I have discovered something about myself while playing through this game. I am not very good at puzzle games. I haven’t really had much experience with the genre prior to Grim Fandango, but man I was not very good. When I started the game, I told myself that I would try to limit myself in regards to Googling the answer. I very quickly had to break that promise.
But moving past my own incompetence, this game has a very interesting and fresh story, where you play a reaper who’s job is to move souls down the afterlife line. The problem is that the main character, Manny Calavera, has had a series of bad people come through his service. These bad souls don’t give him positive gain towards being able to move onto paradise himself. This is where the player steps in, as a woman who is a saint gets a bad rating. You have to figure out why she had such a bad rating and then you have to go out and save her as she travels to paradise.
The gameplay is pretty standard in terms of a point and click style of puzzle game, where you collect items to use on other items to solve puzzles. Here’s where the first problem with this game in my opinion. Some of the puzzles and ways to solve them are completely insane. And I get that its that way because of the cartoonish nature of the story and setting but it doesn’t make it any less annoying to be stuck on a puzzle. One of the puzzles has you stealing a loaf of bread to place underneath a balloon so that some pigeons attack the bread, pop the balloons and fly away. You do all this so you can steal their eggs. I found myself saying “How was I supposed to figure that out?”
When you look past the puzzles being kind of ridiculous and the story being kind of insane, you still have the problem with the controls. They are not very intuitive and feel very tanky. The inventory is accessed by pressing a button and watching as Manny reaches into his coat, pull out an item, show it to you, then you can grab that item or move onto another item. This just flat out sucks. Would it have taken away from anything to have an inventory menu that you could access to check everything all at once?
However, everything isn’t necessarily negative in my experience with this game. Like I said previously, the story is very interesting. So much so that I don’t think there has really been any game that I could compare it to. The setting is very colorful in the city and very twisted and bleak when you leave it.
Another thing this game really does well is the humor and characters. Most of the characters have very funny lines to say when you pry into the dialogue options. You can tell that the team really put a lot into making the characters of Manny and others either be liked if they are supposed to be liked or disliked if they are supposed to be disliked.
Honestly, I didn’t get very far into the game before the frustrating puzzles took over. That being said, I tried to look at what I enjoyed instead of focusing on the terrible at times puzzles. The characters were all very well acted and funny. The plot and art style was very unique and interesting. I really wanted to find out what had happened to everyone but I couldn’t really be bothered. Pick it up and play it if you have the walkthroughs and the patience. Otherwise, definitely at least watch some gameplay to see some of what we are talking about.
Nowadays, when people think of adventure games, they probably think of Uncharted, Metroid, Tomb Raider and all of the action that comes along with them. Well, there’s another side to adventure games. One that’s seemingly been forgotten in this day and age. It’s less “exciting, heart stopping action” and more “maybe putting these shoes on a ladder can help me get a key for that locked door.” I like to call them “what the fuck do I do?” games. And that’s what I found myself wondering at just about every turn during Grim Fandango.
Playing as Manuel “Manny” Calavera in his search for a woman he lost, your journey takes you through the Land of the Dead, uncovering conspiracies of corruption along the way. It sounds basic, but the characters and settings turn it into something truly unique. There is something of a film noir feel throughout the game, while the humor lightens the mood and reminds you not to take things too seriously. It’s a goofy, bizarre, and strangely Hispanic world that is unlike anything I’ve played.
All of the characters you meet, no matter how minor, have a certain flair to them. Manny’s witty and always has a joke ready. Glottis, a bear-looking demon whose sole reason for existence is to work on vehicles, becomes Manny’s right hand man. Everything he does is exaggerated and almost child-like. On the other side of the coin is Dominic, Manny’s co-worker at a travel agency who always seems to get the top-tier clients. Needless to say, there’s funny business afoot. Anyhow, Dominic is a typical sleezebag and has some great lines.
When the characters are great in a game, that means the dialogue has to be great too. And it is. The script is really well written and almost all of the conversations are entertaining. It feels like Manny squeezes in at least one insult or joke each time he talks to somebody. When a game has voice acting, it always has a chance of going horribly wrong (Grandia, Resident Evil, Tidus’s stupid laugh in Final Fantasy X, etc…), but that’s totally avoided in this case. It feels more like you’re watching a cartoon than playing a game when characters are talking. The cast did a great, great job.
So the characters are awesome, the in-game world is really unique, and both make a simple story fun. Sounds perfect. Well… There’s one issue. And it’s a big issue. It’s not necessarily a complaint about Grim Fandango, but more directed towards the genre as a whole. Remember, I call them “what the fuck do I do?” games, and there’s a reason for it. The “puzzles” aren’t so much logic puzzles, but like blindly throwing darts and hoping to God you hit a bulls-eye. Sure, there are some you can figure out if you rack your brain enough, but more often than not, you’re gonna be stumped. Quite a few times, you’ll only be able to achieve your end goal by doing a series of unrelated scenarios that no one in their right mind would be able to figure out.
I’ll be totally honest; I wouldn’t have gotten past the first thirty minutes or so without using a guide. At first, I told myself I would only use it after I gave an honest effort. Yeah, after a few tries, I realized it wasn’t happening. There was actually a distinct point when I knew I’d have my walkthrough open every step of the way. You’re on the roof of a building trying to collect bird eggs for a revolutionary leader so when they hatch they can be trained to become messengers (seriously). I figured I would just need to crush this loaf of bread I’d been carrying around, have the birds who were guarding said eggs come over and eat, and then I could make my move. Well, they ate the crumbs, but I never gained control of Manny… I found out I also had to put a balloon animal in the bowl along with the crumbs, then when the birds came to get a snack, it would pop and they would all fly off. THEN I could grab the eggs. I’d never have figured that out… I could go on about some of the other absurd ways to progress the game, but believe me when I say completing it without at least a little help is nigh impossible.
Rather than playing the original 1998 PC release, my experience was with the remastered version on Playstation 4. I encountered a number of bugs that I doubt were present before. Most of them weren’t major; Manny was running in place during the initial conversation with Glottis, characters would be in the wrong place at times, parts of the environment wouldn’t move when they’re supposed to… Just minor things that didn’t affect the actual game outside of looking out of place. But there was one that was a pretty big deal. There’s a scene where Manny locks a waiter in a closet, then drains a huge barrel of wine. I put the waiter in the closet, but didn’t lock it… I started letting the wine flow, the doors of the closet flung open, the voice of the waiter yelled at me, but he never actually stepped out. And Manny just stood there while this never ending stream of wine was pouring in front of him. At first I thought it was supposed to be comedic, but after sitting around for a minute or two, I realized something was up… I had to restart the game.
With it’s unique personality, I can see why Grim Fandango is so well-regarded by fans of adventure games. It’s full of color characters set in an incredibly unique world. I know I’ve said “unique” over and over, but that’s the best way I can describe this game. It’s really entertaining. When you know what you’re doing. And that’s the big issue. Again, it has more to do with the genre and certainly isn’t exclusive to Grim Fandango. If anything, it takes it easy. I’ve heard of far more absurd puzzles. And there are a number of games where if you do something wrong early on, you’re fucked come the end of the game, whether you know it or not. So I’ll give it credit for not being extremely over the top, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I had to use a walkthrough from beginning to end. And I like solving puzzles. I love the Zero Escape series, which is comprised entirely of dialogue and intuitive puzzles that are both challenging, yet fair. A lot of what you’ll experience in Grin Fandango is damn sure challenging, but rarely is it fair or intuitive. Even still, I’d recommend playing it, as long as you’re okay with using a crutch time and time and time again.
Our Final Thoughts
Steven: So I have to say, I think we are going to have differing opinions based off that you completed the game and I didn’t. What did you think?
Rikki: At this point I actually haven’t finished it, but I’m far enough to have a pretty settled opinion. I’m at the beginning of Year Four, so I’m probably 75% done.
S: Oh alright. I really did enjoy the little bit that I did end up playing, however I felt as though the puzzle difficulty and me not being a huge fan of puzzle games really turned me off from playing any further than I did. I can do puzzles, but when they are these ridiculous, hard to guess type of puzzles is where the player gets frustrated. Can you imagine having played this game if there was no way to look up some of the answers?
R: Absolutely fucking not. Even when I’d think I had a good, logical idea, I’d still be wrong. Most of them are so cryptic and seemingly unrelated to what you’re actually trying to do. It takes away some of the fulfillment when most of them seem so fluky. You didn’t happen to work through a problem… You just happened to come across the right thing by total chance.
S: It really has the problem of a lot of point and click games had where you just use an item with anything just to see if anything works. Using a deck of playing cards on a hole puncher would not be something I would’ve thought of on my own.
R: Maybe it translates better as a point-and-click game on PC, since it wouldn’t require so much walking around. Just kinda click on stuff and see what’s possible. I figured out pretty late in my playthrough that Manny looks at stuff you can interact with, so at least there’s that. I’d have seriously never figured that out. Ever.
S: And it’s a shame because I loved all the characters, setting, and concept of the story. It was all such a vivid and funny world, yet the puzzles kept bringing me out of it. It wasn’t satisfying at any point.
R: I’ve wanted to play these 90s adventure games by LucasArts like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series and I thought I’d be able to handle what they threw at me. But I wasn’t ready. Not one bit. Maybe for veterans of the genre it’s not something too crazy, since there are definitely more absurd ones out there, but for someone just trying the genre out for the first time, it was rough.
S: That’s true as well. I probably won’t pick up any of the other LucasArts games like Day of the Tentacle because of how turned off I was from my first reaction. I guess that it would be easier for someone who grew up with them and already have the mindset needed to go for what the game is looking for, but going from a fresh start was not very good.
R: I’m sure they’re all entertaining and stuff. It’s just how the genre is. It’s not super user-friendly. Maybe one day I’ll play another game or two from LucasArts, but it’ll be a while from now, and I’ll know heading in I’ll be needing to look up 95% of the puzzles.
S: I doubt that I would go back to a LucasArts game. I really am not a fan of having to look up things side by side with a game. It would be different if we got any type of context clues along the way to show us what to do, but those were few and far between.
R: Yeah, there really aren’t a ton of really helpful hints. It’s a bunch of randomness. Which is too bad, cause the game is really entertaining and is worth experiencing. You could honestly probably get by just by watching a Let’s Play on Youtube or something.
S: I’ve been playing quite a few games recently that I would have rather just watched. So what would you rate it?
R: I’m not sure. I’m really conflicted…. I hate to knock a game because of the genre it’s in. That’s like me saying an album by some country singer is shitty cause country is garbage. So I’m gonna lean more towards a positive rating because of the characters, setting and art style, and leave the adventure game aspects to the critics who are more used to it… And it is well-regarded in that circuit. So I’ll give it a 7/10. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to give a serious rating for it.
S: I was thinking the same thing. Since puzzle games aren’t really my thing, my score for it would be lower. But I am trying to minimize that effect and looking more on the story, I would give it a 6.5/10.
R: That’s fair to me. I was considering that too. Decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s such a highly praised game for the genre, that we just have to assume the puzzles and gameplay is on par and nothing too extreme for adventure game veterans. Taking that out of the equation, we both like it enough based on characters, setting, and story alone. It’s aged well for being released in 1998. I could see it coming out today and still being unique.