Game: Grim Fandango Remastered
Developer: Double Fine Studios
Publisher: Double Fine Studios
Release Date: January 27th, 2015
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation 4 and PS Vita
Reviewed on PS Vita and Playstation 4. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
1998 was, without a doubt, one of the best years ever for video games. The major releases that happened that year? Half-Life, Starcraft along with its expansion, Brood War, Banjo-Kazooie, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Pokémon: Red & Blue, Resident Evil 2 and Grim Fandango. Not only did the push into the realm of 3D really start to prove its worth, but the foundation for modern titles were laid way back then. The title we’re concerned with today though? Grim Fandango.
This particular point-and-click adventure came at the end of what most refer to as the “Golden Age” of adventure gaming. One company, more than any other, that helped to define the genre: LucasArts. Titles like Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, The Secret of Monkey Island and many more helped to build one of the most popular genres in PC gaming. Tim Schafer’s entry into the mix in the latter half of LucasArts’ memorable run only added to the prestige and produced one of the most spirited, hilarious and tremendous adventure games ever to exist: Grim Fandango.
The tale of Department of Death travel agent, Manny Calavera, and his search for that “one dame”, Mercedes Colomar, was a commercial failure and, ultimately, helped to usher in the departure of the genre altogether. The decline of adventure games, of course, aren’t only tied to the financial issues surrounding Grim Fandango, though it adds to the mystery of the beloved classic, doesn’t it? Outside of initial release, it languished in obscurity for lack of an actual playable version that would work on modern systems.
Tim Schafer, the man chiefly responsible for the cult-success of Grim Fandango thanks to his gift for dialogue and truly challenging puzzles, happens to be responsible for bringing this long neglected game back from the brink into the hands of gamers everywhere yet again. Double Fine Studios, makers of Costume Quest, Broken Age, Psychonauts and more, worked not only with Disney (as they did purchase the rights to any and all LucasFilm/LucasArts titles) but also Sony to unearth the bones of a timeless adventure game classic.
Those who experienced Grim Fandango during those halcyon days of early PC gaming will, no doubt, recall it with a fondness that rivals the best books and most memorable movies. There is a good reason for that. The tale of Manny Calavera and his journey through the Underworld full of crime, intrigue, romance and demons driving hot rods is a sweeping one. Schafer’s narrative powers are at their height here with dialogue that pops along with deadpan delivery across the board that makes every joke simply sing. Grim, even by today’s more cinematic standards, tells a truly compelling story full of marvelously realized characters that even few modern games can come close to. The narrative highs were coupled with, however, some problems.
The transition to 3D was one that all sorts of genres struggled with and adventure games were no exception. The traditional point-and-click interface was eschewed for 3D tank controls that, well, weren’t great. A traditional user interface most were accustomed to? Gone. Inventory management via Manny’s infinite jacket pockets would suffice. If there was an object to interact with, Manny would simply turn his head towards the item in question. It’s quite common these days in games where things are either highlighted, have an arrow pointing to them or literally scream out to the player, but in 1998? Revolutionary. It did, however, cause some problems when multiple items were in the same area as Manny’s head pointed at one object, yet, it could be tough to determine which one.
The approach one takes in reviewing something like a Remastered version is simple. What, if anything, has changed? Double Fine’s archaeological efforts to bring Grim Fandango to the light of day again definitely comes with some new features. The score, a jaunty jazz-driven set of tracks that are tremendously catchy and atmospheric, has been re-recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
The same sort of loving care has been paid to every single syllable of voice-work in the game as well. Manny, nor the Land of the Dead, have never sounded better. Better yet, a ‘Commentary’ option has been added in featuring more than a dozen of the original team’s thoughts, perspective and humorous stories regarding development of the game. The player, once the option is turned on in the ‘Special Features’ menu, will see a small prompt on-screen to fire off a small blurb about pneumatic tubes or what the voice actor for the surly sea captain was like to work with. The insight provided by the commentary never spoils puzzles and, honestly, is well worth the listen, though leaving a particular scene they’re in will stop the commentary from playing. So, stay put if you’re going to listen.
The lack of interface remains, but the means to control the game have definitely improved. The original 3D tank controls are gone in favor of actual point-and-click in the PC/Mac/Linux version, along with Gamepad controls on the PS4/Vita version, whereas the Vita features both touchpad/point-and-click and gamepad controls. The graphical updates to the game are minimal, for the most part, consisting of upgraded lighting and smoother edges on characters. The game’s original art direction unintentionally future-proofed the game in a way, and although the differences are small, they are noticeable.
The game’s original 4×3 aspect ratio is present, however, there is a 16×9 option as well. Pro tip, don’t play it in 16×9. The picture is far too stretched out and it doesn’t look as good. The black bars present for 4×3 can be a tad annoying, but well worth it compared to the alternative. There are little to no other additions aside from that. One much-needed addition the game could have made use of would have been an optional hint system for those puzzles that feature clues that are either esoteric or just feature backtracking (and a lot of it) if you’ve missed a random conversation or item.
The Remastered version’s merits on what it offers compared to the original are, well, rather scant. That pales in comparison to what the whole package gives gamers willing to take the leap. Grim Fandango is still one of the best adventure games that has ever been made — that has not changed. The story is still as engaging as ever. There are puzzles that really stretch the player into thinking outside the box for solutions, though they might seem punishing by today’s standards for the adventure genre.
The voice acting is universally stellar, especially from the leads Tony Planas (Manny) and María Canals (Meche). The influences of detective noir upon the game are heavily felt with films like Double Indemnity serving as the main inspiration of the plot (the lowly salesman becomes embroiled in a plot of murder and intrigue) along with many critical scenes constructed like those in films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and Casablanca. There’s even a Peter Lorre-esque character in Chowchilla Charlie.
The foibles of the game mostly remain although the attention given to the music, dialogue and presentation (while occasionally lacking in the visual fidelity or stability it needs to) never detracts from the greatness of Grim Fandango. Manny Calavera’s tale, spanning four years in the Land of the Dead, feels massive, yet, never too slowly paced. The noir facets shine along with the game’s humor and even though some puzzles will possibly frustrate players before rewarding them, the game is never “too hard”. The great far outweighs the bad, however, a hint system could have been useful.
This Remastered version can serve two purposes, really. One of those is as an archival piece for one of a bygone era’s best games and the other? A long overdue introduction to an entirely new generation of gamers, who have come to know the likes of TellTale’s The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, to one of the progenitors of the genre.