I thoroughly enjoyed playing Grim Fandango, yet I didn't enjoy playing it. Talk about ambivalence! Let me explain. I loved the story, the characters, the puzzles, the graphics, the music and sound effects and was sad when the game reached its inevitable conclusion as I had grown fond of Manny and I didn't want to stop playing. At the same time it was a relief to stop playing. I hated the interface. Not enough to prevent me from completing the game, but enough to resent LucasArts for taking adventure games down this path. I have more to say about this later.
It's perhaps no surprise to learn that corruption, crime and greed are still rife in the 'after-life', but then, so too is goodness, tolerance, love and romance. Grim Fandango has it all as the story unfolds with humour and pathos in a classic 'film noir' setting based on an Aztec belief in the departed soul's four year journey to another, and hopefully, better world. In the exaggerated style we have come to expect from LucasArts the characters are larger than life, or even death, and are based on the papier-mâché skeleton dolls that feature in the Mexican 'Day of the Dead' festivals.
In the Land of the Dead you control the character of Manny Calavera who is working as a travel agent in the Department of Death in order to pay off his debt for being "less-than-perfect" in his previous life. Unfortunately, times are not good for Manny. Only 'good' clients attract the fat commissions he needs so that he can commence his own journey to the next world and his clients don't fall into that category. Manny's first task, and yours, is to work out why he can't get the good souls he needs and then to do something about it. Ah! If only death were that simple.
Grim Fandango is a third-person perspective adventure game and, in this at least, I'm relieved to say LucasArts doesn't deviate from the tried and true adventure format. This is very much an inventory-based game where it is necessary to find and use items, often in quite novel ways, to progress through the story. There is a good range of entertaining puzzles, some are not too difficult, but a few of them are quite devious and may test how well you have been paying attention to the story and the conversations with other characters. Oh, I should also point out that there are a couple of puzzles where you must carry out certain actions within a limited time frame.
The graphics are excellent and the characterisations are equally as good with great voice acting and a motley gathering of humorous characters. I even liked Glottis, Manny's oversize demon mechanic and sometime companion. He reminded me of Thud from The Space Bar and was really quite endearing, though I wished his passion was for something other than hot rods. This aspect, and the vomiting scene was a little juvenile for my taste but didn't detract from my overall enjoyment. There is an option to enable on-screen text, but no text is available in the cut sequences. These sequences are hugely entertaining and slot seamlessly into the game and there are many moments of pure fun. If death is not the end then on this journey there is, indeed, a fate worse than death ... 'sprouting'. Characters who 'sprout' fail to make it through to the next world, so in the limbo-like transition setting of Grim Fandango you're not really dead until you're pushing up daisies.
Those of you who are comfortable playing console games or delight in action games can safely skip this next bit because you can use your familiar joystick or gamepad. Traditional adventure playing PC gamers, on the other hand, prepare yourselves for a big shock while I take few moments to rant. The interface for Grim Fandango takes some getting used to, to put it mildly. You can't use your mouse at all and movement and actions are controlled from the keyboard. Now I don't object to using the keyboard for typing commands in text-based games and I usually don't mind using the keyboard for navigation in certain games. What I object to is using the keyboard as a gamepad or joystick substitute in an adventure game. Sure, it's not difficult to learn which keys to use, but it's a pain having to hold keys down the whole time you are moving around and it makes exploration tedious. To put it simply, navigation by this method requires a lot more effort and I found it impinged on my enjoyment of the game.
As if this is not enough, no mouse means no cursor so Manny becomes your cursor substitute and you have to watch his head carefully to see what he is looking at, just like watching for a cursor to indicate a hot-spot only a lot trickier much of the time. To find things to interact with you must manoeuvre Manny around the screen watching for his head to bob. You can't 'look' at things from a distance and decide if you want interact with them or not, you can't simply press a key and have Manny walk automatically to that spot. No, it's a case of hold down a key all the time you are exploring ... wait a minute! Did he bob his head just then? Back up or turn around and press another key to 'look'. No response, perhaps his head just turned as he walked into an invisible 'barrier'.
I found the limitations of the interface to be annoying and particularly during the timed sequences where I had to perform actions quickly. Others may have a different view, but for me it was a pain when I knew what I had to do and found I couldn't do it because I had overshot the pixel where Manny bobs his head and he was no longer looking at the object I needed to act upon. By the time I manoeuvred him back to the right spot it was usually too late. With practice and infinite patience I eventually succeeded and, yes, I know these puzzles are designed to be frustrating, but for me the interface only made it more so.
Some people have claimed that the interface has made this game more 'immersive', I am pleased for them. Unfortunately for me it had the opposite effect. The story, characters and puzzles drew me into the game and made me want to keep playing, whilst the interface tried its darndest to keep me at bay. Grim Fandango is an adventure game and when I play an adventure I like to concentrate on the puzzles, not on endlessly moving my character around as if it is an action game. It seems that LucasArts have their hearts set on capturing some of the console market with Grim Fandango, but possibly this could be at the expense of some of their traditional PC adventure game fans... End of rant.
Sorry, it is not my intention to put you off playing this game. In all other respects it is an excellent adventure and, despite the interface, well worth persevering with for traditional adventure fans. I should also mention that it has a 3D mode but, thankfully, LucasArts haven't deserted 'poor' adventure fans totally as you don't need a 3D card to play it.
So, I've sampled four days in the death of Manny Calavera and found it mostly very palatable. Whilst I have complained about the interface others have aimed their darts at the loading times between screen changes. I had no problems in this respect and, although I did experience a few lock-ups, I'll surely be back if Manny continues his journey in the next world. Amidst all this death defying adventure, however, all I can say is 'long live the mouse'.
Note: Since this review was written LucasArts have released a patch which enables subtitles during the cut sequences.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1998.
All rights reserved.
Windows 95/98, Pentium 133 or faster, 32MB RAM, 2MB PCI Graphics card, 4xCD-ROM or higher, 16 Bit Sound card, Keyboard (optional Joystick or Gamepad), DirectX 6.0 (comes on disk), 3D acceleration supported, 4MB PCI or AGP accelerator required for Direct3D hardware mode.