Review: American McGee’s Grimm

Review: American McGee’s Grimm

by August 30, 2008

Is this game as nasty as its title character?

So. I finally decided to check out “American McGee’s Grimm”. For those who don’t know, this is an episodic game delivered exclusively via GameTap. Unlike the Sam & Max Episodic games that came out monthly, Grimm comes out weekly, like a real TV show. Also like a TV show, each episode of Grimm lasts about 30 minutes. In a nice twist, each episode of Grimm is free for the first 24 hours of release – any time after that and you have to pay to play the episode.

Grimm is like the Anti-Super Mario Sunshine, but is played like Katamari Damacy. Rather than run around and clean things up, it’s your job to run around and make things dirty – at first, you can only make the ground and some flowers dirty, but keep at it and Grimm will level-up to a new level of dirty (marked by names like “Smelly”, “Stinky”, “Nasty”, etc.). Each time Grimm levels up, he can corrupt in a larger radius around himself and corrupt things of larger size or greater power. Wandering around levels are “cleaners” who will try to undo Grimm’s filth, but they are largely slow and don’t do much – and once Grimm passes a certain level, he can simply corrupt the cleaners and they stop being what little threat they once were.

When you start, you’ll notice an option called “The Light Theater”, stationed over the episode’s scene selection. Clicking this brings up a theater-style window where Grimm sets up the story of the episode – telling the typically cutesy, harmless version of the story first, making snide remarks about how neutered its become, and then telling the player to go off and ruin it all. This is kind of essential – without viewing the Light Theater before getting to the gameplay, you won’t really know what’s going on, and that’s exactly what I did for the first episode (A Boy Learns What Fear Is) and I basically was clueless. This is the sort of thing that should automatically play when you start the first stage.

Typically, each episode comes with five or so “scenes” (levels), and each scene has about 2-3 areas each. Once dropped in to a scene, typically the game will point out an object in the environment and ask you to “Make it STINKY!”, referring to the level Grimm has to be to clear the obstacle. Once Grimm reaches the desired level, the game will once again point out the object and ask you to Butt Stomp it. Butt Stomp away, the obstacle is cleared, and after a brief cutscene, Grimm moves on to the next area. Continue doing this until the scene is over. Run out of scenes, complete the story, and at the end of each episode, Grimm tells the “real” version of the story (called “The Dark Theater” in the menu) – one that is typically much darker and usually much more depressing. In some ways it comes off that Grimm isn’t really making things dirtier – he’s simply revealing “the truth” about what really happened in these stories. Each episode, as far as I can tell, follows this exact formula. It’s not exactly the most complex game in the world.

That’s kind of a bummer for people expecting something deeper, but honestly, for me, I thought it was sort of fun. It didn’t take very long to finish, it didn’t cost me a penny to play, and the game simply oozes style and character out of every pore. Grimm’s disgust with the bright colors and shining sun is amusing and watching the flowers turn to headstones, children turn to skeletons, and blue birds morph in to bats, all in real-time, is interesting.

There are two problems with Grimm, though, and they are fairly large ones. The first is simply a matter of graphics: Grimm uses the Unreal Engine 3 for its visuals. Though my system more than met the relatively conservative (but also somewhat vague) hardware requirements, I experienced extremely jagged visuals and a generally poor performance overall thanks to the next-generation graphics engine the game runs on. In contrast, however, Grimm uses very few of the advanced features provided by UE3, and most of what is here could have been done on the Unreal Engine 2, or, with a little elbow grease, the original Unreal Engine. Take out the motion blur and Grimm is essentially a Playstation 2 game, and considering what I am looking at, the framerate issues feel inexcusable. For those of you with better hardware that can handle the Unreal Engine 3, this may not be that big of an issue to you – but that doesn’t change the fact that for the type of game Grimm is, with the art style it carries, UE3 was not a good choice, and going with a lower-grade engine (one more fitting of the game’s visual needs) would have meant an even greater expanded audience for the title.

The other issue is longevity. Being such a simple game, I can imagine Grimm getting old, fast – even at 30 minutes per episode, once a week. There just isn’t much meat on these bones, and not enough variety – that puts a lot of the game’s staying power on its charm and its characters. In some ways, these things may actually be strong enough to carry the weight of the game, but even then, the concept of corrupting the world would eventually become old without some added depth somewhere, somehow – and the game’s time trial leaderboards offer little in this department, at least for me.

But, in the end, assuming you can get a jump on each new episode while it’s free (Thursday seems to be the magical day), I guess you can’t really complain about Grimm’s shortcomings – all you really lose is a few minutes of your time, and while that could probably be spent playing deeper, more complicated, and ultimately more rewarding games, Grimm’s not a half bad diversion every now and then – just not something I’d lose sleep over missing.