Retro review: Grim Fandango

Of all the genres in gaming, I can’t think of one whose story is as interesting as the adventure game. Beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups, both 2D and 3D largely have very similar storyline and basic ideas, while the entire action/adventure genre is just shorthand for ‘very big and less cartoony looking platformer’. Sports, racing and puzzle games do exactly what they say on the tin and Indie games are just a big mish-mash of everything.

From the original genre-naming game itself through to Telltale’s rebirth of the concept, all these games had a unique story to tell and each told it in their own intricate manner and style, with unique conundrums to solve, be they gut-punchingly harsh, or just plain amusing. Modern games seem to define adventure as finding everything on a map, but these games actually made you feel like you were on one. Another reason the story is so interesting is that they died a very sudden and surprising death (albeit to be revived later on), something I haven’t really encountered with any other popular genre.

Eclectic cast is eclectic

This brings me on neatly to one of the last full-on adventure games released in the era: Grim Fandango. Based in a Mexican version of the Land of the Dead, you take the role of Manuel Calavera, a travel agent who helps the newly departed onto to the “otherside”, also known as The Ninth Underworld. Depending on how well they have lived their life, they could get an express ticket, or have to spend four treacherous years walking there.

I would go further into the story but I won’t. Not because it’s spoilerific, but because it’s best to encounter it yourself. There’s some fantastic storytelling and humour in the lines, as well as pop culture references and sly asides that still make sense today and it would be unfair of me if you haven’t played it to go any further – adventure games are meant to be about the experience and the story is a big part of that.

Instead, let’s look at the other major aspects that Grim Fandango excels in and shows off. The graphical style, while not revolutionary, fits the game perfectly. The bright 2D world of Sam and Max would not have worked with this game given the wonderful film noir edge it has. This edge exudes charm with some great artistic backgrounds mixed in with 3D character models which are a little rough around the edge themselves, just like film noir characters.

Whoever recorded the sound for this game, too, needs a big pat on the back. The satisfyingly crisp sound of a blade is heard when Manny unsheaths his scythe, while the other sound effects are very clear. All the voices recorded for the game fit the characters and you can tell the guy who played Manny really enjoyed his role and this comes through. It’s noteworthy that there isn’t really a weak character either and I think the voice artists really helped with this. No-one overplays their part either, which is easy to do in even the best games. It helps that the writing is utterly sublime, something you’d really expect from Tim Schafer, creator of some of the best gaming scripts of all time, with witty, snappy lines and intelligent dialogue trees.

Nothing on offer, though, compares to the score; light jazz may not be to everyone’s taste, but incorporated with some swing and Mexican vibes it nearly provides the atmosphere on its own. I think the below speaks for itself really:

The puzzles within the game are all thought out and while there’s a hint of Sierra-logic involved, it rarely inconveniences you. At the same time, the game doesn’t treat you like an idiot either, something easily leveled at Telltale’s outings, and it will require some brain power to work out how to progress. The only frustrating bit is that the control system doesn’t work very well in tandem with the puzzles. This game was not point and click and relied on a lot of keyboard keys being assigned to a lot of different things, and it takes a long while to get used to and learn what each key does. However, this is a minor niggle and does not detract from the experience one iota. Grim Fandango is a near perfect adventure game, if not one of the best games made.

Though the adventure genre has been revived by Telltale as mentioned, it hasn’t really reached the heady heights of where it used to be. Grim Fandango was the last great adventure game of an era stretching back to the late 70s, before action-adventure became a synonym for miscellaneous. And as well as Telltale are doing, I’m can’t see it reaching those heights again. At least we have the memories.

Verdict: Astounding, even 13 years on.

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