Grim Fandango

1998 LucasArts Entertainment
Designed by Tim Schafer
Reviewed 2000 June 29

Rating +4 Linearity narrow, segmented
Reasonability reasonable Connectivity high
Difficulty challenging Relevance strong
Interface 3rd paned simple Real-time minor

You are Manny Calavera, a grim reaper and travel agent. You collect dead souls and sell them passage through the land of the dead to the next world. You do this to pay off some karmic debt accrued during your life. You've noticed that your collection assignments have been very low class lately, which makes it impossible for you to make headway paying off your debt. When you finally land a good assignment -- a beautiful, saintly woman named Meche -- she is mysteriously listed as a dead-beat in the office computer database, and she promptly disappears. As you investigate the matter, you discover a horrible conspiracy.

Your main sidekick is Glottis, a speed dæmon who exists only to drive and build fast vehicles. Glottis provides most of the comic relief. There's a dozen or more other prominent characters, most from the standard film noir catalogue of characters. They are well used, helping to build up the complex world and the conspiracy. Although the game is lighthearted, with more than a touch of slapstick, there's a serious, dark story underlying the action.

The game is broken into four segments, each during the Day of the Dead of consecutive years. Years one and four are linear, years three and two are non-linear. The challenges are all situational problems, natural parts of their world and your rôle in it. There's a tendency towards silliness, with actions sometimes having strange and unexpectable results, but this is more than counterbalanced by the large number of good, reasonable challenges. There are many clever challenges requiring lateral thinking and good associative synthesis.

There are many real-time constraints, but almost all are simple and repeatable, such as waiting for a character to turn his back before doing something. There was one very annoying challenge that involved minute control of Manny, although it wasn't timed.

The backgrounds are beautiful, both in rendering and conception. The architecture is a cross between art deco and Mayan (or other Mexican nation). The characters are 3D puppets, but presented in the style of Day of the Dead paper masks, which plays well into the limitations of the technology. As usual for LucasArts, the voice talent and music are top notch.

The game engine is very different for a pure adventure. There is no cursor. Instead, you guide Manny around with the keyboard, much like Tomb Raider. Manny's head will turn or nod to point at various interactable objects or characters. There are examine, take, and use keys, in lieu of mouse buttons. Unfortunately, any possible advantage to the interface was not apparent in the game, leaving only a list of disadvantages.

With no explicit cursor, I had to guess what Manny was looking at. There were often two or more objects or characters in his line of sight, with only very subtle differences in his head position. Sometimes, he could only see an object when standing in just the right spot. This makes pixel hunting seem fun. Directing Manny's movement was also unnecessarily tedious. Rather than a simple click on a destination, leaving the work to a pathfinding AI, I had to continuously pilot Manny around obstacles. Several times Manny got hung up in the scenery, such that I was unable to move him and had to restore the game. I sometimes had problems getting Manny to go through exits: approach in a slightly wrong direction, and he gets blocked by some small part of the scenery and turns away. This makes the potential exit look like a non-functional part of the background.

I noticed another bug: the cut-scenes had no subtitles. I

Grim Fandango is one of the best epic tales of adventuredom, and for that alone should not be missed. The concept is original, the setting is exotic, Manny is a wonderful character, and there's a strong plot driving relevant play. And that play is good, too -- not just the individual challenges, but the overall structure of those challenges, how they connect with each other. If it wasn't for the clumsy, obnoxious interface, Grim Fandango would be a main contender for best adventure game ever.

Beware! Here are some spoiler-ridden notes on the game. They're only recommended for people who have played the game and want to see some of my rationale for my evaluations.
David Tanguay's Game Reviews
Here's a description of all the gobbledygook in these reviews. It's also a bit of an essay on the nature of adventure games.