Friday, September 12, 2008

Game Review: Grim Fandango

Okay. Well... that was different.

I'd heard about "Grim Fandango" for years, but never had a chance to play it until very recently. Historically, it's noteworthy for being one of the last adventure games created by LucasArts, before they started focusing exclusively on "Star Wars" material.

Which was a shame, because their adventure line was full of fun games with quirky humor, amusing characters and challenging puzzles. They tended to be more forgiving than Sierra games, because you could never die or get trapped in a losing scenario; while that might make things a little less exciting, it's nice not to have to save your game every sixty seconds (these were, after all, products of the pre-autosave days).

But "Grim Fandango" stands out even among its sister games like "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam and Max Hit The Road". For starters, it's in 3D (as opposed to the more typical 2D format), and the game's plot and visual style mixes quasi-Mayan mythology, noir and Mexican imagery, a combination I've never seen before. "Grim Fandango" looks different, and that counts for a lot. The story is simple but perfectly balances comedy and a Casablanca-esque atmosphere: Manny Calavera is a travel agent for the Department of Death, responsible for helping freshly deceased souls start their four-year journey to the Other Side. Unfortunately, after an unexplained fall from grace, Manny constantly finds himself with people who can't "afford" (by whatever currency is valid in the Land of the Dead) much more than a walking stick, as opposed to tickets on a luxury train or a car. The story proper begins when Manny meets Meche Colomar, a kind but mysterious woman whose good deeds should have earned her passage on the prestigious Number Nine Express, but has nothing going for her. Suspicious of internal tampering, Manny investigates and ends up chasing Meche on his own four-year journey, through nightclubs and port cities and across the open seas. I should note here that I loved the witty banter between Manny and Meche - kudos to the voice actors for doing a superb job.

Unfortunately, this golden oldie has some mold(ie). After years of using a perfectly dependable mouse interface, LucasArts designed "Grim Fandango" with an incredibly uncomfortable keyboard-based system in which the arrow keys move Manny around, and objects of interest can be examined or used once Manny is close enough that his head turns towards said objects. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, except... well, remember the 3D environment? It makes navigation downright obnoxious because the directional keys aren't absolute - "up" means "forward" no matter which way Manny is facing, and it can get very frustrating because he doesn't turn smoothly either, so just moving from one screen to another can be a chore.

So it's very much a "story vs. gameplay" situation, but I think the creative merits of "Grim Fandango" compensate nicely for the problematic mechanisms.