Platforms: PC, PS4, Vita
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Despite being mostly classified as a cult classic, and therefore by description having a relatively small if dedicated fanbase, very few people who have been gaming for a while are unaware of Grim Fandango. It holds a special place in the history of videogames, known as one of the most important titles to have ever existed, even if its influence is often very subtle. Sadly getting the game to work on modern hardware is tricky, so there has also been a whole lot of new gamers that have never had the chance to experience Grim Fandango like I did. Cue this remaster from developers Double Fine, a company headed up by Tim Schafer, the lunatic who came up with Grim Fandango.
As a remaster there’s some modern updates that haven’t made it into the package which can readily be found on the game’s closest cousins, the Monkey Island Special Editions. Take the hint system as a prime example, an inclusion which might have helped out newcomers who struggle with the often daft logic of point and click games, bringing a new generation into the fold. Meanwhile Double Fine could have perhaps stolen some ideas from modern point and click titles. It would have been nice, for example, to be able to highlight interactive elements of a scene by holding down the space-bar in order to save hunting around the screen, thus still also allowing purists to stick with the original method of scouring every millimetre. Given the size of the world this remaster was also a missed opportunity to include faster travel by allowing you to instantly move through scenes by double-clicking, a near universal part of modern adventure games which understand that you don’t always want to watch a character amble across the screen. In Grim Fandango a double-tap of the mouse makes main character Manny run, but getting around, especially in the large areas, can still feel tedious.
There’s no true 16:9 support, either. The option exists, but if you select it then the game is simply stretched across the screen and unsurprisingly looks horrible. Your only real viewing choice is the original 4:3 with large decorative borders. Given that the Special Edition’s of Monkey Island supported 16:9, and included a raft of graphical enhancements and audio improvements while still retaining the pixelly glory of the origin game’s at the touch of a button, Grim Fandango is in many ways a disappointing re-release of a classic.
So, what new things have made it into this remaster? Well, the best addition is easily the inclusion of a point and click interface to supplement the original tank-like keyboard and mouse controls, which incidentally have been improved to make them easier to use, especially with a controller. This new point and click system slots so neatly into the game I actually had to double-check the Wikipedia to confirm that there was no point and click system to begin with and that my mind wasn’t simply playing tricks. Sadly, however, the clumsy inventory system didn’t get an update so you still have to go to a different screen and flick through each item individually. Meanwhile the resolution has been bumped up to make the visuals a tad sharper, though it can’t hide the age of the game as you can see in the screenshots. Some new lighting has been added, and while the effect is marginal it’s still a welcome chance, and the resolution of the characters has been upgraded to make them look sharper. It’s a testament to the game that while it’s ugly on a technical level the art-style is still very strong and interesting, mixing Mexican art and an almost art-deco. Meanwhile the score has been completely re-recorded using an entire symphony and is lovely to listen to, perfectly complimenting every scene, plus there’s now a developer commentary track that you can listen to while playing the game along with an image gallery and some other goodies.
But let’s get to the actual game, and tricky task of discussing whether it still holds up today, and what standards something like this should be held to. You take on the role of Manny Calavera, a man with the unfortunate problems of being very, very dead. He works as a travel agent of sorts, ushering people into the next life by getting them the best travel package possible based on their behavior while alive, making their journey to the Ninth Underworld easier. Manny occupies the Land of the Dead, and we find him struggling to get any decent clients. Certain of questionable activity Manny investigates, and eventually lands what seems to be the perfect client in Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, whose behavior in her living life Manny is sure would earn her the luxury train, the ultimate package. Somehow, though, the computer informs Manny that she must walk the entire way, a journey that will take four years. After sending her on her way, Manny begins to investigate and winds up on a journey of his own that spans four years, though as the player we only experience one day each year, the special Day of the Dead where those who died can return to the world of the living to visit family.
Of course that whole personal journey thing entails a lot of puzzle solving throughout the game, many of which involve sensible solutions that the player can figure out what once they become attuned to the games internal logic system, Many more puzzles, though, are obtuse and bloody annoying, including the much reviled Petrified Forest section of the game which is known even amongst seasoned point and click players as a lesson in bad adventure game design. There’s even a portion of the game’s commentary track that mentions a desire to cut the Petrified Forest out with a machete, a desire which many will share. The problem is simply one of context; Grim Fandango comes from the time of point and click games where gamer’s were generally quite familiar with the strange logic needed get past some section, whereas today people are considerably less used to such leaps of thought. But that’s not too say that Grim Fandango had perfectly well designed puzzles back in the day. Even then it had some pretty idiotic solutions, such as tearing a boat in half with an anchor so that your half can fly away. It’s also incredibly guilty of making you spend heaps of time figuring out a puzzle, only for it to lead to about five more rather than any sort of real advancement in the plot. Still, when the puzzles are good, they are good, it’d just be nice if they were good more often.
The uneven quality of the puzzles never manages to overshadow the sheer brilliance of the characters, dialogue and story. So very few games have the capacity to compel you to click every single dialogue option, and there’s a lot of them. It’s worth venturing through them all to hear the witty writing, all of which is delivered through some very capable voice acting. Despite the game’s clear age its themes and ideas still resonate to this day, from its shady corporations to its stellar sense of humour which has aged wonderfully thanks to a reliance on pure comedy rather than pop-culture references. It’s a decently long game, clocking in at somewhere around the 12-15 hour mark, and throughout that time characters will grow in natural ways. You’ll become invested in the tale quickly because of the intriguing conspiracy and the witty dialog, but ultimately if you could boil the reason for staying invested to a single thing it would be the characters.
The perfect way to enjoy the game is if you’ve already played it, really, and remember enough of the experience to help guide you through the often obtuse puzzles without immediately giving you the solutions, and thereby let you soak in the story more. It also means you can play through the game with the developer commentary on so you can enjoy listening to the fascinating insights provided. It has to be said that spoilers are fairly well controlled as well, though obviously if you’ve never played the game before it would be best to go play through once normally, and a second time with the commentary on.
And then there’s technical issues, which is actually a little shocking. Not only did I encounter several crashes which were actually a part of the original game, their continued existence an offense to every gamer who purchases Grim Fandango Remastered, but there was also a couple of sections where the framerate actually took a considerable drop, which is astounding, in a way. There’s also some awful lip-syncing every now and then, too, plus a couple of other hiccups.
Perhaps most of the issues I talk about here really stem from the idea of a remake versus a remaster, and how there’s not any agreed upon definition that separates them. But sensibly we could probably assume a remaster is merely a graphical upgrade of an existing title, while a remake is pretty self-explanatory, encompassing things like the Monkey Island Special Editions. Viewed this way Grim Fandango is pretty much exactly what was promised; a remaster in the sense that’s it’s mostly small graphical upgrade, plus a few other tweaks, a barebones reiteration
A certain part of me somewhat approves of how close this remaster is to the original game, valuing the almost museum approach to restoration. And yet it’s also such a huge missed opportunity to update the game’s more obvious problems, and help introduce new players to the genre. The aforementioned hint system would have been a great thing to bring to the game, because back when Grim Fandango was released people were far more used to the often barmy leaps of logic needed to progress, while today most gamers don’t think in the same way. It makes it tough to put a final score on the game. Grim Fandango remains a cult classic for good reason, yet hasn’t aged perfectly, and as a remaster is something if a let down. So, what do I say to that? Buy it. Especially if you’ve never played it before, or if you have little to no experience with the genre. Despite its problems this is an important piece of gaming history, and while you may feel irritated by the puzzles from time to time the sweeping story, acting and brilliant characters will carry you through until the very end.