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In the world of Grim Fandango, death is just the beginning of a very long journey into the afterlife. Nice folks get a lickety-split train ticket that gets them to the afterlife in only four minutes. Some take a boat, or drive. The worst sinners have to go on foot, a journey which takes four years - maybe even longer if you have to stop and get a job for awhile. As Manny Calavera, you're a Grim Reaper - one of the travel agents who help people on that journey. And you've got some rough years ahead of you.
See, Manny's boss gives him all the least profitable clients, so he steals one - Mercedes "Meche" Colomar, from a rival agent. When she gets sent on the four-year trek, he wonders why she didn't have a ticket for the train, and investigates. It turns out, his crooked boss has been saving up the train tickets and selling them to a gangster. Manny and his demon buddy Glottis, a speed-obsessed auto mechanic, set out to save Meche, and pay tribute to pretty much every great film noir movie ever made.
Why it's the Best:
Imagine an old black and white movie, with Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and fedora chain-smoking, set in a world packed with dames and pencil-thin moustaches and secrets and double-crosses. Now imagine that everyone in the film is already dead and looks like either a skeleton or a demon, and most have Mexican accents.
Give it a cheer-worthy everyman for a main character, a beautiful damsel in distress for him to pine for, and some truly evil villains. Now throw in guns that kill you by making you "sprout" flowers, flaming beavers, and a big orange sidekick who's dumb as a shoe but loyal as a puppy and who loves to drive really fast. Oh wait, there's more...
The point is, you've never played a game with an atmosphere and style like Grim Fandango. It's completely unique, a mix of Hollywood's film noir classics like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, and a sitcom written by a mad genius. No other game finds you searching the forest for a character's actual heart, which he's thrown away in a fit of disappointment, or using a ship's anchor to rip an entire ocean liner in half rather than finding a way to just open the door. And we've never played a game in which it was necessary to get your best friend to vomit, then spray the resulting glop with liquid nitrogen.
All the while, the dialogue is snappy and humorous, perfectly drawing you into the characters. Most games with a setting like this would constantly make self-references, coming just short of screaming, "Hey, look! Isn't this odd and crazy!?" But Manny, down-on-his-luck hero that he is - is the ultimate straight man, content to ironically comment upon the craziness around him and move on. And you'll never find another companion as dim-witted, yet faithful and innocent as Glottis - or as lovable as a result.
Plus, most importantly, the game never forgets that it's essentially a love story between Manny and Meche, and that old-school romance and panache is still very much in effect, even if everything else in the world is crazy.
So there you have it: a truly unique setting that enables a completely creative plot, dialogue that's probably more funny and clever than any movie you've seen in the last decade, and a romantic story with characters you simply have to cheer for. We would say that's all it takes to have one of the best stories of all time, but the truth is that's a whole heck of a lot.
April Ryan is a typical college art student in Stark, a slightly-more-advanced-than-now sci-fi world (think flying cars, but no teleporters yet). Then she accidentally "shifts" in her sleep to Arcadia, a medieval fantasy world ruled by magic. She meets a white dragon who refers to her as "my child," gets chased off by a swirling black cloud called the Chaos Vortex, and wakes up back in Stark - but things just keep getting weirder. By the time April realizes Arcadia wasn't just a nightmare caused by too much curry, she's completely sucked in. So is the player.
It turns out, Stark and Arcadia are parallel worlds separated by a sort of cosmic barrier. However, the current guardian of that barrier is worn out, so the barrier is eroding and the two worlds are seeping into one another. And, while everyone knows this works for chocolate and peanut butter or gin and tonic, it's apparently very big time, super-bad news for parallel universes ruled by conflicting sets of the laws of reality, time and space. Especially when one of the two universes houses the physical incarnation of Chaos. Good to know.
Luckily - for the rest of the worlds, not necessarily for April - she's able to shift between the two worlds at will, and is expected to become the new Guardian. Homework isn't quite so important now, is it?
Why it's the Best:
Like most great stories, The Longest Journey begins with a captivating main character. April, like many of the best heroes and heroines, is likeable and relatable because she's a perfectly normal person, possessed of no superhuman strength, precognitive powers, or other amazingness. In fact, she spends a huge chunk of the game denying that any of this crazy stuff could happen to a girl like her, simply because she's so plain and typical.
Well, she's typical except for the whole shifting thing, which enables the game's storyline to range all over the place. Can't choose between sci-fi and fantasy? No problem. We have both here. April can zoom from a near-future college dive bar to a dragon's mermaid-guarded underwater lair and on to a space station and it all feels perfectly acceptable.
The juxtaposition of fantasy and science isn't just colorful; it's also useful. This is a point-and-click adventure game, so it's built around conversation and puzzles. And some of the best puzzles are when April uses a calculator or magnetic screwdriver to trick someone in Arcadia into thinking she's especially magical. And almost all of the puzzles are integrated into the story, driving things forward almost organically. This gives The Longest Journey exceptional pacing, with the puzzles rarely feeling like a hurdle intentionally placed to stretch the game's playtime.
Then again, when the story is this cosmic in scope and filled with interesting characters and villains, you don't necessarily need fluff. There are dragons and talking crows and robots. The risk is high - the fate of two worlds, if not the attached universes. The bad guys are really despicable - even the minor ones, like the slimeball who demands a date with April in exchange for information, then helps a bigger bad guy set a trap for April after the date goes badly. And April is just adorable, a regular girl determined not to let her normalcy get in the way of her saving reality as we know it.
But hey - don't listen to us. Check out ten minutes or so of the game yourself.
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