Grim Fandango

A while ago, I wrote about how it took about four hours to make a connection with Kingdom Hearts 2. I have been told that by not holding it against the game I was being generous; most people wouldn't wait that long. Indeed, sometimes first impressions do matter, and our opinion of a game can be formed entirely by those important first minutes of gameplay. It takes hours to make a connection with games like Final Fantasy XII and Kingdom Hearts 2. With Burnout Revenge, it comes with the first moment you shunt another car into a barricade, causing it to fly apart in the most spectacular display -- in other words, within the first 30 seconds.

Considering that Grim Fandango takes about a good five-to-ten minutes before it even offers you anything to control, it's a testament to the game's quality that a connection can be made within those first 30 seconds. From the moment Manny Calavera enters the office dressed as Death and declares himself to be a friend - of course he is, he's a travel agent in the Land of the Dead - Grim Fandango presents itself as something special. When Manny takes off his cloak and stilts to reveal himself as a short, unimposing figure who is trapped in the Land of the Dead himself, the game's distinction is only reinforced. By the time you've met Manny's sidekick Glottis and had a discussion with him about his size - he's not too big; the cars are just too small! - you've already got a smile on your face and you haven't really played anything.

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However, adventure games are known for relying on their stories and puzzles, not their twitch-based gameplay, and it’s a testament to the quality of Grim Fandango that its story is able to engage you in such a way in such a short time. The game is constantly witty and rarely resorts to slapstick; it's often charming without coming across as saccharine; it is referential without resorting to salient parody - it is, above all, an attestation to the potential for storytelling within video games. Espen Aarseth doesn't want this game to exist, because its power to ensnare directly correlates to the quality of the narrative.

That's not to suggest that there isn't anything for the player to do. There are plenty of fiendish and often downright ingenious puzzles for the player to engage with, always logical and never asinine. However, the beauty of these puzzles is that they work with the story, rather than against it. They never act as artificial roadblocks, halting the story in some poorly-conceived attempt to convince the player that they are actually playing a game. Instead, they are logical in their implementation, serving to enhance the story and create the very real sensation that the player is engaged in some kind of grim fandango.

This sense of immersion is only heightened by the visual style. The architecture and a range of modern technology is Hispanic in style, allowing it to borrow from the Aztec and other cultures to create an environment that oozes death, yet paradoxically bustles with life. Thanks to using pre-rendered backgrounds, the game's visuals have merely fermented with age, providing a refreshingly attractive game - and for a very attractive price. Only a few blemishes on some of the characters will remind you that this is a 1998 vintage.

Ultimately, however, Grim Fandango's strength is its story: a genuinely engaging, funny yet macabre tale of corruption and conspiracy in the Land of the Dead. As a consequence of finely-crafted narrative - something that rarely ages, unlike graphics - Grim Fandango is still a joy to play nine years after its initial release. Truly a masterpiece of gaming and the bastion of the adventure genre, Grim Fandango should be played and enjoyed by all. Only a Philistine would turn their nose up at such brilliance, and only a fool would shy away from a cost of $15. Unless you truly are the lowest common denominator, you owe it to yourself to play Grim Fandango. Purchase immediately.

"One of the finest games ever created."
- Grim Fandango
Follow Own it? Rating: PG   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 15 Min


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