Double Fine has finally revived one of Tim Schafer’s best-known and least-played adventure games from his days at LucasArts. Those of us who were too young or bound by the limits of our computers always heard of it: tales of the greatness, the splendor, the sheer Dia de los Muertos-esque grace, of “Grim Fandango.” And now it’s finally available on Vita and PS4 for the new generation of console owners and other people too inept to wrap their minds around the game’s logic (myself included).
“Grim Fandango” tells the story of Manny Calavera (Tony Plana), a skeletal travel-guide who works in the land of the dead and sells travel plans to the newly deceased so that they might make the four-year journey to the ninth underworld. His own journey begins when he meets Mercedes Calomar (Maria Canals-Barrera), the saintly and beautiful skeleton of a woman who should have earned a train ticket through the Land of the Dead with her life’s good works, but instead is forced to walk through its dangers unaided. Thus, Manny must uncover the reason why such a good woman left with no help, and save her from the harrowing trek through Mictlan. (Google it.)
The plot is arguably the best part of the game, operating as one of the best noir stories to exist since movies started to be made with color. Homages of various noir flicks also make up a good majority of the writing, at one point even leaving Manny as the owner of a cafe that offers a bar and roulette, while his demonic sidekick Glottis (Alan Blumenfeld) plays the piano (see “Casablanca”). For those of you who get the visual and thematic cues, hearty laughter will most likely ensue.
The graphics are somewhat dated, as this is a port of a 17-year-old adventure game to new consoles, so if you are only interested in high fidelity images, you won’t enjoy “Fandango.” Aesthetics and visual style are on-point however, and the pseudo-noir look of the game coupled with every character’s appearance as a sugar skull straight out of a Dia de los Muertos celebration manages to make up for the low poly count.
Gameplay is exactly what anybody who liked LucasArts and Sierra adventure games in the ‘80s and ‘90s would expect. Players can expect to wrap their heads around puzzles involving pneumatic tubes and a machine that redirects messages, attempting to clog it up with balloon animals and playing cards so that they can steal their coworker’s messages and intercept the best leads on who is newly dead. If you were confused when reading that description, good. The game design is based entirely around forcing you to be in such a head-space that even the most nonsensical situations — like oppressed proletariat worker bees without the words to rally themselves — can be used to achieve your own ends.
While these puzzles are nothing if not hilarious, they can also be some of the most frustrating attempts at gameplay challenges that have ever existed, leading me to shout “How in God’s holy name was I supposed to know that would work that way!” Adding to the frustration, some downloads of the game are plagued with serious gameplay bugs, although some people are saying this only affected those who bought the game in the first few days of release. At one point, Manny got trapped halfway inside an elevator door, never able to escape and keeping me from making any progress. Another time I was unable to enter an elevator on the way to solve a puzzle (the game apparently had issues with elevators). Though annoying on their own, these bugs are conflated by the fact that the game has no autosaves, and left me loading files that were one to two hours back in the game.
“Grim Fandango” is certainly not a game for everybody. With its specific sense of humor (mostly based around the setting) and cultural influence, any player who has ever wanted to celebrate Dia de los Muertos from the other side of life and death would likely delight in the game and its puzzles. However, as plagued as it is by difficult logic and progress-hampering bugs, only those with saintly patience will be able to get the maximum enjoyment from the game. If you have the time, patience, desire to test your intelligence and $15 to spare, give “Grim Fandango” a whirl, and hopefully you’ll find yourself a new fan of Double Fine studios.
Rating: 3.5 stars