Game designer American McGee is perhaps best known for his work on the early Doom and Quake games, as well as the critically well-received 2000 PC title American McGee’s Alice. Alice was a dark and twisted take on the Alice in Wonderland story, featuring morbid Tim Burton-esque landscapes as the backdrops for an action-laden adventure. McGee produced two more titles after Alice; 2004’s Scrapland and 2006’s Bad Day L.A. Unfortunately neither title achieved the same level of critical acclaim. This year, McGee has turned to the increasingly popular realm of episodic downloadable PC games. Has he bounced back with his latest venture, or does Grimm fail to impress? It’s always tough to judge the graphics of games which are heavily stylized, especially when that style tends to the cartoon end of the spectrum. Grimm features landscapes that almost look constructed out of paper, with blocky, puppet-like characters. “Puppet-like” is actually a very apt description, as each episode’s cutscenes feature character models dangling and being whisked out of the scene just like an actual puppet show. Despite their lack of cutting-edge technology, however, the graphics do a superb job of capturing the darkly humorous atmosphere of the game.

The highlight of Grimm is the fact that your character instantly corrupts the world around him. So each perfect fairytale landscape immediately turns into a nightmare as you walk around it. The ground beneath your feet turns from bright green meadow to murky gray mud crawling with worms and ticks. Trees transform from symmetric pieces of foliage to twisted dead branches. Brightly painted houses turn into darkened, dilapidated shacks. Even the bright blue birds overhead will spontaneously turn into ugly (but still oddly cute) bats. Much of the fun of playing Grimm is in watching how your corruption transforms the various aspects of the landscape. While some transformations are predictable (darkening colors, signs of decay), others are delightfully creative. One personal favorite was a bed of cabbages which turned into a host of screaming zombie heads!

While on a purely technological level the graphics in Grimm might deserve a lower score, the style and transformation animations more than make up for that deficiency. The “transformation” effect is quite impressive, and it would be interesting to see it used in other titles. Grimm features a soundtrack that fits perfectly with the “twisted fairytale” theme of the game. The score blends the spry, jaunty music of a typical cartoon with the minor notes and subtle undertones of something sinister.

The voice-acting is also excellent. Grimm sounds as nasty as he looks, and the voices of the characters in the fairy tales are sometimes given laughable mannerisms. For example, there’s a nobleman in “The Fisherman and His Wife” with a slight Elmer Fudd-ian speech impediment, and a hideously ugly princess who wheezes between each sentence. It is important to note that the voices aren’t played for seriousness, so even when the acting is “bad,” it is obviously intentional. Hearing a woman character voiced by a man in falsetto doesn’t sound like cheap budgeting in the context of the game, but it does add another comedic overtone to the humorous script.

Grimm will shout out his current nastiness level and occasional commands to the player during the scene. While there isn’t a great variety, I did find myself giggling every time Grimm shouted, “Buttstomp here!” – even after hearing it numerous times. The controls in Grimm literally take seconds to learn. Grimm can be controlled by either the mouse or the keyboard, using a WASD setup and space bar (for jumping), or a combination of the left and right mouse buttons. Grimm only has one major “attack.” He can use his buttstomp maneuver to stun enemies or corrupt a larger area around him. This move is initiated by simply jumping twice in succession. The only minor problem I ran into with the controls was a tendency for Grimm to occasionally get hung up moving forward immediately after performing a buttstomp. However, this was quickly remedied by shifting slightly, and never seriously impacted gameplay.

One very interesting mechanic is the fact that whenever Grimm stands still, he starts urinating. This pee stream can be used to gauge distances, because Grimm can only jump as far as his pee stream will reach. For precise jumping, the player can aim the pee stream at a distant platform and simply press the jump key (spacebar) to land exactly where the pee stream ends. In my many, many years of game playing I can honestly say this is the first game in which urination played a key role in my character’s success. Hopefully it will be the last!

So we know Grimm has heavily-styled cartoon graphics, a decent soundtrack and great voice acting, and some really weird game mechanics. What exactly is this game about?

The player in the game takes on the role of Grimm, a diminutive Blackbeard look-alike who loves all things gross, smelly, and disgusting. Grimm despises the happy-go-lucky world of fairy tales, and sets out to corrupt them one by one. Each episode of the game (which comes in weekly installments) tackles a classic fairy tale. At the beginning of the game, the player is treated to a “Light Theater” version of the fairy tale. Narrated by Grimm in heavily sarcastic tones, these cutscenes tell the true version of the fairy tale in a puppet-show manner. Grimm doesn’t shy away from giving his opinion of the tales, which makes for some laugh-out-loud viewing. I particularly enjoyed the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, in which Grimm blasted a parent sending their child into the woods alone for personal gain, as well as berating Red Riding Hood’s eyesight since she apparently couldn’t distinguish her grandmother from a wolf. These introductory cutscenes are great fun, and are the source of most of the game’s humor.

After the cutscene, the player is given the task of traveling through 6 scenes (levels) in order to corrupt the game world and change the path of the story. To do this, Grimm must corrupt everything he can by running around the environment. Objects and terrain in a certain radius around Grimm will instantly decay and transform as he gets near them. As he does this, Grimm’s nastiness meter will start to fill. This meter is divided into segments, ranging from “smelly” all the way through “nasty,” “putrid,” “disgusting,” etc. As Grimm reaches each milestone in his nastiness meter, he gains more power. He runs faster, jumps farther, his corruption radius expands, and he is able to corrupt bigger objects.

Each level contains from one to four “goal” objects that must be buttstomped in order to open up new areas of the level or complete the scene. Each goal object requires a certain level of nastiness in order to interact with it, so most of your time will be spent building up your nastiness meter to the appropriate level, buttstomping the goal object, then moving on to the next goal. Grimm is not running around unopposed, however. “Cleaner” objects, such as people and animals, will roam the level wiping away the corruption you leave behind. These cleaners can be stunned briefly by buttstomping them, and as your nastiness level grows you can corrupt or even kill them.

The game levels are pretty straightforward and fairly small. A typical scene will only take from one to five minutes to complete. Occasional jumping puzzles are about the only dangerous obstacles, but dying (usually by falling into water) holds no real risk. The player is simply respawned in the level. Goals are clearly marked, and an arrow continuously points you in the right direction. Grimm’s levels are clearly designed around speed, not puzzle solving. There are some occasional power-ups available in the levels – one that slows down time, one that greatly increases Grimm’s running speed – even one that turns his pee into a flamethrower! Unfortunately they are rather few and far between, and do very little to impact gameplay.

The unfortunate truth about Grimm is that despite a very unique premise, great artistic style, and quirky humor, the gameplay is extraordinarily shallow. Each episode plays out exactly the same – only the stories and settings change. During each scene you run around to fill up your nastiness meter, buttstomp the goal object, rinse, and repeat. This might be acceptable if the game continuously got harder as you progressed, but it retains the same challenge level throughout – that is to say, none. Grimm can’t permanently die, the enemies pose no threat (other than slowly cleaning up the environment), and there’s no time limit on each scene. While some players might find it worth playing the episodes just to see the story unfold and compete against themselves to get faster times, the dull repetition will probably make it hard for most gamers to justify.

With Grimm’s non-existent challenge level and emphasis on low-brow pee and fart jokes, it could have made for a great kid’s game. Unfortunately several episodes introduce language and themes that are very inappropriate for children. While the graphics are cartoony, there are scenes of children being hung by nooses or crushed. Grimm’s language, while never outright profane, is definitely PG-13 in spots. I was also pretty shocked at The Fisherman and His Wife episode, in which Grimm mocks religion and has the player corrupting (and potentially peeing on) a crucifix. This content just highlights the frustrating dichotomy of the game – mature gamers will be bored to tears by the simple challenge level that is more appropriate for a children’s game, but children will be subjected to content that would probably be deemed inappropriate by most parents.

In the end, American McGee’s Grimm just feels like a wasted opportunity. The concept is unique, and even fun the first time you see it. I love the twisted fairy tale theme and humor of the game. But the game never reaches above what you see in the first episode. This review was supposed to cover the first six episodes, and at the beginning I planned to go into each one in detail. However, after playing through them I realized that it doesn’t really matter which episode you pick. They’re all generally the same except for the story and setting. I never felt that any one episode was any more challenging than another. I thought Little Red Riding Hood was the funniest of the batch, but that may have been because it was the tale I was most familiar with. Each episode plays out exactly the same. Watch the light cutscene, play through a few scenes (all of which consist of running around to fill up your meter and stomping a goal), watch the dark theater version of the story, and you’re done. I would have loved to see the difficulty increase, Grimm learn new moves – anything that would give the player a sense of progression from episode to episode. Instead, what I got was the same game packaged slightly differently six times. I was utterly bored out of my skull after playing three episodes – I can’t imagine what kind of masochist would like to play all 24.

Grimm’s replay value lies in the idea that players will want to go back and beat their previous times. In addition, each level holds one or two secret coins that can be discovered and collected. Collecting all of these coins in an episode unlocks a bonus gallery. Players can also attempt to earn a gold star in each scene by corrupting every object in the scene.

Each scene in a Grimm episode can be completed in one to five minutes, and with six scenes per episode you can blow through the tale in about 30 minutes. Completists who want to get gold stars/100% secrets for each scene may be able to stretch the gameplay out to an hour or two, but these episodes were clearly designed as very short adventures.

American McGee’s Grimm is offered exclusively through For Gold subscribers, this means the game is essentially “free” with their subscription. For existing Gametap members, the game is certainly worth checking out. For non-subscribers, however, each episode costs $3.99. That’s not a lot of money to check out an episode and see how you like it, but I’d definitely caution anyone into sinking a lot of money into the game by purchasing standalone episodes in bulk. Hopefully the game will be issued as a lower-priced bundle later on. Grimm was a tough game to review, simply because I wanted to like so many aspects of it. The theme is great, the scripts are humorous, and the concept of corrupting everything you touch is very appealing. Unfortunately the game is just not deep or challenging enough to provide a lot of fun once the initial novelty wears off. I would love to see the next 18 episodes introduce more challenges and gameplay elements, but I can only review what I’ve played. If Grimm can build on the basic framework over the course of the series, perhaps one day it will make for a fun package. If it continues on the basis of the first six episodes, however, I don’t foresee a very happy ending.