We’re getting to the end of this Scion week, and I’m honestly surprised I’ve managed to talk so much about this campaign. This was supposed to be a two or three-piece thing, not five as it is right now. But considering a 2000 word article is already a stretch for most people, the full plot-compendium of 8000 words would’ve been too much for anyone.
To recap, on Monday I dropped a Primer with some basic Scion concepts and mechanics to make my retelling make some sense, then on Tuesday I spoke about the Hero story—as in the Hero level of play, not the wonky-quality TV series Heroes or the really strange Jet Li film Hero—and yesterday was all about the Demigod arc.
So of course, today I end this telling of the campaign with the God campaign.
Originally released in 1999 Grim Fandango is one of the last adventure games released by LucasArts. It combines Mexican folklore with a Film Noir plot and stars the grim reaper himself…well, one of them anyway.
Fantastic world combining Noir and Mexican folklore.
Superb voice acting and music.
Revamped control scheme.
Clunky inventory system.
I won’t deny it. I was excited when I saw the news for the Grim Fandango remake. I remember playing it when I was younger, about a year after release, in 1999. I borrowed the game from a friend—you know, back in those days where DRM and serials weren’t a thing.
I’ve been playing the game recently, going through it once more and I realised I didn’t remember a thing about it. I couldn’t remember the solution to even a single puzzle, which to be honest is perfect for a review. So let’s get to it.
Grim Fandango puts you in the shoes of Manuel “Manny” Calavera, an agent for the DOD, The Department of Death. As an agent his job is to find the recently deceased and depending on their personal history get them the best deal possible on their trip to the afterlife. If the soul has been especially good, they can get a direct trip on the Number Nine express train to the Ninth Underworld. If there are dark spots in their bio, the options range from lying in a coffin shipped by mail to a walking stick for the long journey.
At the start of the game, Manny’s been in a slump, only getting bad clients and cheated out of new ones by his colleague, Domino. Deciding to take matters into his own hands—and yours—he intercepts one of Domino’s clients and claims her for his own, thinking she’s assured a spot on the Number Nine. But it turns out his bosses rigged the system and have stolen everybody’s tickets. With Meche, his would-be client, now lost in the underworld and the conspirators pursuing him, Manny sets out to find the girl and stop the bad guys…but mostly find the girl.
The story is a traditional Noir plot. There are conspiracies, intrigue, betrayals and deceit at every corner. But it is a Tim Schafer and LucasArts game so there is plenty of comedy as well, mostly from how surreal the world and locations are. Unlike other LucasArts games there aren’t many pop-culture references, instead they take jabs at familiar Noir tropes and poke fun at how we all imagine death and the afterlife to be. It is however a darker game than other in the Lucas catalogue.
The story plays out in four acts or Years, each with a different location, new characters and new pieces to the conspiracy. I loved the Year transitions. Years 1 and 2 end with Manny in a precarious position, stuck at a dead-end café and a broken down ship respectively, but the opening cinematic for the following one show him turning those around—the Café into a successful nightclub and casino called Café Calavera and the ship into a mercantile vessel. And all of it without losing sight of his goal of finding Meche and get her to the Ninth Underworld.
Manny as a character is one of the best in adventure games. He’s both selfish and selfless at times, he cares even if he has to manipulate and cheat. He’s not an angel, but he’s not evil either. In essence, he’s a very human and relatable character, with strengths and flaws. The supporting cast on the other hand is a collection of extremes and Noir tropes, from the sultry femme fatale to the extremely greedy villains. But that isn’t to say they aren’t as interesting as the main one. Each has their unique personality and they make you want to know more about them. Glottis, for example is one of my favourite characters. He’s a Mechanic Demon, first acting as Manny’s driver and on the way becoming his loyal companion…and comic relief. Meche starts off as the typical good girl, but shows more strength and determination you would think she had. The central characters all grow during the story, and that is rare in adventure games.
Grim Fandango’s visual style takes its inspiration from Mexican “Dia de los Muertos”—and in fact it is that exact day at the start of the game, the only time when the dead can visit the living. All characters look like Calaca figures, walking skeletons. When Manny reaps a soul, what comes with him isn’t a ghost but another bony figure. Environments area mix of 1930s aesthetics, such as you would find in classic film Noir, and Aztec architecture. There are high-rise buildings and race tracks with Aztec colour tones and even temple-like structures in the last act, but there are also more traditional Noir locations, such as the Poet’s nightclub The Blue Casket or even Café Calavera. The locations and character designs draw you in as much as the voice actors and music do.
The game uses static environments with 3D objects and characters and fixed camera angles. The remake improved on the character models, though considering they’re all skeletons there wasn’t much to improve. Mostly they just made the faces more detailed. But they also improved on the lighting, and this bit adds a lot more to the game’s atmosphere, especially at the start. Now light streams through Manny’s blinds, falling on him in stripes as if it were the office of a Noir detective.
The game also features FMV both during gameplay, such as when opening the mailing machine’s door or the elevator in Rubacava, and for story cinematics. The latter mostly take place between acts or at significant moments, such as when you pull up the SS Lamancha. The remake doesn’t change anything about these, nor did they have to because they work perfectly well. In fact, the best thing about them is the original development team went to great lengths to make sure the characters and environment in the FMVs looked exactly as they do in the game’s engine—called GrimE and based on the Jedi Knight engine, no SCUMM for Grim Fandango—so that players always saw familiar faces.
Speaking of actors and music, there isn’t anything bad to say here. The sound design is outstanding. The soundtrack mixes the jazzy tunes you need for the Noir vibes with traditional Mexican music, in the process creating a new style that instantly brings the name Grim Fandango to your mind. Hell the music is so good there were moments I stopped progressing just to take in as much of it as I could. It’s the kind of videogame music you’ll buy the soundtrack and listen to it every day!
Voice acting is superb, particularly because most of the actors are native Spanish speakers, making them much more authentic and convincing, but also because as actors they give strong performances. I often complain how screams and shouts in games feel half-assed, but in Grim Fandango the actors give their all and remain convincing no matter the situation.
Finally, there’s the gameplay and this is where I have a problem.
I hate the inventory system for Grim Fandango. I sincerely do. Instead of the grid-like inventory used in other LucasArts titles or the horizontal list-like inventory of games such as Sam & Max, you can’t see all the items you have at once. Manny’s suit is your inventory and every time you need an item, you’ll have to scroll through the entire inventory. Worst still is that it doesn’t remember what the last item you looked at was, and it even gave me the impression that the item positions changed from one look to another. I knew an item, a piece of bread, was two items to the right when I first looked, but the second time I had to scroll even further. It ties nicely with the item-drawing animations, as the inventory is essentially part of it but it’s clunky and can make you waste a lot of time. It actually made me grateful there aren’t any item combinations, because that would’ve bene a terrible hassle.
As this is a LucasArts game, the puzzles are almost exclusively inventory ones and they are generally in the moon-logic realm. To be honest, I’m now convinced Schafer and his team were on peyote while designing some of these, because you would have to bombed out of your head—or be a long-time adventure gamer—to figure them out. For one puzzle you need to figure out the combination of numbers and days for a winning betting ticket using pieces of casual conversation, a plaque for a statue and the complaint of a worker. For another, you’ll drink alcohol with gold flakes just so you can have some stripsearch time with a sexy officer to get her metal detector. See what I mean?
As you progress, however, the complexity lowers and the last act has generally easy puzzles, which is slightly disappointing.
One of the best aspects of the remake for me is they built in a fan patch, released years ago, that changes the control scheme from the tank-controls the game originally had—inspired by Resident Evil, popular at the time of the game’s release—in favour of point & click controls. It’s much more comfortable though the originals are still present and work really well with the added gamepad support.
I mostly played the game using the original rendering, which you can switch to at any moment in the game’s menu, but I did enjoy the developer commentary. In commentaries we often hear from the designers and storytellers about something fun they did, but this commentary is from the entire team. From their field trips for environment design ideas to the struggles to program certain things in the game, to how many pieces of different engines they cobbled together to build Grim Fandango. As a software developer, it was fascinating to know the ins and outs of the development side of this great title.
Tim Schafer mentions something very interesting during the commentary. He states that the game happened because of the amazingly talented people that came together at the time, but also because they and he infused in the game a lot of what was happening in their lives. And that if they decided to make the game now, it wouldn’t even get close to what we have, even if they made it with the best of intentions.
Grim Fandango is a hell of a ride. There are grievances with some of its design decisions, especially with the inventory and the original controls, but they don’t really detract from the outstanding experience. It’s a folklore story with Noir soul, and one of the fines adventure games ever released. And I think Mr. Schafer is right, this game couldn’t be made today and have it make the same impact.