Originally released in 1998 under the now defunct LucasArts, Grim Fandango has been revived in an all new remastered edition after its first commercial failure. This up-ressed re-release features a slew of new aesthetic and optional features that’ll keep the fans of the critically acclaimed game happy while also introducing one of the genre’s most prodigious titles to a newer generation. To be honest, I’ve never played Grim Fandango before and it’s one of those guilty gaming secrets that have haunted me since I was first introduced to the adventure game genre. So, as a result, this review will be a mixture of perspectives as I will review the original, unadulterated game alongside the remastered edition (the full review will explain how this is possible in the remastered edition alone and why, because of this, I consider Grim Fandango Remastered to be a shining beacon for future enhanced editions). Now, without further ado mis amigos, vámonos!
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
Manny Calavera, the cynical, smooth-talking travel agent, is back and ready to journey once again across the Land of the Dead. His smart, sardonic outlook on his meager status in life and the colorful cast of characters around him is simply hilarious; every comeback or comment is teaming with a delightful undertone of sarcasm. Along the way, Manny also meets the actors that inhabit his story, such as the femme fatale Meche or the lovable, clueless Glottis. They bring the much-needed spice to this neo-noir as their interactions with Manny form the backbone of his character and the motivation for his journey through The Land of the Dead. Speaking of his journey, Grim Fandango follows the neo-noir theme to a tee. If there’s a trope you can associate with the genre, you can be sure it’s in Grim Fandango — the femme fatale, the deadpan nature of the characters, the cynical lead, and a heavy manipulation of light, dark and the shadows in between. Moments in the game that are reminiscent of films such as Casablanca or Shanghai Express are apparent throughout and do a great job of putting the player into a seedy, unassuming setting where they’re likely to meet Humphrey Bogart.
When you hear the word “remastered”, you have a certain expectation of this fresh coat of paint bringing a certain gleam back to your favorite games. Grim Fandango takes that new coat of pain concept and goes the extra step to not only apply new textures and a higher resolution, but also introduces a new, dynamic lighting scheme. Manny and the rest of cast look polished and pristine, swapping out their pixelated suits and dresses for a smoother build. The pre-rendered backgrounds seem to remain untouched, which is a bit of a shame considering how great they’d look with the upgraded graphics, but the static, obscured artwork still holds up with the up-ressed models. There are a few graphical glitches, but nothing that prevented me from enjoying the game or solving a puzzle or two.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
As Grim Fandango Remastered is, well, only a remastering of the original adventure game, most of the puzzles and gameplay mechanics are still present. For the most part, the puzzles are enjoyable and tend to offer some sort of levity or insight into Manny’s current predicament, whether it’s fending of spider-bats or trying to fend off skeletal pidgeons. Puzzle consistency, however, is not one of Grim Fandango’s strong suits. Some puzzles are pretty straightforward in their solving, as in this character gives you a picture of a girl and you show it to the guy who was talking about a girl earlier. Nothing exactly challenging or riveting there. But other puzzles are so convoluted that the amount of logic jumps needed to reach a certain conclusion verge on being ridiculous, almost to the point that just randomly using items on every interactable object is the best bet. Couple this with a few minor to major technical glitches and bugs and the game experience will sometimes make a turn into frustrating territory.
These, usually, are a product of the design era and the adventure game pitfalls of the day (e.g. small objects hidden in the pre-rendered backgrounds, awkward character select recognition, unexplained mechanics or item uses). By today’s standards, this puzzle design — and the game’s overall design for that matter — is poor and cumbersome, but that’s the charm of these old adventure games. They required you to take that extra step, to really put yourself out of a normal line of thought to find a solution and work for a milestone. I’ve read other critics and gamers mark down Grim Fandango Remastered for not adding autosave, not changing the game’s slow pace up to modern standards or not changing the UI — pushing for that modern design overhaul in general — but that’s the way it was meant to be played; I’m not saying it’s necessarily a justification for quality or that all older games should be given a pass just because “that’s just the way they did it”, but it really isn’t that tedious to manually save every other scene or have to scroll through one more item to get to that puzzle piece. I’m not touching tank controls though, that’s another matter for another time.
But enough about the vanilla release — what’s new to the remastered edition? As mentioned above, there’s a new advanced lighting system along with new textures and a revamped, orchestral soundtrack — the typical aesthetic reasons for a modern revamp –, but it’s the little tidbits in the options menu that make this remaster a worthwhile revisit. The game allows you to switch back to the old controls, the old graphics and even the old aspect ratio for those players who want to feel a gust of nostalgia as they ride hood-down in the pixelated Bone Wagon. These gameplay lifestyle options are a welcome addition to the refurbished Fandango, yet it’s the introduction of director commentary which is the real icing on the cake. Flip it on in the menu and certain button prompts will appear from time to time, dimming the game’s audio and giving the player a firsthand, retrospective insight into that particular scene’s development straight from the lead’s mouth. It’s amazing not only because it lets fans in on the behind the scenes goodies, but it also gives Grim Fandango a feature film feel, like we just got the Blu-ray in of a classic noir film. This is how a remastered should be handled and it fits perfectly with the theme of the game; I’m not saying that the game was bony before, but it definitely puts some much-needed meat on its bones.
Grim Fandango Remastered is a culmination of everything fantastic in both an adventure game and a remastered treatment. Manny Calavera’s story is chock full of quick wit and enough deadpan humor to make Jackie Vernon roll around in his grave. Thankfully, the living will just be clutching their sides almost dying from laughter with each new scenario. The gameplay, which is untouched, throws challenging puzzle after puzzle at the player with only a minimum amount of technical hiccups and bizarre puzzle sequences. And of course, there’s the remastered tag to consider: this enhanced version brings a plethora of aesthetic upgrades along with some enjoyable, fan oriented bonus features that really bring this game into a new light. I’d recommend this game to anyone who wants to have a good laugh, solve some puzzles and/or revisit the golden age of LucasArts. Even if you’ve played this game before, the additional features absolutely warrant another trip to the Land of the Dead.
Final Score: 9 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood