Death: It Comes To Us All. Try As You might, there's no wriggling out of it. Sure, you can pound the streets in your jogging bottoms; you can subsist on a diet of Yakult. Bran Flakes and organic celery; you can visit every homeopathic, aromatherapeutic. acupuncture-tastic two-bit charlatan in town; but you're still going to croak it some day. Whatever starry-eyed worldly ambitions you might be nurturing, your ultimate destiny is to lie underground in an overpriced wooden casket, your eye sockets filled to the brim with squirming maggots, their little wormy gobs crammed to bursting point as they gorge nonchalantly on your putrefied flesh.
The reason for all this grim chit-chat? Why. it's Grim Fandango from LucasArts, m'lud. It's their latest entry in a long line of distinguished graphic adventures which have included such classics as 5am And Max, Day Of The Tentacle, and their recent dick-buster The Curse Of Monkey Island. The brainchild of Full Throttle creator Tim Schafer. Grim Fandango looks set to be somewhat darker than previous happy-go-lucky adventures. Which isn't to say it's a frown-a-minute exercise in morbid contemplation; it's all a bit quirkier than that. Think of the tone that runs through Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and you're bang on track.
You take command of Manny Calavera. travel agent for the recently deceased. Manny's job is to take people from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead, via a four-year package holiday through the shadowy underworld. As the game begins, Manny finds himself falling victim to a convoluted embezzlement plot which prevents him from getting hold of the correct corpses. In desperation, he steals a living human, jeopardising not only his career but also the fate of his own soul.
Inspired by classic '50s film noir and ancient Mexican mythology, and spanning a four-year time scale, Grim Fandango certainly sounds like it could be the deepest LucasArts game yet. It's certainly the most visually ambitious, being their first graphic adventure to use 3D characters and locations.
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Grim Fandango Is Set In The Land Of the Dead. No, not Chatham: this is a vibrantly coloured otherworld, inspired by Mexican folklore. You, mister player sir, don the guise of Manny Calavera, a downtrodden travel agent who sells package holidays to the recently deceased. Manny's dream is to leave the Land of the Dead and graduate to the infinitely superior Land of Eternal Rest (which, as the name suggests, is basically one gigantic doss), but in order to do this, he must first deliver a prerequisite number of truly top-notch customers - those who've lived downright saintly lives on Earth. Trouble is, a rival agent seems to be stealing all the best 'leads'... and that's where the story begins. Head honcho Tim Schaffer has been quoted as saying the ensuing storyline is "kind of a road-trip story and a buddy film, and it's also a femme fatale Double Indemnity-type deal with a little City of Lost Children thrown in, and Chinatown and Casablanca and The Big Sleep." Now there's an eclectic brew. Not exactly conventional is it? And a good thing too: there's far too much bland pap in the marketplace already. This, on the other hand, is something that you can really get your teeth into.
As if to underline the project's unique flavour, LucasArts have also opted for a distinctive, highly stylised visual feel. The majority of the characters are skeletons, with bold, simple features, while their home world is as brightly coloured as the famous Mexican 'Day of the Dead' festivals upon which it is based. As the storyline unfolds, Manny is taken away from the carnival atmosphere and led through a procession of impressively varied locations, including an eerie forest, a grim prison colony, a bustling metropolis, and even the bottom of the seabed.
Other developments are afoot that will clearly make Grim Fandango a fresh and invigorating experience. The storyline covers a period of four years and features approximately half as many again locations than Monkey 3 so there's every indication that we're not in for another 'finished in five-hour' Full Throttle experience. The characters themselves will evolve as the game progresses and thanks to the graphical mix of 3D and 2D the artists will be able to synchronise limb and head movements with animated face textures for more even greater realism.
Thanks to the miracle of 3D technology the game uses a re-worked 3D engine borrowed from Outlaws and Jedi Knight and features a movable camera to transport you right into the heart of the rich and densely populated gaming environment. Although the interface is still being worked on, early versions of the game have used the cursor keys to control Manny, which would be another major innovation in terms of adventure gaming, though Tim is keen to point out that nothing has been decided yet: "Tricky interfaces sometimes alienate people from playing adventure games. There's no reason why they have to be slow and tedious to play - you just have to look outside the genre for inspiration."
So far the numbers are impressive: 90 locations, over 50 characters, 80 puzzles, 30 cut-scenes, 7,000 lines of dialogue... this is, without a doubt, LucasArts' most ambitious adventure offering to date.
All this innovation comes at a price though, and LucasArts have hinted that unless you've got a pretty high spec. PC, you won't be able to play. That said, LucasArts were never afraid of pushing the envelope, that's why they're at the forefront of adventure gaming. Let's wait and see what they come up with this time - from what we've been privy to so far, we at Zone are sure it'll be worth the wait.
SCUM JJ: The Summoning
Grim Fandango is the first LucasArts adventure title to dispense with the famous SCUMM engine. SCUMM was originally created by Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert and first used to power the game Maniac Mansion -hence the snappy acronym (SCUMM stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). Since then it's been tweaked, overhauled, and generally tinkered about with, but has still provided the skeleton for every one of LucasArts' long line of maximum-quality 2D adventure games. All of them - Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle et al - all owe their virtual lives to good ol' SCUMM.
But not Grim Fandango. The leap into three dimensions has necessitated the creation of an entirely new system, which maintains many of the basic SCUMM principles, but also introduces many startling changes. For starters, there's the interface - or rather, the lack of one. As the years have passed, each subsequent LucasArts adventure has tried to lessen the intrusion of the point-and-dick interface - what started out as an 'action bar' taking up half the screen in Maniac Mansion eventually mutated into a pop-up coin' interface for last year's Curse of Monkey Island. Taking this to its logical extreme, Grim Fandango has no need for cursors whatsoever. Instead, the interface and the lead character are one and the same. Sounds confusing?
Not really - it's actually more logical. In the 2D adventures, you'd notice a 'hot' object (ie one you could interact with) when you moved the cursor over it. In Grim Fandango, Manny Calavera (the hero) will bring such items to your attention simply by turning his head to look at them. In the 2D adventures, to make a character move from one side of the room to the other, you had to click on the position you wanted them to move to. In Grim Fandango you have direct control of Manny. You make him walk there yourself.
If you think that sounds a bit like the adventure gaming equivalent of Mario 64, you'd be right. The idea is to make interaction with the storyline as seamlessly absorbing as possible - or as project leader Tim Schaffer puts it: "There's nothing slapping you in the face, reminding you that you're playing a game." Cool, say we. Tres cool.
Some gamers may be burnt out on point-and-click adventure games, but Grim Fandango promises to breathe new life into the genre--even though all its characters are dead! As Manny, travel agent to the Eighth Underworld, you become aware of a plot to dupe heaven-bound Land of the Dead citizens of their passes to paradise. The resistance movement taps you to get to the bottom of things. In many ways, Grim Fandango is a traditional exploration adventure in the style of Full Throttle and Sam & Max Flit The Road, but with no interface at all; the keyboard commands keep annoying cursors out of the way.
Grim Fandango offers clever point-and-click adventure gaming of the highest order with in-game graphics that feel like cut scenes, an energetic jazz score, and well-performed dialogue. The plot is equally entertaining, as you play Manny, a grimacing reaper who sells travel packages for the afterlife.
This lush, compelling puzzler also puts the entire interface right at your fingertips with Fandangos excellent game-pad support, though Manny has trouble negotiating through areas like doorways. This is but a distraction in the otherwise fully cinematic experience, however.
Fandango is very user-friendly, from the SCUMM interface that lets you choose Manny's verbal responses to the forgiving gameplay that never forces you to reload a previous game to solve a puzzle. Play Grim Fandango--its killer.
- Use a rope to climb into your boss's office and set his computer to get your work order signed by Eva.
- To gum up the message machine, fill the empty balloons you got from the mime outside with packing material and send them down your office's tube.
Well, whaddya know. The Aztecs had it right all along. You die, take the money you’re buried with, and start out on your four-year trek through the land of the dead. Our hero, Manuel Calavera, is a travel agent for the dead, selling the best travel packages a dead soul qualifies for; after all, why spend four years on a dangerous journey when the Number 9 Express train can get you there in four minutes? Manny’s been in a bit of a slump lately, though, with all the good clients going to his competition. There's trouble in paradise and Manny needs to untangle himself from a conspiracy that threatens his very salvation. That’s where you come in.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
I liked the game interface. LucasArts chose to keep player interaction with the world pretty simple. In a quick reward for reading the booklet, they even tell you outright that you will not be able to combine inventory items (making it much easier to brute-force a solution if you get desperate). As you approach something with which you can interact, Manny’s head moves to focus on the object. You can then examine it, use it (i.e. pick it up or talk with it) or use an inventory object with it. Pretty basic. There are one or two tight spots where the angle of approach can make it tricky to get from one area to another, and another area where you do have to combine two objects you can pick up (prop item one where you found it, use an inventory item with it, and then pick it up), but all in all, things went pretty smoothly. I particularly liked the option of choosing your frame of reference—either character-relative or camera-relative. I got to love controlling things relative to the character so that I didn’t have to change buttons when my camera angle changed.
Nice puzzles. I found myself stumped about once a year (the game is broken up into four years), and that’s about right. Your mileage will likely vary, but not too much to the negative as I’m far from an expert in the genre.
In an interesting surprise in an adventure game, the sets for Grim Fandango are all 3D-rendered and things look much smoother and scroll better if you have a 3D accelerated system. Each set is beautifully rendered and as believable as the afterlife can be. It also means that usable objects don’t stand out quite as much as they can in other games of this type.
All the dialogue is full speech (with optional subtitles). Nothing stands out about the sounds of the game, which is actually a good thing. One of the companions you acquire can get a bit annoying if you’re stumped and have to listen to his fake car noises, but the annoyance is mostly at being stumped so long.
DirectX compatible Win95/Win98, Pentium 133, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM drive, Microsoft DirectX 6.0 (available on the CD). I highly recommend using the 3D acceleration option.
The documentation is colorful, useful, and to the point. Once you find it, that is. I almost threw it away with the other in-box advertisements. It’s made to look like a travel catalog, which amazingly is very similar to a software catalog. Draw your own conclusions from that. I’m glad I gave it a read, as it’s entertaining and tells you outright that you won’t be able to combine inventory items. That’s an important bit of information to anyone who has done an adventure game or two.
Film noir means lots of smoking and mildly naughty language. Since all the characters are already dead, there’s not a lot of blood and guts (just flowers, lots of flowers).
Excellent game. I couldn’t leave it alone. It wasn’t as funny as the Monkey Island series (though it ends much better than The Curse of Monkey Island), but it gives you a story you can get into and generates enough interest in the characters to pull you through the occasional rough spot. I particularly liked the consistent film noir theme (especially a bit of homage paid to Casablanca in Year Two). It’s definitely a must-buy if you’re a fan of adventure games. If you’re not, well, this game may turn you around.