Grim Fandango (PS4) Review

Last September I got a PS4 and thought “why not review games as well as movies”! You can read my review of Destiny here, my review of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor here, and my review of Assassin’s Creed: Unity here.

As a kid I got into gaming on our family PC, especially through demo discs from PC magazines. One of the games that always intrigued me was Grim Fandango, which I later bought but never completed. So when I heard that it had been remastered, I made sure to get it and finish it 15 years after I’d first played it! I found that the issues I’d had with it all those years ago are still present and correct, but also that the film noir and Mexican/Aztec design, and some of the puzzles, made it worth the wait.

The game is set in the Eighth Underworld, where the dead resemble Mexican calacas, skeletal figures seen on the Day of the Dead. In this penultimate underworld before the paradise-like Ninth Underworld, souls are judged on their actions in life, which then determine the speed of their transition to the next level. Unfortunately, humans are flawed, and so many souls stay in the Eighth Underworld to scrape a living, with the Department of Death receiving newly-passed souls and allocating them transport to the next level based on their behaviour.

Basically, it’s Python-level bureaucracy with a noirish, Hispanic slant, and our protagonist is lowly salesman Manny Calavera, who ends up stealing a “good” client – Mercedes Colomar – because he feels his Don Draperesque colleague Domino Hurley is getting all the best. Manny, in the film noir style, discovers a vast conspiracy, and four ‘years’ worth of story follow that Raymond Chandler would be proud of.

This game was one of the last PC adventure games made before consoles, and its resurrection is a story worth reading. For those who don’t know, the game is simply a case of talking to other characters, picking items up and using them to solve puzzles. No gunfights, no lives and no deaths! Getting to play the game again – and try and finish it – was great, as I remembered levels I’d played over and over with a new understanding of the in-jokes and maddening puzzles. Manny can’t die and is never really in peril – instead, puzzle-solving is the way forward. And therein lies its biggest flaw.Grim_Fandango_artwork

The puzzles are what you might call obtuse or ‘bastard-hard’. Some rely on pure chance and others on a maddeningly complex system you’d never get without help. I will freely admit in some cases that I used online walkthroughs because the game does nothing to hint or guide you. I feel that if some of the puzzles had been less bizarre that I would have enjoyed the experience more, but at times it killed the momentum dead.

Obviously a late-90s game isn’t going to look great, even when remastered, and at times I cursed the developers for the invisible walls and poor level designs – these could have been upgraded if it’s a remastered game. To be honest, from what I can remember the graphics haven’t really improved in many ways, though I’m sure the developers would disagree.

Don’t get me wrong though: these are annoyances – as is Manny’s annoying sidekick Glottis – but the music, voice acting and storyline make up for it. As I’ve already mentioned, even those with a cursory knowledge of film noir will enjoy the character archetypes and straight-up copies (in some cases) of characters from Casablanca or The Big Sleep. The attention to detail in terms of the design, art and characters gives Grim Fandango its charm, and if you feel like playing a game that requires brainpower, you can certainly do a lot worse. Just don’t expect to get through it without online help!

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