Year 3 of Grim Fandango has come in for a lot of criticism in the Vintage Game Club forum, so I wasn’t expecting much when I started playing it. And my fears were confirmed by the first puzzle: the obvious thing to do doesn’t work, but it’s not at all obvious that it doesn’t work. Your boat can be in two positions, you can try to move your boat four ways, you have two anchors that you can raise and lower independently (and that will hit the sea floor in different places depending on where your boat is), quite the combinatorial explosion there. After half an hour or so, I gave up and looked at the year 3 thread in the forum, where somebody else was annoyed enough at the puzzle to rant about its solution; I’m glad I did, because I wouldn’t have figured it out on my own, and I didn’t think the solution was particularly elegant.
Which semed to be confirming my worst fears about the year but, in retrospect, that was the low point of the year for me. In fact, from a puzzle point of view, I’m not at all sure that I didn’t prefer the puzzles in year 3 to those in year 2: I did dip into gamefaqs several times, but no more so than in year 2, and there was only one other puzzle that I thought was out of left field. (In fact, even that one might not have been out of left field if I’d been paying attention more – I was told about it in gamefaqs, which I wouldn’t have been reading if I hadn’t completely missed one of the rooms in the game, a room giving clues about that puzzle.)
As compared to year 2, the main environment in year 3 is somewhat smaller; it’s large enough to give you enough places to go to be interesting, but the smaller size means that you’re not constantly traipsing from one end of the level to the other. There are two overarching puzzles instead of three; I actually preferred this amount of parallelism, because I didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about which overarching puzzle each change of state (or item that I can’t yet get or whatever) would fit into. And you have at most three items in your inventory at any given time, which limits the “pick up random item to be used 8 puzzles later” possibilities. (And, as a bonus, means that one item can be the solution to several puzzles, a bit of design that I appreciate.)
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why other people strongly prefer year 2. Rubacava is a lot more interesting than a factory prison, the NPCs there have a lot more, well, character, and, if push comes to shove, I’d accept that the year 2 puzzles are a bit better integrated into the environment (and, more interestingly, into the psychology of others) than the year 3 puzzles are.
Having said that, I’m not even convinced that year 3 is such a disaster in terms of narrative: I’ll defer to people who have thought more about narrative structure in non-video-game contexts than I have, but a structure where the first quarter of the game introduces the plot, the second quarter stays in one place exploring characters, the third quarter is transitional and shallower, and the fourth quarter (I hope) brings it all together in a fitting climax doesn’t sound all that strange to me. Don’t get me wrong, I could imagine a game divided into quarters, each of which explores a town and its residents in more depth, but that would be a different and, I suspect, quieter game. (Hmm, what’s the closest thing the medium has to Invisible Cities?)
So, as with year 2, I end up being a contrarian, but this time that’s good news. I’m looking forward to year 4; others speak highly of it, I hope I’ll be closer to the mainstream in that instance.