Adventure game designers face a difficult task. The genre is by its very nature linear and serves primarily to tell stories, but without puzzles, there's no game. Combining these two elements is the challenge. The story must be intricate and engaging enough to make the inclusion of puzzles seem plausible, and the puzzles must be clever enough to not jump out as an artificial roadblock for the story. It's the rare game that meets one of these goals, let alone both. But Grim Fandango, the latest from Tim Schafer of Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle fame, achieves this delicate combination and more. In addition to being a very good adventure game, it features great writing and beautiful art direction.
Grim Fandango is based upon Mexican folklore, set in the land of the dead. You play Manny Calavera, employee of the Department of Death and travel agent to newly dead souls who are just setting out on the treacherous four-year journey to the ninth underworld. Employees of the DOD, as it is called, are souls who must work off debts from their previous lives in order to earn their own passage to the final resting place. To pay off the debts, agents must accrue a certain number of premium souls, those of the virtuous who have earned more pleasant means of passage, the ultimate of which is the Number Nine, a bullet-train that makes the journey in a more desirable four days.
But Manny is down on his luck. His clients never qualify for the premium packages. And even when he meets one that does, the saintly Mercedes Colomar, he can't seem to find a suitably saintly mode of transportation, reluctantly setting her off on foot into the dangerous world beyond. But Colomar's case will lead Manny to the discovery that all is not as it seems in the DOD, and he will set out on his own journey to set things right. The game follows four years of Manny's afterlife as he travels through a variety of fantastic locales, searching for Mercedes and the real source of corruption.
You will lead Manny through the city of El Marrow, the port town Rubacava, a mining colony at the edge of the world, and the gates of the ninth underworld itself. Each location is distinct, with its own atmosphere and interesting characters. The visual design is consistently great, drawing upon various Latin American sources, such as angular Aztec stonework and the stylized Day of the Dead skeletons, and using them to create modern buildings and vehicles such as cruise ships and casinos. The sound is equally impressive, with great voice acting, distinct sound effects, and a diverse and subtle score by Peter McConnell which ranges from mariachi to jazz.
But the writing is where Grim Fandango earns the most praise. Parodying film noir cliches has become a cliche unto itself, and Grim Fandango thankfully avoids the obvious. This isn't just a faux Sam Spade mystery. Instead, the game draws upon darker and more complex sources, with Chinatown, Casablanca, and even David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross lurking in its shadows. And there are very few jokes in the game, but it is funny. It derives its humor from its situations and characters (such as Manny's oversized sidekick, Glottis) without making fun of itself, helping to create a believable world.
The puzzles help to maintain this believability. While traditional in nature, they are worked into the storyline well. And they are varied, both in style and difficulty. For the most part, you'll have a series of known objectives to complete before moving on to the next locale. These objectives are complex, though, and often the solutions will have multiple parts. You'll undoubtedly be stumped more than once, but the solutions are logical and subtle clues are plentiful.
Grim Fandango is not a typical LucasArts adventure. It's the first from the company to dispense with traditional 2D animation and move to the more cinematic 3D style made popular with Infogrames' Alone in the Dark games, and also utilized in Origin Systems' underrated Bioforge. It uses a keyboard-driven interface instead of the traditional point-and-click, and Manny signals significant objects by turning his head and looking as he passes by. Grim Fandango overcomes the major problems with this style, so only rarely will you be frustrated by disorienting camera-angle switching or feel lost because of an obscure exit.
It would be remiss to avoid mention of Grim Fandango's minor technical faults (such as the strange behavior exhibited by almost every elevator in the game). But these are unfortunate drawbacks to an otherwise great game. The one real problem with Grim Fandango is that the end comes too soon. This isn't because it's too short (it should take most a good two- to three-dozen hours), but because the designers have created a rich world that you won't want to leave, filled with memorable characters that are hard to say goodbye to. Don't be surprised if you're sad when it's over.