to get through to a hint line, I suppose. Did anyone ever actually do that? If so, are they alive today or did their parents murder them after getting the phone bill?
Grim Fandango still suffers from bizarre puzzle syndrome in several places, but its story and presentation are so utterly charming that all but the shortest attention spans will persevere. The story takes place in the space between life and death – purgatory, if you will – where recently deceased souls are judged based on their actions in life and then sent on their way to the underworld. If you lived a good life then you have a car rental waiting that might get you there in a few days or weeks. If you were bad then you’ve got to walk it – a trek that takes four whole years. The purest of spirit are treated to a ride on the Number Nine train, which whisks you to your eternal rest in a mere four minutes. The really bad, well… they become the travel agents responsible for the journey of each dead soul. This is where you come in.
You play as Manny Calavera, who has been forced to work at the travel agency in order to work off his debt to the powers that be; we are never told what this debt is or what Manny did to deserve this fate, but he’s stuck here until the gods decide his fate. Here in the land of the dead, all the characters appear as calacas (a traditional carving of a skeleton made to celebrate the day of the dead in Central America), and all the architecture is a wonderful blend of 1930s art-deco and pseudo-Aztec designs, giving everything a truly unique feel of a classic film-noir butting heads with Central American folklore. At work Manny is, essentially, the grim reaper. It’s his job to enter the world of the living in order to retrieve the souls of the newly-departed and bring them back to the land of the dead. The agency assigns each of its employees to particular ‘clients’, each of whom will earn payment towards their debt depending on how pure the client is. The trouble is that Manny always seems to get the scummy, selfish jerks as clients and is constantly threatened with being fired unless he starts to do better – and in this world, getting fired means being stuck in purgatory for the rest of eternity. In a desperate bid to get a better commission, Manny steals a client from his rival agent Domino. This client is Mercedes “Meche” Colmar, who lived a positively saintly life and seems to deserve a guaranteed spot on the Number Nine. Instead, the agency computer insists the only package in her reach is a simple walking stick to accompany her on her four year trek. Before Manny can investigate, humble Meche has sorrowfully headed out and is quickly lost. Furious and in serious danger of losing his job, Manny sets out in his car with his demonic driver Glottis, hoping to track Meche down and set things right. And from there Manny begins to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy in the land of the dead, where organised criminals have been stealing Number Nine tickets for years, dooming thousands of lost souls to wander endlessly.
Abandoning LucasArts’ traditional ‘SCUMM’ (script creation utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, Grim Fandango was built from the ground up in their new ‘GrimE’ engine, which allowed the player to experience the world with 3D models instead of the old way of scaling 2D sprites. Also gone was the traditional point-and-click interface; instead Grim Fandango uses ‘tank’ controls (think the original Resident Evil) where objects and interactive scenery are highlighted by Manny turning his head to look at them as you pass, instead of hunting for a particular pixel with your mouse. The world itself is comprised of pre-rendered background (many of which look truly fantastic), while the characters and objects are 3D models placed within. In some ways this is a little jarring and one can’t help but feel a mouse would’ve functioned better – like Resident Evil, tank controls and static camera angles really do not mix well, but at least in Grim Fandango you don’t ever feel like you really need fine-tuned controls; it’s a slower-paced game (like most adventures) so you never really need precision. The GrimE engine went on to be used in the not-so-good fourth Monkey Island game, which turned out to be its second and final outing as LucasArts decided to completely abandon the genre following the high budgets and relatively poor sales of Full Throttle, Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island – Grim Fandango sadly sold less than half a million units, which is possibly the saddest thing ever to happen to gaming.
Over four acts (one for each year of the journey), Manny realises he is in love with Meche and begins to redeem his soul by committing good deeds so that he might accompany her to the underworld. Along the way is a wealth of film-noir plots, including a restaurant that Manny works at until he earns enough to buy it and turn it into a thriving club and casino that is eerily similar to Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca (right down to Manny’s sharp new white suit in which he looks like Humphrey Bogart in skeletal form). He encounters freedom fighters that also know about the conspiracy and are fighting for justice in the land of the dead – and some of these new friends die for good; they’re already dead, but there’s the ever-present threat of ‘sprouting’ where a soul is shot with some kind of miracle-grow formula that makes them grow flowers through their bones – a death-within-death from which there is no escape and no chance for finding peace. Each act has its own distinct look and music, helping to keep things fresh and interesting. Graphically, it’s definitely aged – this is an early 3D game, after all – but, compared to pretty much every offering on the PS1 at the time, Grim Fandango is so colourful and unique that the visuals are far more tolerable than, say, Thief: The Dark Project or Resident Evil 2 which came out the same year. Everything is clear and easy to see and doesn’t at all suffer from that horrible muddy pixellation that ‘realistic’ early 3D games usually do, despite the very low polygon count on the models.
The soundtrack throughout is truly incredible; it’s full of film-noir homage motifs, 1930s big band tunes and takes on traditional Central and South American music to provide the perfect accompaniment to each of the game’s completely unique locales. It’s a dark, smoky collection of muted trumpets, hi-hats and loose snares that works so well with half of the cast smoking constantly (though as the game’s manual humorously reminds us, all the characters are dead already so it’s okay for them to smoke); I actually still have the soundtrack on CD somewhere – the only videogame soundtrack I’ve ever paid money for, and you can now download it for free from http://www.grimfandango.net. The voice acting is absolutely top-notch, even better than the superb efforts of Schafer’s Full Throttle, which featured Mark Hamill as the villain. It’s always a plus when the voice actors in any media sound like they’re enjoying themselves as they work, unlike the completely phoned-in dialogue you’ll find in a lot of big-budget releases.
The bad news is that Grim Fandango is a bitch to run on modern PCs and will require some third party applications to get it running, and even then you’ll probably run into some bugs (the most notorious of which renders the game uncompletable due to the way it uses CPU speed to time an event in which you’re supposed to press a button at the right time, though I suspect some clever person in one of the many fan communities out there has fixed this). The good news is that it is getting a HD remaster on PS4, Vita, Windows and Mac – ‘very soon’, according to Double Fine. It may lack the truly cinematic feeling and ever-present illusion of your choices making a difference to the story like in titles like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, because it’s a traditional adventure game and as such as linear as walking for four years towards your final resting place, but Grim Fandango is a truly remarkable game with a story like none other and some completely unique visuals and music that it’s worth picking up. And with the recent resurrection of adventure games thanks to Telltale and their aforementioned titles, maybe we’ll get lucky and see more studios taking a chance and doing this kind of thing again. Though, for the love of god, don’t make a sequel to Grim Fandango, even if this rerelease sells beyond all expectation. It’s fine all by itself.