Grim Fandango Review
This review originally appeared in E65, December 1998.
In terms of aesthetic appeal, LucasArts’ adventure is a masterpiece. Its stylised, prerendered 3D locales and polygon-based cast are unique, serving up a distinct South and Central American flavour. Its seamless integration of cut-scenes and actual play create a genuine cinematic feel, richly rewarding successful participants.
Grim Fandango’s true strength, however, is the sheer depth of its characterisation, its quirky yet accessible storyline, irresistible black humour, and the high standard of dialogue. Based in the Netherworld, it tells the tale of Manuel Calavera, a ‘travel guide’ for the recently deceased and purveyor of trips to the Underworld – the final resting place for souls. When Calavera discovers a plot to deny saintly individuals their ‘deathright’ of safe passage to their deserved eternity, he becomes embroiled in a so-called Global Conspiracy of Death.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Grim Fandango sees LucasArts discard its signature point-and-click interface, favouring ‘genuine’ control via a joypad or keyboard. In order to avoid moments of Resident Evil-style madness – where players repeatedly walk the protagonist up to onscreen furniture while pressing the action button hoping to find objects – the intelligently animated Manny turns his head to face (and thus highlight) potentially useful items. It’s hard to say whether or not this more immediate approach is preferable to a mouse-based system, but it serves to illustrate that the gap between modern-day graphic adventures and, say, Capcom’s two tales of Raccoon City isn’t as immense as might be at first imagined.
Ironically, it’s the puzzles in Grim Fandango – the bread and butter of its gameplay – that represent its least progressive aspect. In fact, while they offer the intended challenge, frustrating and fascinating in equal measure, they are essentially no more sophisticated than those of Monkey Island or even the ancient Maniac Mansion. But as this is testament to the quality of LucasArts’ early adventures, it would seem spurious to criticise the game on this score.
Ultimately, Grim Fandango’s largest contribution to this increasingly ‘unfashionable’ genre is the story it relates and the imagination with which it does so. As such, it rates as one of the most complete, expertly produced and engrossing graphic adventures ever conceived.