Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Platform: PC (Steam)
The great swan song the adventure genre, Grim Fandango, was released at in the heat of the gaming industry’s newfound obsession with 3D graphics. In kind, LucasArts, known for its Monkey Island and Star Wars games, transitioned into 3D with this tribute to Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.” Unfortunately, 1998 was an already loaded year which saw the releases of games such as Resident Evil 2, Metal Gear Solid, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. How on earth could a PC-exclusive adventure game possibly compete?
Grim Fandango would be praised by few and forgotten by many. Fortunately for its fans, its creator, Tim Schafer, was not going to let his brainchild go gently into that good night. After founding Double Fine Productions in 2000 and releasing another cult classic of Tim Burton inspiration, Psychonauts, and later Brutal Legend and Broken Age, he would have to wait for LucasArts to succumb in 2013 to the expenses and scope of video game production in the era of high definition. Schafer then successfully acquired the rights to publish Grim Fandango Remastered from Disney.
Behold the fruits of this labor.
Grim Fandango Remastered begins with Death visiting one of the latest souls to pass over from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead. They are both skeletons, but this newly-arrived soul is clearly nervous, anxiously tapping his foot with intensity as he awaits Death’s judgment. Death then introduces himself as “Manny Calavera,” travel agent. Manny then offers his “customer,” Celso Flores, several travel packages to choose from for his journey to the Ninth Underworld. He checks Flores’ “credit,” coming in the form of merit earned from deeds done while in the Land of the Living, and discovers that he does not even qualify for a bus, let alone the Number 9 Express—the premium four-hour train ride to the Ninth Underworld—but only a good old-fashioned walk across the Land of the Dead.
Unfortunately for Manny, he must work at the Department of Death and earn commission to pay off his own debts that he has accumulated from his own previous life. He mulls over the fact that he only gets the worst of clients, a struggle that prolongs his tenure in the Land of the Dead. Thus, one of the first missions in Grim Fandango Remastered involves stealing a quality client from his office rival next-door, Domino. Manny “steals” the case of Mecedes “Meche” Colomar, woman who died of chicken pox after a life of volunteer work reading stories to terminally ill children. She is the slam-dunk-saint that Manny was hoping for, yet for some unknown reason, a system glitch prevents him from offering her a ticket to the Number 9. Puzzled, he leaves his office and only to be waylaied by his boss who admonishes him about stealing clients. In the meantime, Meche, distraught that she has caused so much trouble, flees into the Petrified Forest. Feeling responsible for her disappearance and endangerment, Manny pursues her while remaining suspicious of the ongoings at the Department of Death.
The above screenshot is about as risqué as it gets in Grim Fandango Remastered. Meche sheds her stocking, but shows no skin—only bone. This is just one of many examples of the game’s dark humor. As such, players should expect the kind of language found in a PG movie, including a couple euphemisms for “mule,” and a certain “d” word for condemnation.
On the other hand, smoking is a popular practice in the Land of the Dead. The website tvtropes.org points out that in the original Grim Fandango instruction manual, a footnote reads, “For those who are disturbed by the amount of smoking in Grim Fandango, we offer two reasons: 1) we wanted to be true to the Film Noir atmosphere, and 2) everybody in the game who smokes is DEAD. Think about it.” I add that none of these skeletons have lungs, either. Additionally, I do not recall a note about the alcohol consumption. Manny’s sidekick, a demon named Glottis, is an alcoholic whose habits contribute to the game’s plot and puzzle solutions.
Speaking of demons, Grim Fandango Remastered does indeed interpret what happens in the afterlife differently than that one will find in the Bible. Of course, the game does not strive to be scripturally accurate—only culturally so. Día de los Muertos is as serious a holiday to Mexicans as Mardi Gras is New Orleans. Failure to acknowledge this folklore would be ignorant and xenophobic. At the same time, we are obligated to indicate the distinctions between truth and fiction.
Anyone want to guess how to play a point-and-click adventure game?
Only step three in this formula is problematic in Grim Fandango Remastered, needing a lot more question marks than is appropriate to write here. The 1998 Grim Fandango is an homage to the adventure games before its time such as Myst (1993) and The Neverhood (1996); the remaster does nothing to amend its lack of clues. Though players cannot die in the Land of the Dead as a consequence of failed puzzle solutions, one certainly can get lost for a lack of hints. Grim Fandango Remastered trusts that players are paying attention to everything—a gross assumption, but one that the game makes because it offers little help concerning the conditions to satisfy step D in a A, B, C, D, E, F puzzle-solving process. For the sake of avoiding more minor spoilers beyond offering a synopsis of Year One in the “Story” section of this review, I will offer this one hint as an example: in a certain chapter, players will acquire a seemingly arbitrary key; the “clue” is that there is only one locked door in this section of the game, which is no clue at all given the size of the area and number of events the player must first activate before collecting this key. Such is just one example of how obtuse the puzzles in Grim Fandango Remastered can be, requiring players to have uncanny memories and genius intuition.
I’ll give the game the benefit of doubt. Perhaps I am just inattentive, having the tendency to miss the subtlety. However, I’m incredulous. The problem with the core gameplay of Grim Fandango is that it was designed in the pre-GTA 3, pre-The Sims era when giving a player character a command to interact with an item, the environment, or NPC would produce a line or two and an animation for the enhancement of immersion. In the present, verbosity and environmental interaction is expected rather than a perk or key feature. I was also unmoved by the le film noir tropes (L.A. Noire is the standard now), so the game began to be a chore after Year Two, with two more parts (Year Three and Year Four) remaining. Unfortunately for Grim Fandango Remastered, the “gameplay” feels more like an interactive movie than what I would call “a game.”
I am also obligated to mention that there were two times in the game that I had to reload because of some glitch; both times were near the end of the game. The first glitch occurred in a room where I found an axe. I pick it up and drop it, but it drops at the bottom of the screen where an arrow appears to change the camera angle in the room. I do not realize that this is a problem until I figure out the purpose of the axe, and when I go to retrieve it, I cannot click it because it is in the camera-switch threshold. This forced me to have to reload and solve one of the game’s simpler, but tedious puzzles before entering the room again. The second glitch occurred when I tried to solve a puzzle by handing Glottis a beverage. He and Manny became stuck in an unbreakable animation loop where I couldn’t even reload, but had to exit the game from Windows Task Manager.
This is a remaster rather than a remake, so while I was expecting crisp everything, I had to settle for merely not having to tolerate low-res polygons. Though the character models are now more modern, they are still limited in texture density. This is a low-spec game, after all, so there will be jaggies. Some graphical enhancements like the lighting (shadow) above exists, but I took them for granted because this is my first time playing Grim Fandango and those details are simply expected. The grainy pre-rendered environments, choppy animations, and blocky characters combine to make for a game that shows its age despite the new coat of paint. I was particularly disappointed by being unable to play in 16:9 aspect ratio, because that would have eliminated the boarders. Unfortunately, its usage triggered the most glitches: when accessing Manny’s inventory, the conventional clickable arrows to the right and left boarders of the screen disappear in 16:9, and players have to use the arrow keys to cycle through items; regrettably, Manny would often keep scrolling for up to ten seconds even if I hit the arrow key just once. Being forced to play in 4:3 with a widescreen monitor in 2015 in a game whose key features celebrate compatibility with modern resolutions is a huge disappointment.
I have to say that I do enjoy the art direction of the game. LucasArts (and Double Fine Productions) made me feel like a participant in Día de los Muertos due to the variety of colors and calaca present in the game.
I also take nothing away from Grim Fandango’s fabulous voice acting, which unlike other elements of the game, remains on par with modern standards. Domino (Patrick Dollaghan), Dockmaster Velasco (Kay E. Kuter) and Nick Virago (Daragh O’Malley) had me hanging on every word, while Glottis (Alan Blumenfeld) was sufficiently annoying as was Lupe (Terri Ivens) but at least she’s cute; Glottis is just a giant orange of ugly. Much of the music is also befitting of the city and club scenes in El Marrow and Rubacava.
I really did try to like Grim Fandango Remastered, but I feel that those interested in an adventure game should either play a game like Gone Home , whose length is more appropriate without wearing out its welcome, or another game which integrates the aspects of adventure games but offers more fulfilling quests, like Fallout or a Pillars of Eternity. I’m afraid that only fans of the genre and this game will want the nostalgic injection. I think this game would have benefited from a complete overhaul rather than a simple revision.
The Bottom Line
The existence of Grim Fandango Remastered makes it possible to play the cult classic known as the last great adventure game on modern machines. Unfortunately, its aesthetics and gameplay remain stuck in 1998.