HD remasters emerge week by week onto an already crowded shelf space. We live in an era where re-releases boast little more than slight graphical changes many of us don’t even care about. And where, like whack-a-mole, games resurface all too soon after their debut.
In a delightfully stark contrast to this rather bleak image, Grim Fandango, an award-winning classic from 1998, has finally received a new lick of paint. More importantly, the originally poor-selling game, which has proven to be nearly impossible to procure, has finally received a wide-scale release. So we can all finally stop scouring the internet, searching on sites such as gog.com, and staring red-eyed at Tim Schafer’s Twitter account.
For those not in the know, Grim Fandango is a dark comedy adventure game from the fine minds of Lucas Arts, renowned for titles such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. Grim Fandango Remastered has been developed and published by Double Fine Productions, headed up by original director and industry legend Tim Schafer. There’s been a lot of salvaging and refurbishing of old parts, but it doesn’t take long to realise why the effort was put in, and why the title has achieved cult status.
What immediately stands out is the game’s story, or, more specifically, its characters. Despite the fact that everyone here is either long-dead or a demon, they show more emotion than you’d see in even the most complex of flesh-bearing characters. Our hero is the witty, hard-on-his-luck Manuel (Manny) Calevara, who we’re introduced to as a travel agent from the Department of Death.
It’s Manny’s job to work out what travel packages people can receive in order to get out of the Land of the Dead and into the Ninth Underworld. The story draws heavily from Aztec and Mexican culture, but it’s a very loose interpretation, of course. Lived a saintly life? You’ll get a ticket on the Number Nine train. Cheated an old lady out of her last meal? You may get the Excelsior Line, which is a walking stick with a built-in compass – essential if you plan on getting through the Petrified Forest.
Manny soon realises that something is afoot, and from there on in, the story expands with Manny constantly interacting with a wide range of characters – each just as interesting as the last. Much of the story centres on him and the beautifully bony Meche, but the real heroes of the tale are Manny and the demonic driver Glottis, whose bromance blossoms gradually.
Every character from small to large carries a deft amount of detail, and you’ll find yourself attached to both the heroes and villains, such as the likes of the corrupt business-type Domino – who sounds like someone from a badly written self-help book – and Salvador, who’s part of an anti-establishment movement and will almost certainly leave you swooning.
For an extremely funny game, Grim Fandango Remastered manages to meld in a startling amount of emotion along with some cleverly subtle character development. Those little faces may not need skin to show emotion, but they do have the added benefit of an extremely well-voiced script; it’s comforting to learn that the main voice actor is from Cuba, bringing some authenticity to Manuel’s accent. It’s another small touch that urges you on to figure out more about the unchanged story. However, it’s not always easy to go forth.
Grim Fandango is definitely not a simple game, especially if you’re new to the adventure genre. The first thing that takes getting used to is the controls. The original tank controls are still available, and, for all us purists out there, will work just fine. You can also use point-and-click controls for more accuracy, with the Vita version providing touch controls.
For those looking for a more modern touch, there’s the newfangled control scheme – referred to by Schafer as the ‘Mario 64 controls’ – in which you have full analog control. However, the new configuration manages to feel somewhat unwieldy, due to the constantly changing camera angles, which require you to change your button presses upon every angle switch. It’s a shame since this feature was touted as a way to give casual gamers increased accessibility.
Unfortunately, getting used to the controls is probably one of the easiest parts of the game. What’s more difficult is the puzzle aspect. Cleverness and intuitiveness are required in order to work out problems, and you’re not given any hints other than the words Manny speaks. If you’re hoping for a tutorial, you will be disappointed.
Environments are full of objects to interact with, which are marked by Manny’s gaze. This represents a nice, but small, breakaway from the typical adventure title task of searching by hovering the mouse over different objects. Head tracking is something the original team was pretty proud of, and anyone who has played the likes of Monkey Island will understand its importance.
Grim also manages to improve upon other titles by not over-encumbering the inventory screen. This leaves a bit more space for working out where to use items, rather than which items you need to use. It still doesn’t make the puzzles any easier, and the title’s length largely depends on your familiarity with adventure games.
Most objects and dialogue carry some hint, either vague or obvious, as to what you need to do. Guessing can leave you flat-footed due to the fact that some objects only wear the mask of being important. Those trees in the Petrified Forest will never help you find your way out, even if you spend a large portion of your time noting where each one leads to. Yes, I actually did this. It was painful. It’s embarrassing. I won’t mention my other misinterpretations of the environment.
It’s also worth noting that when you do cave in and go to the internet for a hint, you’ll probably be kicking yourself for your stupidity. Grim Fandango is a difficult game, but not an unfair one; everything you need to solve the problems is there, despite how it may seem at times.
So, finally, let’s talk about those graphics. For a 15-year-old game, Fandango is still looking exceptionally well. At any point, outside of the unchanged cutscenes, you can switch between the original and new graphics. The greatest impact this has is on the character models, which are given the added benefit of enhanced lighting and smoother textures. Retro Manuel looks jagged and flat in comparison to his modern counterpart.
Unfortunately, the environments don’t get any sort of varnishing and barely change in appearance. There are also many bugs throughout the title, including one that makes it freeze (a real pain since the game doesn’t autosave). Most are just to do with appearance, however, and can easily be ignored, regardless of how disturbing they are.
Director’s commentary is another addition to the new Grim Fandango, and it should go without saying that returning fans will appreciate this the most. When you turn the option on, you are prompted in certain areas by an icon in the corner to play the relevant audio. As you’d expect, much of the commentary features Tim Schafer providing insight into the current scenario and the game’s development, with other developers chiming in. Double Fine were undoubtedly committed to the title, so it’s interesting to hear their views on the small touches and on some of the ideas they had.
Delving even further, PC gamers can access a three-part making of the game video on Steam, or you can download it (along with an HD wallpaper) after purchase on gog.com. This further highlights the quality and legacy of the game.
While it does have some weaknesses in the controls, graphics, and bugs, these are all but minor gripes. Grim Fandango is one of the best adventure games of all time, with some of the best characters in gaming, period. The fact that it’s been remastered is a nice bonus. But even without any of the polish, without the Steam trophies, and without the commentary, we should all be glad that Grim Fandango, after 15 years, has resurfaced its bony hand from its grave. Welcome back to the land of the living, Manuel.