Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week Wasp returns to the feature with a one way ticket on the Number Nine Express to talk about Grim Fandango a 1998 adventure game from Lucasarts. (I played remastered for the review which was remastered by Double Fine)
“You know, sweetheart, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”
The Short Of It: Grim Fandango’s collection of goofy characters, witty dialogue, beautiful locales, and noir/road-trip inspired plot are undone by game-play full of mostly obtuse puzzles. I had to use a guide to get through my trip with any sense of foward progression and plot momentum.
Year One: The Plot: Manny Calavera (Tony Plana) is a Travel Agent with the Department Of The Dead hoping to work off his time in the 8th Underworld by selling travel packages to the newly dead. Unfortunately fellow Travel Agent Domino Hurley (Patrick Dollaghan) is getting all the best clients and all the best commissions. So after hatching a scheme to snipe Dom’s latest client Meche (Maria Canals-Barrera) out from under him. The theft goes off perfectly and Manny thinks he is in for a big payday when something mysterious happens to Meche’s ticket on the Number Nine. This sets off a multi-year adventure where Manny accompanied by his best friend and driver The Demon Glottis (Alan Blumenfeld) goes off to find both the missing Meche and the whereabouts of the missing tickets. I love this plot a lot. It is a fun mashup of Noir classics like Double Indemnity, Casablanca, Chinatown and tons of others.
Year Two: The Characters & Dialogue: The voice acting across the board is great granting life to the dead characters they are playing. Tony Plana even helped out with the dialogue providing a lot of the peppered in Spanish words and phrases that Manny and others say throughout the game. The designs of the souls are all based on Calaca figures and then dressed up in differing wardrobes depending on the year. (Manny’s suit from Ruba Cava and his outfit in Year Four are my favorites.) The Demons are more abstract mounds of colorful polygons and while they give a nice cartoony affect they are where most of the game’s art seams are showing age wise (Especially Glottis and the pink demon who are so big you can clearly see where all their limbs connect.) The dialogue is really good. Glottis and Manny have great chemistry together and the game succeeds at selling their friendship so much that the two of them are my favorite relationship in the whole game. Humor wise the whole game has a snarky edge to it especially Manny who almost always has something funny to say about objects or people in the game world. The strongest aspect of this humorous dialogue are all the times two or more characters are talking to each other, everyone has a bon mot to deploy on demand. My one big complaint is that the romance between Meche and Manny seems to come out of nowhere and that the two never seem to develop romantic chemistry between them. Honestly I wanted Manny to date Eva his former boss’s former secretary and current Freedom Fighter/leader of the LSA. Those two are dynamite together with all their interactions in Year One having a flirty edge to them. Eva is my favorite of the side characters and I wish the game had more of her (and the LSA in general.)
Year Three: The Setting: The Eighth Underworld of Grim Fandango is a delicious beautiful blend of Aztec art and architecture, Mexican art, Film Noir, and Art Deco with some Big Daddy Roth thrown in whenever a vehicle is needed (The Bone Wagon is a standout.) Each Year (kinda except the Third) of Manny’s journey leans more heavily on one influence with year one’s city of El Marrow looking like a Mexican noir metropolis replete with Skyscrapers, Office Buildings, and a Street Festival with a very cranky clown. My favorite locale has got to be Ruba Cava the setting of Year Two where Manny runs a fancy club with Glottis. This town is a Deco wonderland with fluid designs, pointy buildings and a retro future vibe. It is also the chapter that wears a specific reference most heavily by casting Manny in the Bogart role of Casablanca complete with a swanky club beset by a cop who just has to win each time he gambles in the establishment. My least favorite year by far is Year Three. It is mostly underwater for the entirety and it has the least amount of architectural flourishes in the whole game. It is also the setting with the fewest characters to interact with and who does show up also happen to be among the most annoying in the game. (I really dislike the kids and the lantern guy. Lantern Guy’s singing voice is so annoying and he keeps singing!) Year Four has a beautiful and serene Aztec Temple, a gorgeous but unsettling Greenhouse, and a Neon Injected return to Year One’s El Marrow. It is also the shortest chapter of the game and thus the one we spend the least time exploring though sadly. (I heard that a lot more was planned for this portion of the game but had to be cut in 98 due to time and budget constraints.)
Year Four: The Game-play: Now we get to the undead elephant in the room. This game’s puzzles. To call the game hard is an understatement. It is downright cruel with a lot of the puzzles having no hint at all as to the intended solution. My first roadblock came right at the beginning with the mail room where I spent 45 minutes milling about the DOD trying to figure out how to get inside the tube chamber. (You’re supposed to fill dead worm balloons with packing foam (both kinds!) and then send the balloons through your mail chute to get the repairdemon to open the door.) That’s only the first of my troubles as the game does not let up with the design. (Seriously why would I think a sign can be picked up in the Petrified Forest and what on earth would posses me to take it to the tunnels there!?) even the character based puzzles are needlessly complicated. I spent an hour in Ruba Cava wandering around trying to help those bees out so my pal Glottis could get the tools we need. Nothing at all indicated that I needed to show my personal correspondences with Salvador to the three Beatniks in the Blue Casket to get a book on labor organization that I wasn’t even aware was on the table! It was after that unbeelievable bullshit that I just gave up and used a guide for the rest of my time playing.
That’s my thoughts on the often beautiful, often brutal Grim Fandango. Is it the masterpiece gaming culture holds it up as? I’m going to say a resounding no as Game-play is a key aspect of video games and this game is just a rough one to play. I will highly recommend it though as if you’ve got a guide handy the good stuff in Grim Fandango is a lot more accessible