155th played so far
Manuel Calavera (Manny) does not have a good life. He’s dead, first of all, but that’s not exactly a major worry. Following some bad decisions during life, he now has a depth to pay off to make up for his sins. This, he does by being the reaper – black cloak, scythe and all – and get clients with the most pure heart to get packages to the ninth circle – commission based, really. He, however, only gets the bad clients – those who get little more than a walking stick to make their way forward… As Manny tries to change his fortune, things go wrong.
Grim Fandango is one of the last adventures made by adventure giant LucasArts, and the first where they used a 3D engine. It did well critically and is loved by those who played it, but never sold well – it barely broke even.
I’ll admit I love this game, so that’s what to expect, but we can see how things will go from there…
The game develops as a film noir story, including mob murders and part of the game set in a 30s high rollers casino town (almost the Las Vegas of the dead). Add to that the game taking place through four years, each year on the Mexican Day of the Dead, borrowing related aesthetics and you can see the look and feel of the game explained to you. As a film lover I have to say that if there was a noir feeling perpetuated throughout this game it would be along the lines of Gilda. Both of these share a Latin feel and most of the characters either smoke, gamble or both. The only thing it was missing was a door with the protagonists name on it which is opened in the first sequence… still I bet this is rectified in L.A. Noire.
The story, as it should be in any good adventure game like this, is brilliant. Funny and captivating, serving as an integrated backdrop for the stories. No spoilers – you need to experience it – but it’s up there as a good story with memorable characters. Whilst this game does borrow does borrow from general mythology regarding karma and the afterlife it is able to being its own twist. The idea that you can still be killed when you are in this limbo state (in a manner which reminded me of a sequence in The Fountain) is something that is both strangely beautiful and macabre.
Linked to that, by the way, is some good voice acting with good casting decisions – partially suitably hispanic – and great sound otherwise, with it setting the right mood.
From there, though, come graphics. First, the backgrounds are mostly lovely – hand painted backgrounds, as gorgeous as any that we’ve seen around this time. The 3D models are less detailed, again a sign of the times, but somehow they feel more detailed than others we’ve seen. They certainly benefit from the stylistic choices, where the Day of the Dead calaca figures add to the skeletal feel without always requiring too many details. They’re simple and blocky, and for most of it work. Still, graphically this is no longer a high point.
The 3D part of the game made things worse, however, in one other way. As an early 3D game of this type, controls aren’t refined yet, and while the creators are still used to a point and click style, their attempt to put this into a 3D mold don’t work as well. Items and hotspots can be tricky to find and point to and some corners are incredibly tricky – the imprecise movement makes it difficult to find the right place to go, making it at times even difficult to find out you can actually go somewhere. In a way this did pave the way for future 3D adventure games (like Sam & Max: Season One) but it makes me wonder how much more fluid this could have been if it has been a point and click.
Still, once you get used to that you do get to what you want. A tough but fun adventure game with a great sense of LucasArts humour that unfortunately left soon after, but can still be found in the games the creators went on to – Psychonauts being one of those that we’ll discuss later. Personally I am dead keen to play the Russian doll-inspired game Stacking… a sure-fire game to be included on the next version on this list.
Finally, a word of warning: It took us quite a bit of work to get this game working on Windows 7 – even the Windows XP virtual machine had quite a few issues – so be prepared to take some time to set it up properly. No DOSBox fix this time. The major issues are that sound can switch off for no reason and items can suddenly disappear from your inventory.
I actually had a friend who dressed as Manny Calavera for his video game themed birthday party. It was awesome. Not much for final thoughts but thought it would be something cool to share.