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My Grim Fandango review

I've just got back into playing Grim Fandango again (for the third time) and i decided to post a review of the game which i wrote a while back. Comments are appreciated.

Grim Fandango Review - Written by Audiosoldier

Death, like life, can be a tricky business. There’s no reason to assume that once you’ve died your troubles are over. Who says you can saunter into Heaven anyway? While these aren’t questions you’d usually associate with a standard FPS, it’s meat and drink to Grim Fandango.

Fandango’s whole premise is oddly logical. When you die your soul is reaped and you are taken to the Land of the Dead. Land of the Dead? Yeah, it’s a whole world filled with crime and corruption. Much like earth then, except that every soul has a face of paper mache.

Manuel Calavara, (Manny) the hero of Fandango is a salesman working for the Department of Death (D.O.D.) whose job is to sell travel packages to the newly dead, so that they can start their journey to the Ninth Underworld. The latter is an eternal resting place that potentially can take four years to reach. Unless of course you were a saint back on earth and are entitled to the Number Nine, an express train that completes the journey in just four minutes. For the rich folk, they can travel on a luxury liner or sports car; the poor are forced to travel by package post.

Now Manny hasn’t had a commission on a good client for ages and has been forced to send them by parcel post. As a result he can’t pay off a little debt to the powers that be and is stuck in the Land of the Dead. So, as a last resort, he sets about stealing a premium lead from the company’s hotshot salesman, Domino Hurley.

Already we have an odd tale that could put many a Hollywood film to shame. A tale that spans four years with a panoply of very bizarre characters and 8,000 odd lines of fantastically polished dialogue. But it’s not the fancy wordage that grabs you first; it’s them there visuals. LucasArts have bitten several rounds of bullets and gone entirely 3D for Fandango. Each and every location is rendered in shining 3D and Fandango could very well be the first Adventure game to benefit from a 3D accelerator.

The characters’ speech is perfectly lip-synched too, and the addition of real-time light sourcing and shadows anchors everyone to the world perfectly.

You control Manny solely with the keyboard using a few simple hotkeys. When he passes and object of interest he’ll move his head in its direction indicating that you can interact with it. With this simple stroke of brilliance it does away with the need for crosshairs and ‘I can’t pick that up’.
Manny’s inventory consists of his voluminous purple jacket pocket and can be scrolled through by using the cursor keys. The dialogue system remains very true to other LucasArts games and most of the superb cut-scenes are pre-rendered.

The mastermind behind Fandango is Tim Schafer, whose CV consists of titles such as Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. This might give you some idea of how intricate and involved Fandango’s puzzles are, and the visual style of it all. Full Throttle was noted for its stylish presentation with numerous cuts and camera angles. Grim Fandango multiplies this idea a thousandfold and the result is positively gorgeous. Much of the game’s visual style is shamelessly nicked from flicks such as Casablanca, as is the spirit behind the dialogue. It has a Mexican touch to it and the game seems to hover around the 40s.

Fandango isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it isn’t supposed to be; the humour is subtle and insidious, with plenty of sly references and wry comment, some of which you’re almost bound to miss. The fact that everyone is dead presents plenty of great gags. For example, ask Manny to examine a fetid mattress and he casually deadpans: “Lot of stains for a guy with no bodily fluids…”

One thing Fandango doesn’t share with Full Throttle is length; it’s enormous and you might complete Year One (of four) in say three hours; two hideously difficult puzzles in the Petrified Forrest notwithstanding. But it’s only when you get to Rubacava and Year Two begins that Fandango’s sheer scope is revealed.

It’s here that Mr. Schafer’s penchant for intertwined yet parallel puzzle chains starts to kick in, as each quest leads to another sub-quest and another and… however, this being a non-linear game, there are always other problems that can be swiftly tackled if you become momentarily stuck.

Make no mistake about it; Grim Fandango is no pushover. Some of the later puzzles are devilishly hard and require a great amount of lateral thinking. There are also plenty of ‘timed’ puzzles where you only have a small window of opportunity to carry out an action. Thankfully, there are none of those ill-advised sub-games that sadly marred Full Throttle.

Manny is a likeable character. He’s highly intelligent and amenable and is able to hold his own in a conversation with the laydeez. Yet he has enough faults to make him seem (ex) human without being a smartarse.

The plot has it all; corruption; revolutionary freedom fighters, the LSA; a mysterious love interest in the form of Mercedes Calomar; a bizarre ‘sprouting gun’ (the only way to permanently die in Fandango is to be ‘sprouted’); more costume changes than Lara Croft, and, underlying it all, the idea that death, like life, is just what you make it.

It would be easy to focus on the visuals as Fandango’s main draw, but gorgeous as they are, they’re merely functional. Nope, it’s the richness, originality and depth of the plot that remains with you long after completing Fandango, married to a superb script and fine voice acting all round.

If there’s one ounce of sense left in Hollywood, then an animated film version should be signed up straight away. Meanwhile, just be thankful that you can experience the delights that Fandango offers. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but most of all you’ll discover why LucasArts is still the untouchable master of the genre, and just how downright good a fine adventure game can be.