Disclaimer : this will scarcely qualify as a review. This is an ode. A love letter. If I had a lute, it would be a ballad. I love Grim Fandango. It’s been my favourite game since I first played it back in the dark ages of 1998. And unless you have a PC running Windows 98, you haven’t been able to play it for quite some time. Long story short, LucasArts shenanigans have meant that Tim Schafer snatched back the rights to his brainchild, has been allowed to resurrect his underworld epic on the PS4. So, while not strictly “retro”, nuts to you, I’m reviewing it anyway.
You play as Manny Calavera, a sort of afterlife travel agent. In order to pay off his mysterious debt and get to the underworld himself, Manny is tasked with finding the best travel packages to the underworld for the recently deceased. The problem Manny is having is that all of his clients are scumbags, entitling them to little more than walking sticks and coffins full of packing foam. In order to pay off his debt, Manny decides to get proactive and steal a client from his rival, Domino. In doing so he meets Meche, a beautiful soul who deserves only the best – a ticket on the Number Nine, which travels to the underworld in four minutes instead of four years. There’s just one problem – Manny can’t get her the ticket. As he tries to figure out why, Meche leaves to start her journey. Any more detail than this and I’ll spoil the meat of the story, but what follows is a story of corruption, romance, suspense and souped up hearses. Be still my beating heart.
In the interest of retro, I opted to play through GF using the ‘tank’ controls from the original game. This option could have been symbolised with a big coiled turd on the menu screen. If you’re not familiar with the term ‘tank controls’, think back to the original Resident Evil or Tomb Raider. That’s right, up on the pad is always forwards, no matter which way you’re facing. This control method died out with the advent of GAMES NOT BEING DESIGNED FOR TORTURING SPIES. It sucks, but in truth it rarely spoils your enjoyment, and does add a sort of retro feel. As GF is a point and click adventure at heart, the pace is already pretty dang slow, minimising the tank frustration due to there being no need for any sort of immediacy. *Edit* Having played through with tank controls, I tried again using the new system – which plays like a dream – so don’t let the prospect of tank controls put you off playing.
So yes, Graphic Adventure games (or point-n-clicks if you’re nasty). HOORAY! If hilarious, story driven puzzle solving doesn’t sound like your bag, well….off you go then. Go on. Get! Grim Fandango differs slightly from the standard point n click fare, as you move in 3D, and don’t need to use a mouse – hence the console presence. We’ve talked a lot in the past about point n click games being rather obtuse, and the same can be said of Grim Fandango. But here’s where Grim Fandango is different – the clues are in the dialogue. And not in the sense of a bloke telling you he needs a thing and then you get the thing, in the sense that, in true Film Noir style, no bastard will speak in anything but code. The answers are all RIGHT THERE but you will miss most of them, and kick yourself when you figure them out. Such is the beauty of Grim Fandango – you shouldn’t solve a puzzle and go “well how was I supposed to know that?!”, you should solve it and go “OF COURSE!”, and it’s here that Grim Fandango shines.
It’s still a weighty test of the old grey matter, so don’t expect to breeze straight through. Having grown up on the Graphic Adventure genre, I played my way through classics such as Broken Sword, Monkey Island, The Feeble Files and Full Throttle – and I can state without hyperbole that I found Grim Fandango the most challenging, sometimes to the point of frustration. A lot of puzzles won’t be a test of your intelligence, but your talent for noticing specific details. The majority of puzzles can be solved through a little detective work, but there’s still a Schafer-esque flair for the obtuse in Grim Fandango that could prove off-putting for new players. I recommend playing with the on-screen text active.
I have to be fair here as well, and say that there really isn’t much – if anything – in the way of replay value. No alternate pathways or endings, no hidden items to find, nothing. It’s a decent sized game, but maybe save your pennies if you’re still on the fence. If, like me, you’re the kind of oddball who watches your favourite films dozen of times a year, you might fall head over heels.
It’s Dia De Los Muertos meets Film Noir. Two of the coolest things on the planet mashed together, and wrapped in some of the most surreal and brilliant comedy you’re ever likely to see. An outside knowledge of the tropes of Film Noir will greaten your appreciation to no end, but Grim Fandango doesn’t exclude non-fans. There was never anything like Glottis in Film Noir. The character models are quite blocky and basic nowadays, but the pre rendered backgrounds still look the business. The voice acting is top notch as well, with each character imbued with the perfect air of both sleaze and style that encapsulates Noir. Again, except for Glottis.
I nearly didn’t write a conclusion. It was tempting to post the greatest love song ever written here instead, but I held my ground. Grim Fandango still remains the absolute champion of the Graphic Adventure genre. It’s cool, it’s funny, it’s clever and it’s stylish, and I feel inadequate that nothing I ever do will top it. Oh, to hell with it.
Hilarious script, great characters, you feel like a champion when you actually get a puzzle right, looks cool, sounds cool, I’m going to play it again immediately.
Possibly too obtuse for some, there’s a puzzle involving ticket stubs that can be a real game ruiner, tank controls are ass, little replay value if you’re not insane.
Back In The Day
Receiving 9/10 from Edge magazine, 9.3 from Gamespot and 9.4 from IGN, Grim Fandango was something of a critical darling. Sadly this didn’t seem to account for squat, as the game sold less than 500,000 units worldwide; acting as the catalyst for why we aren’t allowed nice things.