“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
This is why I gladly take the recommendations of friends. Thank you, Timely Mage!
I didn’t get to play Grim Fandango when it originally came out in ’98 on Microsoft Windows and I was hardly even aware of it, in fact, until recently. I’d caught a few glimpses of it before but subconsciously brushed it off as gimmicky or excessively morbid (shut up, Tim Burton). My mistake. Grim Fandango is neither. I’m happy to report that I’ve finally been able to play this game to its completion thanks to the remastered version re-released on the PS4.
Grim Fandango was created by Tim Schafer and published by LucasArts (the remaster was with Double Fine Productions), back when they still made hilarious video games, and is an adventure game. This genre of gaming is rare nowadays but it was characterized by story driven puzzles, interactive conversations, item acquisition and even more puzzles. Many adventure games were text-based, as well, or point-and-click.
Widely considered to be a veritable classic, an award-winning achievement in video game artistry and narrative, Grim Fandango combines a series of bizarre and unrelated influences to create something truly unique.
The game splices stylizing from Mesoamerican folklore and religious beliefs, namely Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday, and film noir mystery and crime melodramas. Day of the Dead and film noir? Together? In one game? Grim Fandango takes cues from the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Casablanca. Here’s lookin’ at you, jefé.
Somehow the developers got the depiction of this afterlife to work. Most of the characters in the game resemble Mexican calaca figures, though they’re involved in a narrative straight out of a detective movie. Thrown together from two so dramatically different settings, you’d think this would be incoherent. Yet the charm and instant endearing quality of Grim Fandango is tangible. You can feel it from the very first cinematic cutscene.
Or as my wife, The White Out Mage, remarked: “After seeing all so many living people pretending like their dead, it’s refreshing to see dead people pretending they’re alive.”
This charm is no doubt due in large part to LucasArt’s distinguished unconventional humor. A kind of unexpected funniness. Think Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Maniac Mansion, and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, to name a few of my personal favorites. Snappy dialogue and the kooky, forced juxtaposition of (seemingly) mismatched ideas.
I’m sorry it’s over. I miss these characters.
Grim Fandango centers around a large cast of characters in the Eighth Underworld of the Land of the Dead. Manuel “Manny” Calavera is a Grim Reaper travel agent with the Department of Death in the city of El Marrow whose job is securing the best travel packages for recently deceased clients based on the moral merits of the lives they lived. Saints get to travel across the Eighth Underworld and avoid its hazards and pitfalls in style in cars or on cruises or by train, whereas sinners are forced to hike by foot, all on their way to the Ninth Underworld, the Land of Eternal Rest. Such a clever idea for an adventure game.
Creator Tim Schafer said:
“…I thought, what role would a person want to play in a Day of the Dead scenario? You’d want to be the grim reaper himself. That’s how Manny got his job. Then I imagined him picking up people in the land of the living and bringing them to the land of the dead, like he’s really just a glorified limo or taxi driver. So the idea came of Manny having this really mundane job that looks glamorous because he has the robe and the scythe, but really, he’s just punching the clock.”
The story is divided into four years, each a separate act centered around November 2nd. At the start of the narrative, Manny Calavera is working off his time in the Eighth Underworld by serving his clients, though he suspects he’s being stiffed with terrible ones he can’t offer good travel packages to. Manny is frustrated by the clients he’s getting, knowing that he’s stuck in the Eighth Underworld for a longer period of time unless he can secure some saints. Exacerbating his situation, his boss threatens to fire him unless he can get some better clients.
Meanwhile, Manny’s coworker Domino Hurley seems to be getting all the premium clients. So Calavera does the only sensible thing. He rigs the system to that he can receive Domino’s next client. This happens to be Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, an attractive young woman who died from food poisoning after apparently living a virtuous life. Unfortunately, Manny’s Department computer still assigns Meche the four-year walking journey, even though Manny is certain she qualified for the luxury express train.
But before our hero can figure out what gives, Meche disappears. Thus Manny, together with a speed demon named Glottis, uncovers a criminal racket that goes up to the very top of the Department of Death. He flees El Marrow after he’s caught for stealing Domino’s client and blamed for her unassigned travel package. He’s got something to fear, even though he’s dead, since in this afterlife the dead can “die” again if they’re “sprouted”: shot with a special bullet which causes plants and vines and flowers to grow painfully all over their bony bodies until they’re reduced to nothing.
Manny’s journey takes him through the Petrified Forest, to Rubacava, under the sea and all the way to the End of the World. Grim Fandango is positively unforgettable. I couldn’t help but be impressed with its surprisingly complicated plot and lifelike (heh) characters.
I was pleasantly surprised that this was a game with something to say, with the real drama of crime and corruption. It was even surprisingly mature-themed and serious, despite its humorous, cartoonish appearance.
One character, Olivia at the Blue Casket beatnik nightclub, recites the following poem:
“With bony hands I hold my partner
On soulless feet we cross the floor
The music stops as if to answer
An empty knocking at the door
It seems his skin was sweet as mango
When last I held him to my breast
But now we dance this grim fandango
And will four years before we rest.”
Grim Fandango would make a great movie.
The 8-bit Review
Grim Fandango uses 3D models over pre-rendered backgrounds but despite its aged graphics the game has a distinct sense of the art of cinematography. The scenes are always presented from dynamic angles with characters moving to and from foregrounds and backgrounds. Though the polygon models are crude by today’s standards, and they cannot mesh with the pre-rendered settings, they are articulate enough to imbibe real personality. Again, it feels like you’re watching a film. The unobtrusive, seamless, full-motion cutscenes ensure that.
Lighting is another significant aspect of Grim Fandango’s graphics. Moody, dark, brooding, mysterious, pensive, the game is well aware of how to create atmosphere in various scenes whether that’s with the light trickling in through half-opened blinds in Manny’s office or the low-lit ambience of his empty Rubacava café.
Lighting also takes us into the realm of discussing the visual merits of this remastered version. The character models were touched up, streamlined and given reflective surfaces for light to interact with. It’s night and day. So even though the pre-rendered backgrounds weren’t touched at all for the remaster, the updated models really improve the look of the game.
This soundtrack is phenomenal. Songs morph and change and switch between scenes and different areas of cities, but there’s an inherent smoothness to all of it layered comfortably in the authentic swank and classiness of early 1900’s nightclub and crime drama jazz. This might just be the best video game jazz/big band/swing soundtrack I’ve ever heard. It’s a complex OST and it’s been fully orchestrated for the remaster.
I wish I could score Grim Fandango’s audio an 11/10 because of the voice acting. I don’t know who did the casting for this game but they deserve an Emmy or a free high five or something. The Spanglish slang and accents sound authentic. The dialogue these actors were given is nothing to sniff at, either. There are plenty of voices with instant charm, especially Manny Calavera’s. And I’m talking about virtually every voice in the game, even the basic nobody NPC. The game is lifted to a whole new level of cinematic art because of the incredible work by this cast….
Please take a few moments to listen to some of their outstanding performances:
Grim Fandango’s presentation is top tier but there’s a reason why adventure games have fallen out of fashion. This style of gameplay boils down to solving puzzles which require an OCD-level attention to detail and the ability to make correlations that aren’t there. The solutions result in hilarity but often times the puzzles themselves are inexplicable. You’ll get a couple of items and have access to but a few areas and have little to no idea what to do with them. I don’t know how you could solve your way through the game without an insane amount of trial and error, or without simply consulting a walkthrough (which I was forced to do several times).
When you solve a situation on your own, the sense of reward and achievement is great. But that’s if you’re able to figure out what you need to do with a hole punch to put holes in a (spoilers: highlight to reveal) playing card so you can use it as an air filter to intercept your coworker’s mail, or how you have to use dirty sink water with a turkey baster and squirt it into a sailor’s liquor to make him pass out so you can steal his dog tag so you can throw it into a body at the morgue so the coroner can pronounce him deceased so you can take his place on a ship… Wow.
It isn’t even apparent why you need to solve a puzzle to get a certain item to progress.
Then there are the conversations. They are wonderful for characterization and storytelling. They feel organic, even, sometimes. But trying to get a character to say something specific in order to proceed with the game can make for frustrating repetitions.
The adventure game genre is fun in its own quirky way, though, and Grim Fandango is still one of the best examples of it.
With a highly involved plot and a terrific sense of storytelling, Grim Fandango excels in narrative. Nay, it revels in it. This game is all about its story of criminal conspiracy, being framed and becoming a fugitive, and all the homages to classic movies and tropes. Manny discovers that (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Domino Hurley is working with crime boss Hector LeMans to cheat recently deceased people who led good lives out of their travel packages in order to sell counterfeits and hoard the real tickets for themselves.
But it’s really the characters who make the game come alive. Every one is so unique and so well defined, even as parodies, infused with so much personality. How can you not love Glottis, Manny’s trusty mechanic, with his ridiculous voice and gigantic mouth?
Okay so I’m convinced that this game is almost impossible without a walkthrough. Certainly that’s in large part because of the sheer amount of patience it would require to solve some of its trickiest puzzles. I feel like it was borderline too hard. Some of the situations weren’t even enjoyable, or they certainly wouldn’t be without some kind of guide to help make sense of them.
In retrospect, I can see how the game does in fact drop hints for you in order to help you figure out how items ought to work together. The game is constantly telling you that the “sprouting” bullets cause rapid plant growth when they hit bone, since that’s what happens every time the skeleton characters are shot with one, but you may still not be able to put two and two together once you pick up a hand-grinder with a bony arm stuck in it and a can of “sproutella”.
Grim Fandango is not for the faint of heart if you want to play it the real way and avoid all walkthroughs. If you don’t care and want to just enjoy it for the story and ignore the majority of its puzzles, then that’s fine. If you’re one of those people always saying “Now don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!”, well… expect to be stuck in the Land of the Dead for four years just like these characters.
As a remaster, this version of Grim Fandango includes the new high-res graphics. You have the option to switch between the original and the remastered visuals with the touch of a button. Neat. The remaster also features the updated orchestral score and controls, trophy support, and an audio commentary by the developers which you can access at various points while playing the game.
That last addition is at the very least an interesting addition to the game. I’m not a huge fan of audio commentaries and I doubt I’ll ever listen to the typically dead pan tones of nearly any audio commentary, but it’s there if you want it. In my opinion, the game could’ve used an inflated art gallery or unlockable avatars, or the chance to win your own trip on the Number Nine express in a sweepstakes.
What else can be said to prove how unique Grim Fandango is? Can you think of any other video game that combines the Day of the Dead with film noir? The result is a classy, unforgettable, polished, hysterical adventure.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I loved this game. I fell in love with its memorable class. When it was over, I woke up the next morning thinking about it. I didn’t mention that I was because I didn’t want to look like a weirdo in front of my wife. Husbands do try to impress their wives, still. But she impressed me when she said she missed the game. We were both sad it was over.
Thinking about everything that I’ve written here, I’m not sure that I’ve really captured what makes Grim Fandango so special. Surely it’s because of the great art design, the great music, the great characters and plot, the great presentation. But I feel like it’s more than just a compendium of great things. In many moments it transcends its own medium.
Grim Fandango might be about skeletons but it has a lot of heart. It is, as its name suggests, paradoxical: a morbid dance, dead-serious and lighthearted all at once.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
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