I've longed for this day. The intricacies of modern operating systems and the tangled web of litigious bureaucracy and inept management meant that when my Grim Fandango CD became completely unplayable over a decade and a half ago, there was little to be done in the years that followed. Those years were spent desperately hoping that more stock would magically appear, that when GOG.com popped up, maybe there would be a second coming for Manny Calavera and chums. Maybe, just maybe, I'd finally get to play one of my favourite games of all time again.
Yeah, about that...
It took the destruction of LucasArts as a franchise and the Lazarean resurgence of Tim Schafer and co. in this new age of crowdfunded resurrections to do it. But finally, after seventeen long years, Grim Fandango is back on (digital) shelves again. Having railed against the shameless cash-ins of remastered reissues for games no less than a year old, this perhaps represents that most worthy of remastering endedavours: the restoration of an old classic for a new generation to sample, and for old fans to delight in once more.
Tempering expectations here are key, though, and this release needs to be seen for what it is: a seventeen-year-old game rendered playable again for fans, available a retro-reduced price. In the same way that Ocarina of Time 3D was a slightly spruced up trip down memory lane to appeal to everyone who already thought that game was the mutt's nuts, this Remaster is geared towards a friendly audience, one that already understands Grim Fandango's place in history, though don't let that put you off if you're coming to this new.
In terms of the remastering itself, there's only so much that you can do with a game this old. The 3D character models have been overhauled, and are now crisper and cleaner. There are lighting improvements in abundance that add a little more dramatic illumination and shadow-casting to proceedings. The backdrops have been scrubbed up, but now there's a bit of a disparity between the sharp character models and the surroundings in which they find themselves, and that visual disconnect sometimes proves a little bit jarring. You can toggle the remaster on and off, and I actually found myself going back to the original visuals fairly often because the characters there actually seemed to be a part of the world rather than looking like they're on a fuzzy set.
The aspect ratio remains in the original 4:3 perspective and although you can opt to stretch things out to 16:9, I really wouldn't recommend it. The goal of this Remaster is clear throughout: preservation and curation rather than anything approaching a full-blown revamp.
One new addition that is welcome, though, comes in the form of point-and-click controls. There will no doubt be some apologists for the original game's clunky "tank" controls, but I'm not one of them, and the inclusion of a point-and-click setup on PC is most definitely a boon. If you do favour direct control, though, there's been a major improvement there on consoles, with Manny now handling a little more like a regular third-person title, and moving in slightly more intuitive, camera-relative fashion. However, there are a few little bugs and proximity activation issues, and sometimes you'll fail to solve a puzzle simply because you don't have Manny in exactly the right spot for interaction, or you'll wind up in a lift you strayed a little too close to, and have to turn around and ride the thing all the way back up to where you were.
Then there are the puzzles themselves. Grim Fandango was infamous for its seemingly inscrutable puzzle design, and indeed there'll be several setups here to infuriate newcomers. It's fair to say that the game is somewhat inconsistent in its signposting and clue-dispensing, but also that if you're thorough in your exploration, you'll often find the answer side-glancing you in the face. Then again, once or twice, just when you feel that you've worked out the logic of Grim, you might find yourself howling at the screen once more after an hour of experimentation, and Alt-Tabbing your way to a walkthrough page and a bottle of the strong stuff that seems far less full than it was when you started playing. There's no shame in that, especially when taking into account the lack of an auto-save system as well.
So Grim Fandango is old and cranky and prone to provoking bouts of irritability. It had many of these flaws back in 1998, of course, but these things were rather more easily forgiven at that time. Fast-forward seventeen years and much has changed, but you'll put up with Grim's idiosyncrasies and occasional mechanical dementia for the stories that it has to tell.
It's the inventive yarn that it spins,the acting and deft writing that delivers this story, and colourful universe in which Grim Fandango exists that makes it a favourite of so many adventure game fans, myself included. No one writes quite like Tim Schafer does, and in Grim Fandango we have one of the most extraordinary, outlandish tales ever told in this medium.
Our hero is one Manny Calavera, a travel agent in the land of the dead who has fallen on hard times. Tasked with guiding the recently deceased on the final leg of their journey to their final resting place, the best mode of transport he's been able to muster of late for his clients has been a walking stick. But when the striking, borderline-angelic Mercedes Colomar steps into his office, Manny feels sure that she'll be eligible for the direct train to their Ninth Underworld. When that gets turned upside-down, Manny flees the clutches of his corrupt boss and spends the next four years following Mercedes to the end of the world, embarking on an adventure through an Art Deco world of Mexican papercraft brilliance, stuffed with weird and wonderful characters, skeletons, spooks, and demons.
It's a noirish masterpiece, and the game's timespan across these four years allows us to really see the characters grow and flourish, investing in this astoundingly thoughtful and macabre cartoon that owes much to the likes of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, seen through the eyes of revellers returning from a Dia de Muertos celebration. Though Grim Fandango wears its inspirations proudly, you don't need to be steeped in the culture behind it to appreciate the story and its characters. They are written with such warm humour that it's impossible not to be charmed by Manny and his companions. His erstwhile sidekick Glottis could so easily have become the butt of many jokes had the writing been left in inferior hands, but the humour in Grim Fandango seldom comes at anyone's expense and is all the better for it.
That warm, good-natured spirit invests the commentary that comes as part of this Remastered package, and as a fan of the game there's something wonderful and misty-eyed hearing Tim Schafer and co. reflect on the making of this beloved title, how it came to fruition, and the road it's taken to get to this point. Given the number of remaster jobs that have been done over the past year or so, it's criminal that we haven't had more of these commentaries. A little side-note to publishers: developer commentary is a perk I'd probably pre-order/pay extra for.
That said, even if you don't know already what awaits Manny at the end of his adventure, Grim Fandango Remastered is a journey worth taking. It's priced just right, given the minor makeover and the included bonuses. It's a remaster, not a remake; and although it might not match up to modern mechanical standards, the chances are that you won't care after spending a little time in Manny's world.
- One of the best stories ever written in this medium
- Outstanding, affectionately crafted characters with detailed four-year arcs
- Vibrant world with plenty of secrets and hidden narrative/conversational vignettes to uncover
- Developer commentary is wonderful
- Improved controls are great
- Some inventive puzzle design...
- ...but some seemingly inscrutable headscratchers as well
- Graphical remaster is a bit hit-and-miss
- A bit buggy at times, and no auto-save
The Short Version: Grim Fandango Remastered is a museum piece of sorts, the sprucing up of a retro artefact made fit for modern display. But even if the mechanisms of this game seem a little dated now, we're reminded how the story and its characters are timeless in their good humour and quality, and in that respect, this Remaster should hold almost as much joy for newcomers as it does for returning fans.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PS4 (tested) | PS Vita
Developers: Double Fine