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SummaryWhere there is creativity, there will always be great games
The GoodImagine the situation: late 90-ies. Technology develops rapidly. 3D engines for shooters become more and more refined. RPGs are beginning to enjoy a revival. Simulations games appear, choosing more and more extravagant subjects to simulate. But what is the state of mainstream adventure games? The closing chapters of Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry already belonged to the past. Globe-trotting and cartoon adventure were present mostly in pale imitations and clones of Fate of Atlantis and Day of the Tentacle. Adventure game designers were frantically trying to do something with the dying genre, mostly by creating hybrids. And yet the late 90-ies produced several great adventure games. How could it become possible, when the genre was dying? Precisely because of that: when the genre is not in fashion any more, when commercial success isn't the first priority, when each new game can be regarded as the "last word" - at such times great masterpieces appear, independent from all the currents, finding their way to the top through their sheer personalities and quality.
"Grim Fandango" is one of such "standalone" adventures, a game that is great simply because it is great, without being a milestone in the genre's development, let alone a revolution. "Grim Fandango" is (currently) LucasArts' last truly great adventure, and the quintessence of their talent, creativity, and - perhaps most importantly - their tremendous experience.
They already tried it with Full Throttle, and they proved they could create fantastic serious adventures - with a lot of humor, of course, but serious nevertheless. "Grim Fandango" is, with all its obvious elements of parody, a serious game. And because of its size and its massive, complex plot, it can be called an epic adventure - LucasArts' second attempt in this field after Zak McKracken.
The story of "Grim Fandango" contains everything: intrigues, corruption, mythology, revolution, romance, and much more. It is world-embracing, intimate, touching, complex, and emotional. The most remarkable aspect of this story is that it follows the life (life after death, that is) of the hero during a very large period of time. While most games usually describe only one major event of the hero's life, "Grim Fandango" shows how time changes people and things, and how easy it is for us to gain or to lose everything we have. The game is split into four episodes, and there is a break of one year between the first and the second parts. The game's hero experiences almost everything a human being can experience in just a couple of years, he turns from an ordinary travel agency employee into a renegade, a millionaire, a traveler, and a revolutionary, and sees life from all its sides. I have rarely seen an adventure game with such a story, and alone for this "Grim Fandango" should be included in any Adventure Games Hall of Fame.
The great irony of the game is that it is set entirely in the Land of the Dead, but this supposedly dark and terrible place is described so vividly and shown from so many sides, that it resembles our own world more than so many artificial environments in video games. There are lots of locations in the game, and most of them are remarkable in their majestic design - the port city Rubacava with its casinos, luxury hotels, mafia bosses, and tattoo parlors, the depths of the sea, the mountains. All those locations are extremely detailed and filled with people and objects, so that a strange melancholic and even nostalgic feeling envelops the player - it is just like real life, yet the real life is so far away.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of "Grim Fandango" is its incredibly stylish design. I don't know who first came up with this bizarre idea - to create a style that would be a mixture of film noir, art deco, and Mexican mythology, but this person certainly deserves a special prize for one of the most original setting ideas ever. "Grim Fandango" is so stylish that you often forget you are playing a game, and start just wandering around, enjoying the absolutely terrific graphics, great music (jazz & Mexican folk), and atmospheric locations. The style dominates the game, the smallest design detail is so superbly presented that you'll feel the urge to explore every corner of this wonderful world and to look at every object it contains. Colors, decorations, furniture, character faces, street lamps - everything comes to life in the Land of the Dead.
"Grim Fandango" is full of characters - undoubtedly the most brilliant ones ever created by LucasArts. Take Manny Calavera for example. Seemingly light-hearted, not very serious, even a bit of a crook, Manny is gradually revealed as a courageous person, able to love deeply and without compromises. Mercedes (Meche) is enigmatic and mysterious, and the relationship of those two main heroes is one of the most touching and profound ones ever to grace a video game. The lovable demon Glotis provides the comic relief, but he is also a great friend and a generous person (and seemingly an excellent pianist, too). Even less important characters such as Nick, Olivia, or Salvador, are fantastically presented and convincing in their appearance. Also great are the two main villains of the game, Hector LeMans and Domino.
I can talk on and on about the superb story and style quality of "Grim Fandango", and bring thousands of examples, but let's cut to the point: what is the actual gameplay behind all this goodness? Well, the gameplay is as good as all its other aspects. It can be described in two words: hardcore adventure. It is never too hard to frustrate, and it is never illogical, but its puzzles require a lot of thinking. It has many puzzles, and, more importantly, many complex puzzles. It is not one of those games that throws on you thousands of puzzles without giving you any clues - no, the clues are there, yet due to their sheer complexity, the puzzles are usually quite hard to solve. Being a very large game, it also demands a lot of concentration from the player. Of course, it follows the classic LucasArts rule (no dying, no getting stuck), and the amount of experimenting with items is somewhat reduced by the inability to combine items in inventory, but it is nevertheless a challenging game. Typical inventory-based puzzles are relatively rare compared to the complex machinery-oriented tasks you'll encounter in many parts of the game. Other that that, the gameplay of "Grim Fandango" is traditional in the best sense of this word - a great LucasArtian combination of imaginative puzzles and brilliantly written branching dialogues.
The BadI spent a few hours thinking whether there was something wrong with this game, but alas, I couldn't find anything. "Gee, another 5 out of 5 stars LucasArts adventure"?
I'm afraid so.