Adventure games were basically our childhood. From the text-based adventures of The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Zork, where you had to type in commands such as 'look at frog', 'walk north' or 'kill troll with sword', to the more mainstream graphical point and clicks of Monkey Island and Simon the Sorcerer, games with stories and puzzles were our thing. Requiring no fast reactions, nor much in the way of analogue stick skills, they combined our two favourite pastimes - reading and playing games. But, being a kid with limited finances and a bit of a sweet tooth, there were a fair few games we missed out on - the skeletal dark comedy Grim Fandango being one such game. Some sixteen years later and it's both hard to find and hard to run on current computers - but thanks to it's cult status, developers Double Fine have finally brought it back, in a new remastered version for the PS Vita and Playstation 4.
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Grim Fandango is set in the Land of the Dead, a world inhabited by recently departed souls trying to make their way to the coveted 9th Underworld, where they can finally rest in peace. It's a journey that usually takes four years - however, depending on the amount of good deeds you did in your past life, you may have earnt enough - we'll call it "money" - for an express ticket on the fancy number 9 train, which gets you there in just four days. This is where our hero, a skeleton by the name of Manuel Calavera, comes in. Working as a travel agent in the DOD (Department of Death), it's up to him to reap new souls and set them up with the best packages to the afterlife they can afford, taking a cut of the fees as commission to help buy his own way to the next world. Except there's something fishy going on at the DOD, as Manny never seems to get any of the good clients - until he intercepts one meant for his colleague and rival, Domino. A kindly soul called Mercedes 'Meche' Colomar, she should be the very definition of a number 9 passenger, having lived her life always doing well to others, and as such, should be Manny's big break. Instead, her account shows up as being all but empty, leaving her stuck making her way to the next life on foot, losing poor Manny his job in the process, and leading him on a wild goose chase to find her again, and figure out just what's going on, uncovering a rather sinister plot along the way.
As an old-style point and click adventure game, Grim Fandango's story plays an important role in the proceedings - but that doesn't mean it's serious in the slightest. Manny's friend and partner in crime, the giant hamster-bear-demon-beast Glottis is a particular highlight, from his vehicle modding skills (that turn whatever form of transportation into a flaming hot rod equivalent, whether its a car or a boat), to his drunken gambling antics and bizarre turns of phrases ('Now we soar! Like eagles on pogo sticks!'), there's rarely a dull moment when he's around. In fact, pretty much every character you meet on your four year journey is more than a little insane, many of Manny's conversational quips are genuinely funny, and many of the game's puzzles have weird and often hilarious solutions - such as drinking some alcohol containing genuine gold flakes so you can get strip searched by a nice policewoman, or the time we carried a little man with a lantern on his head around as a portable undersea light source. It's a game which also rewards you for messing about, often with entertaining consequences, like the time we tried to hack into our rival, Domino's PC, only for Manny to use increasingly insulting passwords. Funnily enough, "arrogant fraud" didn't work.
For those who've never played the likes of Monkey Island, Legend of Kyrandia or Simon the Sorcerer, playing Grim Fandango may seem a bit alien. Slow-paced and involving lots of wandering around, talking to people and solving puzzles, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, especially given the rather obtuse nature of many of the problems. Generally speaking, you need to walk around each area, thoroughly examining everything and pocketing anything that isn't nailed down, even if it's potential use isn't immediately obvious. Then you'll come across roadblocks, such as how to get into a VIP club or the best way to separate Glottis from his gambling addiction, and have to do an often long-winded series of events to progress. While it can seem a bit confusing at first, particularly if you're not used to the twisted 'logic' involved, once you finally figure things out, the sense of achievement is something else.
For example, right at the start of the game, Manny needs a driver to take him to a mass poisoning so he can reap some (hopefully well off) souls - but his usual one is nowhere to be found. However, he does run into car mechanic Glottis, who would love to drive him - if only he could fit into a car. Reassuring our extra large friend that it's not that he's too big, but that the cars are simply too small seems to cheer him up, but he still doesn't want to do anything without signed permission from the boss, for fear of losing his job. The only problem is, the boss' secretary, Eva, has been ordered to keep people out of the boss' office for the whole day. So what's a skeleton salesman to do?
The answer is, you do what any reasonable employee would do, and head outside and down the alleyway beside the office, so you can climb up the conveniently placed rope to the boss' window - and sneak inside. Once safely away from the windowsill, you're greeted not by a confused and annoyed boss, but instead by an intercom rigged up to a computer, with a variety of possible auto-responses to choose from, as the boss has seemingly long since left. All you need to do is change it to the "Ah, cripes, Eva! Just sign it yourself, will you?" response, and head back to the secretary - who'll now sign Glottis' work order, and you can zip over to that poisoning, double speed, hopefully in time to reap a good client.
Unfortunately, as an old point-and-click game, Grim Fandango isn't really the most accessible of ports though, unceremoniously plonking you into the world of El Marrow with nary a tutorial or control list in sight. Of course, back in the 90s, this was the norm, as all games came with a chunky instruction manual to get you started - but of course, that's not included in the £12 download. Instead, you're thrown head first into the adventure with more than a few 'hows', 'whats' and 'whys' left unanswered. From the pause menu you can bring up a list of which buttons do what, but you're still left with very little context with what you're actually supposed to be doing. Of course, those familiar with Telltale's more recent offerings should have a basic idea of what to do, as will anyone who grew up playing the likes of Monkey Island, Discworld and the Broken Sword games - although Grim Fandango definitely makes more use of the warped point and click 'logic' of yesteryear over the simpler, more sensible Walking Deads and Wolves Among Us of recent times.
And while we get the whole desire to stick to how things were, there are a few technical issues here that could really have done with being ironed out. For starters, Manny's inventory is a little unwieldy, as you have no choice but to scroll from item to item, watching him take them out of his coat one at a time. On more than one occasion, camera angles proved a little awkward, sometimes making it hard to line yourself up with the things you want to examine or interact with, as we found with a puzzle that involved squirting some dirty hookah water into a sailor's bottle of booze while his back was turned. The time pressure, coupled with the camera angle meant we spent more time examining a nearby cupboard than performing the task at hand. We also found that, in certain scenes where the camera zooms out to give you more of a birds eye view of the area, our little Grim Reaper is a. way too small and b. takes forever to run from one side of the screen to the other, with the former being a particular issue on the dinkier screen of the PS Vita (and perhaps less of an issue on the Playstation 4). But what we struggled with the most was navigation - on several occasions we found ourselves with no idea what we should do next, only to eventually stumble upon an extra area off screen we had no idea even existed. For example, one sequence involved presenting a betting stub to a guy behind a counter - which we did over and over, to no avail, only to find mere minutes later there was a second identical (and correct) counter hidden off screen. That said, none of these problems are really game breaking - simply minor irritations we noticed while playing, and don't really mar the whole experience.
Despite it's often obscure puzzles, a few technical issues and a lack of any explanation, Grim Fandango has aged surprisingly well. In fact, we've had trouble putting our Vita down for the duration of the dark, kind-of-creepy, kind-of-funny adventure noir, always wanting to know what's going to happen next to the dynamic duo of the quick-talking Manny Calavera and his lovable demon mechanic Glottis. It could just be the nostalgia talking - after all, we grew up playing many of the game's contemporaries - but Grim Fandango could be one of the most engrossing games we've played in a long time. If you're a fan of point and clicks, or simply like your games slow-paced, with a solid helping of puzzles, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita