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.Continued on the next page...