Grim Fandango

Platform: PC (Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP)
Developer/Publisher: LucasArts
Released: Sept 30, 1998

"Hey kiddles, check out my bone-saw.."

What's Right

Aside from the issues I'll list below in "What's Wrong" just about everything about Grim Fandango is right. For me, though, the most right thing about Grim Fandango is the ambience. The graphics, while very primitive by modern standards, convey all the information you need to achieve your mission goals and set the appropriate mood at the same time. It's quite impressive to see what could be achieved back in the days when 3D was new and interesting, and we didn't have HWTL, Shader 3.0, DX10, ...

The artwork is astounding, with such attention to detail and consistency of the theme, sometimes I've wandered around a location just looking at the fine details on the edges of things — places where regular gameplay wouldn't lead you, or if it did, not in a way that would suggest you take the time to look at the scenery. I should also note the progress indicator at the top of the load/save screen: as you make your way through the game, a bas relief of your journey is revealed; you really should take the time to look at it, everything is in there!

The music is perfect. It suits the overall style of the game precisely, really allowing you to get lost in the story; always adding an extra dimension to the level, never overpowering, always appropriate.

And then there's the story itself. The game puts you in the main role of a seedy pulp fiction crime novel, delving into the depths of the underworld as your hero drags himself to great heights, always to be dragged down again, on a journey that will eventually lead to his ultimate redemption. You know the formula. The thing that sets Grim Fandango apart from anything else I've ever seen in the genre is the fact that the entire game is based in the Land of the Dead. The main protagonist, Manuel "Manny" Calavera, and every other person in the game, is a skeleton — the sould of one who has died in the Land of the Living, making their way towards the Ninth Underworld according to the Aztec beliefs of the afterlife.

The game plays like one of those "choose your own adventure" books, where you are provided with a seried of context-dependant statements and responses. Fortunately Grim Fandango is scripted in such a way that you can never reach a dead end — the conversations are more for entertainment purposes and story development than actual path selection. And entertaining they are; I'm often content to explore the entire conversation space before selecting the response I feel will lead to the next stage of the game. It really helps you develop an appreciation of the depth of the admittely very stereotypical characters.

The last thing I'll say is right about Grim Fandango is the most important: it's really fun. Without that, it wouldn't be a game. But it is, it really is. I bought a copy the other day (my second or third, they always end up missing) and played through it in about a week — I really tried to drag it out and savour the whole experience. My response at the end is: I want more.

What's Wrong

My first complaint about Grim Fandango, one I've had since I first laid eyes on the game, is the fact that it sometimes crashes, unexpectedly and sometimes very spectacularly. I have a feeling it's graphics-related — the game is from the Direct-X 6 era and has some "experimental" features that probably vanished in the past three or four iterations of DX. (Hint: don't use hardware acceleration. It doesn't make a difference to the graphics, and any CPU made since the Pentium III era can handle the game without batting an eyelid.) It also has the annoying ability to save the entire gamestate — including the "locked-up-ness" flag, so if you, for example, played all the way through until the final year, had a small crash-to-desktop issue after returning to Rubacava and were forced to reload your last save game at the train tunnel leading to the world beyond, and accidentally hit some magic key combination (probably Ctrl+Shift+Enter, I can't remember) and the game locked up, and in a panic you saved over your save game, then every time you loaded that save game you would find yourself standing before the guardian of the portal, without any music playing, unable to move, and basically screwed.

My second complaint about Grim Fandango is the controls. You steer with the keyboard, holding Shift makes you run, and when Manny hits an edge (obstacle, well, ledge, etc.) he turns away from it. Sometimes shifting between scenes involves a good-the-first-time machinima cut scenes, such as Manny climbing up or down the last half of a ladder. If you bump the appropriate edge of the screen, you can find yourself forced to watch Manny make his way up and down those damned ladders several times — usually when you were in a hurry, which is why you overshot in the first place. Manny also has a tendency to miss doorways and ladders when running, but his short little legs walk so slow you often forget that taking your hand off the Shift key is an option. It's not a big deal, but it is irritating, and it can distract you a bit from the awesomeness of the game.

My third and final complaint is one you tend to forget while not playing: if you don't know what to do next, it's really, really hard to work out what to do next. Sometimes the steps required to solve a particular puzzle or situation can be very involved, and require a lot of back-and-forthing across the level; and if you don't know beforehand (or at least have a vague idea) what you intend to do, it can be very hard to work out what needs to happen to get it done. And some things are purely incidental, in that no amount of planning can really inform you. (Hint: if you use Meche's ashtray as she's about to take a puff on her cigarette, she might burn a hole in her stockings.) Having played through the game a few times, I generally have an idea what I need to do.. but even so, it's very hard to resist the temptation of Googling "grim fandango walk through" sometimes.


I have to say, Grim Fandango is one of my all-time favourite games. If I was the kind of person to apply a star-rating, I'd rate it 4½ out of 5. The bad things are so far outweighed by the good, and the spectacular things are so .. well .. spectacular, very few PC games in the past 10 years have come close to matching it. I strongly recommend everyone play Grim Fandango at least once (preferably twice, or more!)

So go. Now!

"Heh heh, stupid octopus."

... Matty /<

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Matthew Kerwin

CC BY-SA 4.0
games, review
My review of Grim Fandango (LucasArts, 1998). 4&frac12;/5

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