Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181375)
Written on  :  Sep 01, 2003
Rating  :  4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars4.67 Stars

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Swan song in the afterlife

The Good

LucasArts brought joy and excitement to adventure fans during their most dominant era - the early 1990's. However, like many other genres, adventure games underwent a crisis during the troublesome second half of the decade; unlike some other genres, they never truly recovered. I think that LucasArts' own output during that time was inferior to what they have achieved before. That is, with the exception of one game, where the company's creativity suddenly broke out with unseen power - only to be silenced for good afterwards.

Grim Fandango can be described in three words: hardcore classical adventure. Which means that it does not follow the fashionable route of Myst, nor does it dumb down gameplay in favor of long cutscenes and whatever else the dramatization of the genre has brought with it. This game has puzzles, and many of them are tough - but, with a few exceptions, they aren't abstract; they are organically woven into the game's texture, inseparable from its world. It is not one of those games that throws thousands of puzzles at you without giving you any clues - no, the clues are there, yet due to their sheer complexity, the puzzles are often difficult to solve. Being a very large game, it also demands a lot of concentration from the player.

Grim Fandango 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 within your inventory - but do not think for a second that this makes the game any easier. Typical inventory-based puzzles are relatively rare compared to complex machinery-oriented tasks you'll encounter in many parts of the game. But the strength of its puzzle design lies in the fact that those puzzles are neither isolated nor self-sufficient. There is still plenty of fun item-collecting from the good old comedy days, and rich dialogue branches to explore. In short, there is variety and challenge - two essential components of good game design.

Grim Fandango is a large game - both in terms of longevity and the size of its world. The developers struck a perfect balance between free-form exploration and focused advancement, giving us generous playable areas that take a while to complete, but also changing the scenery drastically in each of its several long chapters. Thus, the game avoids both the radical streamlining of Full Throttle and the monotonous hub-exploration of The Dig. The sheer magnitude of its world reminded me of Zak McKracken - of all LucasArts adventures, these two are the only ones I would describe as "epic".

The game's world is a stylish masterpiece possibly surpassing everything the company has done before in pure artistic value. I have never seen its main stylistic components united in the same work - let alone in such a seamless and convincing fashion. Whoever first came up with the bizarre idea of mixing film noir with Art Deco and Mexican mythology deserves a special prize in a competition for original settings. Even a weaker game would be worth checking out just thanks to the unique world.

This world has been carefully crafted in meticulous detail, turning simple office rooms into chef-d'oeuvres of visual design. Colors, angles, decorations, architecture, furniture, character faces, street lamps - everything is recreated with almost decadent opulence, brilliantly reflecting the main themes of the game's story. The pre-rendered backgrounds are splendidly rich and colorful, and well-animated 3D character models are combined with them immaculately. In general, Grim Fandango is one of the most lavishly presented adventure games of all times.

Grim Fandango also has one of the best stories ever to grace an adventure game. In a world where this genre has been firmly associated either with lighthearted comedy or the enigmatic vagueness of Myst-like impressionist style, Grim Fandango rises with its gripping plot full of intrigues, corruption, romance, and much more. It is world-embracing, intimate, touching, complex, and emotional. The most remarkable aspect of this story is that it depicts several years of the hero's life (or, in this case, life after death). While most games usually describe only a short episode they consider noteworthy, Grim Fandango draws all the right conclusions from its structure and weaves an epic tale with all its heights and lows, showing how time changes people and things, and how easy it is for us to gain or lose everything we have.

There are plenty of locations in the game, and most of them are original and memorable - the port city Rubacava with its casinos, luxury hotels, mafia bosses, and tattoo parlors, the depths of the sea, the mountains, etc. 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. Yet at the same time the game is endearingly humorous. It liberally pays homage to film noir, crime novels, and other literary and cinematic styles with a dedicated realism that intensifies the dark comic effect: the supposedly desolate, mysterious afterlife turns out to resemble our world in everything - particularly in sin. Who could help smiling watching the scene where Meche removes her stockings in a perfectly captured "femme fatale" style?..

Grim Fandango is full of characters, and most of them are singularly memorable. The protagonist himself truly grows as a person - initially not particularly reliable, even a bit of a crook, Manny is gradually revealed as a courageous person, able to love deeply and without compromises. The lovable demon Glotis provides mild comic relief, but he is also a great friend with a magnanimous soul - a seemingly excellent pianist as well. I have rarely seen an adventure game with so many characters, each occupying a relatively important spot in the rich tapestry of the story.

The Bad

I wasn't as offended by the interface as some other fans of point-and-click adventures, but I can't say I liked it. You can only interact with an object if you physically approach it, at which point Manny will tilt his head in the general direction. This means you'll have to run around a lot in a busy environment, which doesn't fit the pace of adventure gameplay. Camera angles change frequently, and keyboard-based character navigation is uncomfortable no matter whether you choose the camera- or the character-dependent control scheme. I don't quite see why it was impossible to use the mouse for movement and cursor-based interaction.

Grim Fandango is highly creative, and yet there was a tiny something in the gameplay where symptoms of crisis in adventure game design could be felt. I welcomed the high difficulty level, but a few puzzles were tricky in an illogical and somewhat contrived sense - I felt that there was rather too much precision required to solve them. Then again, it is infinitely preferable to simplifying the gameplay, and luckily for the most part they balanced the puzzle difficulty remarkably well.

The Bottom Line

It was a long way from Maniac Mansion to Grim Fandango, a glorious road decorated by quite a few masterpieces. Born within a crisis that has befallen its creators and the adventure genre in general, Grim Fandango is one of LucasArts' best offerings. It is the most mature and complete manifestation of their design philosophy and a fitting epitaph to their work, a powerful final chord crowning their beautiful symphony.