Sunday, July 13, 2014

American McGee's Grimm - Happily Ever After Ends Now!

Fairytales not only provide a good source of entertainment, but in many cases a valuable lesson can also be learned from them. Though this has remained true throughout history, many of these stories have been retold over time with many different interpretations, a number of which end up making the stories lighter and softer (and more well-known) than their original darker counterparts. If you are someone who thinks the darkness should be brought back to these tales, read on.

American McGee’s Grimm is a game that I had an interest in playing for quite some time. When it was first announced, I gained a desire to play it since, even though I had not played an American McGee game before, I was interested in playing American McGee’s Alice (a game I would end up playing a number of years later). At the time of its release, Grimm was a game being offered on the GameTap service, lasting for 3 Seasons of 23 weekly episodes between 2008 and 2009, and though I was a little hesitant due to the overall cost, I had seen some announcement videos online for the game and a handful of episodes, also getting an idea of what gameplay was like. Recently, I had finally gotten the chance to play it, having acquired it through a flash sale on for $2 (discounted from the normal $10). Having played all 3 Seasons in a row, I think I can say that both the wait and the price were totally worth it.

Grimm is a dwarf who dislikes the way fairytales have gone since the time of the Brothers Grimm, and so, to this end, he invades a number of fairytales in order to bring the darkness back to them. These fairytales range from some more well-known ones (at least some of which can be attributed to the numerous Disney adaptations), such as “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood”, to some that are more obscure, such as “The Singing Bone” and “A Boy Learns What Fear Is” meaning no story is safe from his wrath (this also works really well to expose new people to the lesser known stories). Some stories even come from outside the Brothers’ selection, such as “King Midas”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and, oddly enough, “A Christmas Carol”, among others, further showing how far Grimm is willing to go in his conquest against the light.

The titular dwarf, Grimm.

The game can be played with a mouse, keyboard, or a combination of both (I went with a combo, since it felt more natural to me, but I like that the other options are there). As you move Grimm around, you can darken the area around you in a similar fashion to Katamari Damacy, with each object you darken increasing a meter at the top (called the Dark-O-Meter), allowing you to darken bigger objects and affect the level with a wider range. Your level on the meter also affects your jump and running speed, the former measurable by Grimm’s pee, which can be seen while he stands still (that was a weird sentence to type). Grimm’s main move is the Butt-Stomp (the move itself should be self-explanatory), which is not only required to advance in most cases, but can also be performed to affect an even wider range of the surrounding area, also influenced by the Dark-O-Meter. You can also gain access to a number of power-ups within each level where applicable, which can range from a temporary increase in speed or jump height to flaming pee or slowing down time, to name a few. Each of these abilities can be very useful and, when available, are more often than not required to be able to complete the stage. You also have to worry about Cleaners, who are NPCs that will clean up the darkness you have spread in an area (fortunately you can darken them as well when the Dark-O-Meter is high enough). There are also a number of hidden Secrets that can be found within a level, usually one or two at the most, and getting all 10 within an episode unlocks a bonus Gallery (this is something I have not been able to do just yet). Additionally, you are also rated by how much of the level you darken or how fast you go through it, increasing the replay value (you can’t go for one without sacrificing the other). Overall, the gameplay is very easy to pick up and master, with enough depth to prevent it from becoming stale.

A sample of gameplay (Season 1 displayed).

As there are 3 Seasons of Grimm that can be played, I like that each Season brings something new to the table in regards to gameplay. Whereas Season 1 includes the basic gameplay as described above, Season 2 takes this a step further by introducing a little more variety, such as a top-down perspective at one point in “The Master Thief” or riding a darkened boar in “The Singing Bone”, allowing the experience to feel a little more fresh each time, as well as changing the background music to something more dismal should you darken a good percentage of the level (it is also around this time that getting a Secret subtracts 10 seconds from the timer, which also gets a small redesign this Season); “The Master Thief in particular has an interesting visual experience wherein darkening enough of a level makes it look more like a black-and-white horror movie, though admittedly the episode itself has more jump scares than are really necessary. Season 3 takes things up another notch by redesigning the Dark-O-Meter, as well as making it a bit easier to tell how much of a level you have darkened in addition to adding a visual indicator of the Dark-O-Meter filling up via dark purple orbs that Grimm absorbs for each object darkened; it also not only gives a name to each Scene (the names of the levels in each episode, of which there are usually 6 to 8), but also gives each of them a preceding title card. I would say that Season 3 is the best in terms of gameplay, with some particular stand-out examples in the final episode (“Snow White”), though I would recommend playing each Season in order so as to get the most out of the investment.

The art style is visually appealing, being very stylized to help illustrate both the light and dark stages of each level, as well as giving it a look that helps it stand out from other games. It also allows easy recycling of certain character models depending on the context, such as the oft-used models for a King and a Prince. In spite of its visual style though, I wouldn’t exactly say they are appropriate for much younger players or those with weak hearts or stomachs, since some visuals may be enough to give someone nightmares, including ones that feature some amount of gore (then again, what else can you expect from American McGee?), which clashes somewhat with what vulgar humor the game also contains. Regardless, the visuals don’t get to the point of being a little too much to handle, though potential players should receive fair warning.

If a Prince is involved, expect it to be this guy.

The voice acting, being done entirely by Roger L. Jackson, is really amazing, displaying how much range he has due to having to voice both male and female characters (some voices are noticeably reused between episodes, though that’s a given here). He even shows impressive vocal range when speaking entirely in Mandarin Chinese during the “Mulan” episode, though this also means you need to read the subtitles to keep up with what’s being said. In any case, Roger L. Jackson displays a lot of talent with this game, which really helps bring Grimm and the stories he invades to life. By that same token, the sound design is also really good, with sound effects that don’t get annoying and a good range of sound bites for Grimm, not to mention the amazing background music composed for each level that fits the tone and setting of each one as well as the state they’re in after Grimm has been enough of an influence on the stories’ outcomes.

The game also has a good sense of humor, especially in the Theater segments that bookend each episode, helped by Grimm’s delivery and some of the dialogue from a number of characters, particularly in the closing Dark Theater sections (both Light and Dark Theaters can also include casual mild cursing, which increases the entertainment value of these segments and helps make the experience more worthwhile). There is also some humor value from whatever comments Grimm makes about each Scene, though one particularly funny moment comes from the “Sleeping Beauty” episode from Season 3, wherein Grimm also decides to invade “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” at the same time, mainly due to how much waiting is involved with each of the three stories. The amount of humor the game has, which includes some amount of dark humor, also helps to offset some of the more disturbing visuals, though whether this helps is entirely up to you.

Puss in Boots (from the Season 1 "Puss in Boots" episode)
is nothing like his Dreamworks counterpart.

However, what affected my experience with Grimm a little were a couple moments during the last two episodes of Season 3. During the penultimate episode, “The Adventures of Thumbling”, there was one Secret I could get during one level, but when I tried to grab it, I kept passing right through it; after a few tries though, I decided to just continue with the story, so I’m not really sure what went wrong with that particular Secret (every other one I grabbed worked just fine). The other one comes from the final episode, “Snow White”, wherein there was a fence during one level that I could jump over, though it quickly became evident that I was not supposed to do that, since it allowed me to see the edge of the level, ruining the immersion temporarily (I soon got back into it). There are other points in the game where certain actions allow you to see the edge of the programming, but this instance was particularly bad for me, especially since within the same level/episode I tried another, similar fence and an invisible wall prevented me from jumping over.

Overall, American McGee’s Grimm is a great game for fans of American McGee and/or games like Katamari Damacy. It has a unique and appealing visual style, a great sense of humor, easy to grasp controls, and a very intriguing soundtrack, to say nothing of the amazing vocal range of Roger L. Jackson as everyone in the game, including the titular Grimm himself. However, the visuals can end up on the heavier side at times, so those who are interested but are sensitive to this sort of thing should play at their own risk. Having gone through the entire game in virtually one shot, I wouldn’t play again so soon after, but it’s something I wouldn’t mind playing again at a later point in time.

May all our stories end so well. Until next time!

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