Grim Fandango Remastered review
In Grim Fandango Remastered, one of the best games of all time has been resurrected for modern audiences. It’s still a classic, and it absolutely belongs on every gamer’s (digital) shelf.
Growing up in the southwestern United States, where the cultural fabric has been heavily influenced by the Mexican-American community, I’ve always found it amusing that the first thing I associate with Day of the Dead, or “Dia de los Muertos,” is Grim Fandango, despite having only brief exposure to the game myself. The legacy of this LucasArts classic truly runs deep, and in light of this legacy I jumped at the chance to review the remastered version of Tim Schafer’s comedy-noir adventure. This release has been updated with an intuitive point-and-click interface, mildly-enhanced graphics, and optional in-game "director's commentary," but clearly Double Fine Productions was determined to preserve all the elements that made the game great in the first place, while fixing the few elements that dragged down the original.
I knew beforehand that Grim Fandango was influenced by film noir, but I came to the game with almost no preconceived notions whatsoever about the story and its characters, having somehow avoided major spoilers over the years. I was excited by the prospect of finally seeing what the fuss was about, but I honestly expected much of the praise to be based on rose-tinted nostalgia: a great game, perhaps, but nothing close to the Holy Grail status it seemed to hold among those who had played it. However, after becoming absorbed in the lush Art Deco environments, twisting, well-paced plot, and a laugh-out-loud script bolstered by gloriously memorable characters, it became apparent that I was witnessing the rebirth of a very special moment in adventure game history.
Those who have made this trip before may want to skip a few paragraphs ahead, but for those new to the series like me, Grim Fandango’s surprisingly complex plot revolves around Manny Calavera, a grim reaper-like "travel agent" working for the Department of Death (DoD), a bureaucratic organization that sells travel packages to recently-deceased souls for their journey through the Land of the Dead. Manny gets a commission for every package that he sells, but his office rival, Domino "Dom" Hurley, seems to always get the most virtuous clients for himself, thus robbing Manny of any chance at making enough money to escape his dead-end job (ha!) and make the journey to the Ninth Underworld himself. Early in the game, Manny intercepts a message intended to let Dom know about a new client, Mercedes "Meche" Colomar, a woman who qualifies for the most expensive package offered by the DoD, and he attempts to reach her first.
His plan backfires, naturally, causing Meche to lose her place on the Number Nine Express, a train that would have whisked her to the afterlife in four minutes. This dooms her to walk the Land of the Dead for four years, a punishment usually reserved for only the most sinful of souls. Facing punishment of his own at the hands of the Department of Death, Manny sets out on a journey to find Meche and hopefully right his wrong. In doing so, he begins to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy that threatens the eternal souls of everyone in the Land of the Dead.
With its themes of revenge and redemption, the noir-inspired plot is intriguing, if a bit predictable in the broadest strokes, but in Grim Fandango the delight's in the details. The story takes place over a four-year period, and over the course of the game there are plenty of twists and turns that leave players wondering where they will be off to next, and what they will see when they get there. The melding of Mesoamerican art and lore into a Casablanca-style film-noir makes for a fun round of spot-the-inspiration for those who know something about the subject, and a good way to gain whimsical exposure for those with less in-depth knowledge.
The most obvious influence is the skeletal appearance of the dearly-departed souls that populate the game, an homage to “La Calavera Catrina,” a lighthearted figure popularized by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the early twentieth century. There are other references that players may recognize over the course of the game, some obvious and others deviously clever. Getting shot, for instance, is referred to as "being sprouted," resulting in flowers growing from the victim’s remains – a sly, remixed reference to the floral motif often seen on traditional Day of the Dead grave decorations. The juxtaposition of such macabre elements with comedy feels quite natural to the world of Grim Fandango, rather than feeling forced in for effect, an impressive feat that came as a very enjoyable surprise.
The brightest spotlight, though, belongs on the characters, where none, it seems, is throwaway or lacking in personality. The main characters are all as memorable as one could hope: Manny is a jaded, down-on-his-luck salesman trapped by circumstances he can't control, and the friendly animal spirit Glottis, Manny's companion on his quest, is loud, excitable, and lives to drive and tinker with fast cars. Dom, Manny's office rival, is slick, hard-driving, and obnoxious, while Meche is a saintly woman who's angry at being stiffed out of her destiny by Manny's bungling efforts to save himself from the doldrums of the afterlife.
And these are just the characters you’ll encounter in the first hour or so. Schafer could have slacked off with the numerous minor characters and still had more than enough material to keep players entertained, but what absolutely blew me away was that when the game was over I could still remember every character I'd encountered along the way, like Membrillo, the creepy "Gardener" (the Land of the Dead's version of a coroner) who waxes philosophic about his job, or Bogen, Rubacava's Chief of Police who has a penchant for gambling. Each character has their own unique personality and sense of charm, even those who show up only once or twice to play their part in the proceedings but are otherwise not central to the action.
Much of the credit for this goes to the script, a comic masterpiece where even the weakest joke is still worth a chuckle, but just as much credit (if not more) goes to the voice-over cast and direction. Almost every line was pitch-perfect to my ears, and injected even more life into an already captivating world. Adventure games are notorious for hit-and-miss voice acting, but Grim Fandango features the best acting I've ever heard in a video game, bar none.
Graphically the game is stunning, a wonderfully-inventive mix of the sweeping curves and bright color schemes of Art Deco architecture and the traditional art forms and motifs of Aztec and Mexican culture. For example, the building that houses the Department of Death is very reminiscent of the Empire State Building, complete with eaglehead gargoyles lining the rooftop. But the interior's hallways contain Mesoamerican touches, such as statues of ancient Aztec gods. This same technique is employed throughout the game, but each locale manages to feel unique, even though they often have the same general themes. The Blue Casket, an absolutely gorgeous dock-side nightclub with a blue-and-aqua glass facade, is perhaps my favorite location in the game, but many others are worth noting, such as a high-roller's casino with a unique feline theme, an Aztec-style temple, and an industrial mining complex that proves that Art Deco flourishes can coexist with heavy machinery. Really, I never grew tired of the art, though I must admit to being biased, since Art Deco is one of my favorite styles. Cutscenes convey complex scenes effectively, especially during some of the more dramatic moments peppered throughout.
As for how the graphics fare in this "remastered" edition, they really haven't been overhauled so much as subtly enhanced with higher-resolution textures and new lighting effects. Now when Manny takes a smoke break, the soft orange glow of his cigarette flickers on his body, light streaming through window blinds casts shadows on characters’ faces, and the character models are more detailed and lacking the stair-step aliasing present in the original release. The game is presented in a third-person, quasi-3D style, with characters moving across static backgrounds, and the environments have apparently not been modified from their original versions. This seems like they might run the risk of looking antiquated when compared to the updated character models, but that is not the case at all due to the high level of detail already present. Overall, there's nothing dramatic in the changes, but I'd call that a good thing. There's just enough of a difference to make the visuals feel fresh and new, without completely altering (or worse, ruining) the atmosphere. It's a conservative change that results in a slight improvement to an already beautiful game.
Being a title from the late 1990s, Grim Fandango was made for square 4:3 monitors, which raises the issue of how to present the game on now-standard widescreen displays. Double Fine has included three choices in Remastered, accessible from the options menu: 4:3 with borders, which places decorative vertical bars on either side of the screen; 4:3 with no borders, which leaves blank the unused screen real estate, and 16:9 mode, which stretches the image out to cover the entire screen at the expense of horizontal distortion.
Music throughout the game is perfectly executed and enhances the atmosphere immensely. Nightclubs are lively with jazz numbers, dramatic moments (usually in cutscenes) are accentuated with orchestral compositions, and the sounds of flutes and trumpets echo up from a Day of the Dead street festival taking place outside the Department of Death, just to name a few memorable examples. Although music of some variety plays in almost every scene, I never found it tiresome or overpowering, and more often than not the soundtrack was catchy, sticking with me long after I had quit playing. Sound effects, such as the roar of a vehicle's engine, the ambient call of a bird flying overhead, or even the quiet sound of Manny lighting a cigarette, also do their part in bringing each locale alive.
On the gameplay front, players can expect to take part in a wide variety of often bizarre tasks, such as scaring birds away from a nest, gaining access to restricted areas of various locales, and even blackmailing an underhanded attorney into helping you on your quest. There are also some fun tasks to complete that are not specifically related to puzzles, like participating in an open-mic poetry slam for an audience of beret-wearing, finger-snapping beatniks. Yet despite how wacky the tasks can be, none of them feel out of place, always making sense in context.
You can expect to solve plenty of inventory obstacles, but logic puzzles are also abundant, including things like cracking the combination to a vault (that has no numbers on it!), manipulating a police officer into leaving a certain location, or figuring out how to stop an elevator between floors. The puzzles are the one area where Grim Fandango noticeably falters at times, though in ways that are generally mild. While they are usually enjoyable to solve, some solutions only make sense after you know the answer. For such puzzles, I found that a brute-force, try-everything-on-everything approach would sometimes yield results.
In one part near the middle of the game, however, the amount of backtracking required resulted in my using a walkthrough to get a nudge in the right direction a couple of times. Often the frustration lay in knowing what I had to do, but not knowing specifically how the designers wanted me to do it, resulting in a tantalizing feeling of being on the verge of solving a puzzle without knowing what to do next. Thankfully, these problems were few and far between and didn't seriously detract from my enjoyment of the other puzzles that did provide a satisfying challenge. Modern audiences have come to expect in-game hint systems and hotspot highlighters to assist them when they are stumped, but Grim Fandango, like many games from its time period, lacks such features. While both would have been a nice inclusion for Remastered, pixel-hunting was never an issue. The design of each scene or simple intuition was usually sufficient to clue me in to items that could be picked up, doors that could be opened, or characters that could be interacted with.
At around twenty hours long, Grim Fandango Remastered is a game that rewards playing in gulps rather than sips. While this might seem long by modern adventure-gaming standards, it hails from an era when games of this length were commonplace. And when considered in the context of a complex plot of a quality rarely seen in video games, the length is fully justified. Any fear that the length might stem from needless padding can be safely checked at the door. You will have plenty to do, but the activities typically service the story, rather than the other way around.
The highest-profile difference between the original and remastered versions is the addition of a point-and-click interface as an alternative to the keyboard-centric “tank” controls, perhaps the biggest source of complaint among gamers the first time around. Now the entire game can be controlled using the mouse, making it easy and intuitive to control Manny on PC. The cursor changes depending on what kind of hotspot you have scrolled over, including items and characters to interact with and exit nodes to the next scene change. This is much more user-friendly than relying on Manny’s subtle head turns to indicate hotspots. Movement within the current scene is accomplished by simply clicking on the part you want to go to, and double-clicking causes Manny to run, a great time-saver when traversing large areas. Clicking an item or character brings up a floating menu of icons to facilitate actions like "pick up," look," or "talk."
The inventory is accessible using a jacket-shaped icon in the lower right of the screen, and arrows at the sides allow you to cycle through the contents one at a time. A set of options at the bottom of the inventory screen (a close-up view of Manny's suit jacket) allows you to either click to "examine," "select," or exit, or use the hotkeys indicated next to the words to perform the same actions. Driving vehicles, climbing ladders, and other precise movements often benefit from the use of the keyboard's arrow keys, but the mouse is an acceptable option during these sequences, as well.
Dialogue sequences are also easy to navigate via a selection menu at the bottom of the screen when conversing with characters. Most options can only be chosen once before they disappear, making it easy to know what topics you've already discussed, and the inclusion of a written, running script of everything said in the game makes it possible to go back and read prior responses for clues or to remind yourself what the current objective is, for example. However, wading through massive amounts of dialogue doesn't make this easy to do, so taking notes of your own is recommended in case you must quit the game in the middle of puzzle.
The original keyboard options remain, of course, and they work just like they did before, offering either camera- or character-relative control. In either scheme, the important thing is to keep the movement key(s) pressed when changing scenes, which will keep Manny walking in the intended direction even when the camera cuts suddenly to another angle, which happens often in tight spaces. Instinctively you’ll probably want to let go when abruptly finding yourself facing a different direction, but that’s a surefire way to become disoriented. If you’ve got a gamepad, an analogue stick is much smoother than the keyboard for movement. The button prompts are optimized for the PS4 controller, but the game works just fine with an Xbox 360 gamepad too.
I did encounter some mild technical issues during my playthrough, mainly pathfinding problems where Manny would get stuck on the floor while walking in a couple of scenes. I also experienced an issue where using a specific item made the controls unresponsive, necessitating an alt-tab exit and reload of the game from a save file. This caused me to lose about twenty minutes of progress due to the manual save system and my failure to "save early, save often." That's a mantra that modern audiences may not be used to hearing, with automatic saves being the norm, but it is useful advice in light of this possibility.
To round out Grim Fandango Remastered, an optional "director's commentary" has been included. During play, the appearance of an icon indicates that commentary is available for that scene or point of interest. When the appropriate key is pressed, the disembodied voices of people who worked on the game, like creator Tim Shafer, lead artist Peter Tsaykel and others, discuss technical aspects of producing the original, share funny stories and anecdotes (fun fact: Lupe the cloakroom attendant is based on a real person!) and other tidbits of information. This will likely be of most interest to long-time fans of the game, but new players will enjoy getting a peek "behind the curtain" as well.
Though I've seen it referred to as such, it would be inaccurate to call this a "remake," even in the loosest sense of the term. Comparable to a digitally-remastered CD of your favorite song, in Grim Fandango Remastered all the dulcet tones and ringing high-notes of the original release are still there, they just sound a little better. And if you really want to go old-school, almost every bit of the original game, from the unenhanced graphics to the keyboard-centric controls, has been preserved in this release, and can be brought back at any time during play with a simple visit to the options panel. This allows for things like scene-by-scene comparisons of the graphical updates to the originals, though there is no hotkey to quickly toggle between them in-game. The decision to keep the original game's eight-saves-at-a-time limit intact is definitely a blast from the past I could have done without, but otherwise there's really nothing but across-the-board improvement to a game that was already brilliant in almost every way.
From its memorable characters, witty script, and intriguing plot, to catchy music, fantastic voice-overs and a great art style that always manages to stay fresh, the original version of Grim Fandango was just shy of perfection, brought down only by an awkward, console-oriented control scheme and a few illogical puzzles. I never would have said it could be done, but one of the all-time classics of gaming has been resurrected and actually improved for a whole new generation of gamers, while preserving everything that made the original great. Whether you've never played it before or played it a dozen times, you owe it to yourself to play Grim Fandango Remastered. It's even closer to gaming perfection now than ever, and it's still an unforgettable masterpiece.