Finally, after a looooooong playthrough, I finished the game earlier today.
For those of you who don't know, Grim Fandango is considered by many to be one of the best, or even the best adventure game ever made. Its creator, Tim Schafer, is a legend among game designers, a guy who co-created the Monkey Island games, and is responsible for several other classic LucasArts adventure games, as well as Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. The game has been released in 1998, and was one of the first adventure games to feature 3d graphics.
The game has a very specific South American feel to it. The characters you meet belong to the Land of the Dead, so most of them are skeletons. Many buildings have Aztec and Mayan features to them, while the colour scheme and indeed the whole design on the characters is directly inspired by the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition. The music comes in two flavours - Noir style Jazzy tunes and Mexican/Spanish soundings tracks. Both are great - Grim Fandango features one of the best, most original and most memorable soundtracks I ever heard in a video game.
That Noir bit needs some more attention. While the surroundings are definitely south american, the plot and some of the locations has a very noir feel, and by that I mean you will, at times, be reminded of movies like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. This mix of '30s era USA with the near-tribal Dia de los Muertos tradition could seem strange or out of place, but it works great.
The game has a lot of humour. I haven't laughed very much while playing a game for a long time now, and Grim Fandango didn't bring any tears to my eyes with its witty dialogue and jokes, but it sure did bring a smile often. I wouldn't say the humour in the game is a reason to play it, but it does a good job of keeping you entertained and in a good mood throughout the whole thing.
Something I don't feel so strongly about is the inclusion of daemons in the world of Grim Fandango. They serve as a working class of sorts, being mechanics, drivers etc, but they aren't really explained (as in why they are there, and how they work). What's worse is that they have a completely different character design, one which doesn't really work well with the game's early 3D graphics. Their models simply look unattractive and blocky. They are funny and all, and your main character's companion, Glottis, provides a lot of quality comic relief, but they just seem an odd fit in all this.
Speaking of graphics, they're aged, obviously. They are not ugly or painful to look at, but being an early 3D thing, they aren't real beauties either. As mentioned before, the design on them is great, and most locations look good. If anything, it's fire and light effects which haven't really passed the test of time. I'm not a big graphics geek, so I'd say it's a 'take it or leave it' thing, and I took it with no problems.
Grim Fandango is clever, beautifully designed and interesting, but is it a good adventure game? Well... no, no it isn't. Don't get me wrong - most riddles are alright, though I had to use a Walkthrough much more often than I'd like, but the control scheme is atrocious. The game boasts 'A smooth, seamless interface' which 'puts you smack in Manny's world', but that's a darn lie that is. You control the character with the arrow keys, but the camera is static, changing if you walk to a particular edge or point on a static background. What this means is that sometimes you get stuck, and no amount of fidgeting is enough to get out of a place you weren't supposed to end up in. Othertimes, you will struggle to reach the place you want to get to, or to have the main character look the right way.
Manny looks around with his head to indicate stuff you can Examine, Use or Pick Up. This sucks because there is no indicator of what stuff can be used, and what stuff is just there as background. This had me miss several important doors and I couldn't further the plot without checking a walkthrough which told me that there's a door in this one wall that I can't really see because of the camera! Or that the doors I tried to open but it seemed Manny can't be bothered to try are supposed to be opened, but I have to stand REALLY close to them.
Finally, the inventory isn't much better. When you open it, you have to browse through every Item to find what you need. And then, some items have animations when you take them out - this means downtime. When you take an item out of the Inventory, you can put it back, but you cannot choose to not take an item out of the Inventory. This is all very irritating and takes a lot of time - especially if you're at one of those classic 'use every item on this thing to see if something will happen' moments.
What's my final mark, you ask? A 7+/10. Sorry, Grim Fandango. Your great story, theme and atmosphere can't make up for the shitty controls which at times nearly ruined the whole thing for me. While the artistic vision gets an easy 9/10 from me, and the story a strong 8/10, the controls - and hence, gameplay - can only receive a measly 4/10 at most. You should've sticked to the Mouse, people, instead of trying to innovate before you actually had the technology to do that.
Still, Grim Fandango stays a very interesting game, well worth checking out. I wouldn't recommend it to players unfamiliar with adventure games, as it can get pretty hard (unless you want to play through with a walkthrough in hand), but if you like what you read about it here or elsewhere, I'd definitely try to play it. It may be hard though - I got my copy from a second-hand store, new copies are either unavailable or insanely overpriced, and not many people let this one out of their grasp, if only out of sheer nostalgia. And if you don't want to play it, at least check out the screenshots and listen to the music - those things alone are worth doing for Grim Fandango's sake.