Developer: LucasArts (Original), Double Fine Productions (Remastered)
Publisher: LucasArts (Original), Double Fine Productions (Remastered)
Formats: PS4 (Reviewed), PS VITA, Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS
Released: October 30, 1998 (Original) , January 27, 2015 (Remastered)
Copy purchased on the PlayStation Network store.
1998. That year has been argued by many fans as the ultimate year in video games. You got Fallout 2, StarCraft, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Xenogears, Suikoden II, Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid, Balders Gate, Gran Turismo, Resident Evil II, Tekken III, 1080 Snowboarding, Banjo Kazooie, and so many many other classics that have 1998 a watershed year in gaming. But one game from 1998 stands out not for its greatness or innovation, but for marking the end of an era of gaming.
Back in the 90’s LucasArts Games had a monopoly on humorous, irreverent point-and-click adventure games with series like Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, & Sam and Max. But then there’s Grim Fandango, the last game created by visionary game developer/writer Tim Schafer. This 3D adventure game was critically and commercially successful when it launched on October 30th, 1998. The game sold well but LucasArts Games deemed it a disappointment and everyone else used that as evidence the point and click adventure game genre was commercially “dead”.
Soon after, Tim Schafer formed Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, that Russian nesting doll game I liked but nobody else did) and several sacked LucasArts employees formed TellTale Games (a bunch of poorly optimized yet somehow financially successful licensed games). They and many other independent studios have brought back point-and-click adventure games from the dead proving there was and always will be an audience for adventure games with strong narratives and clever puzzles. It seemed fitting that Tim Schafer’s studio would have the honor of acquiring the license from Disney (who shut down LucasArts and owns the rights to their IP’s) to bring Grim Fandango back from the grave. With new controls, improved graphics, and a re-orchestrated soundtrack, does Grim Fandango still hold up or is it dead on revival?
Inspired by Mexican folklore and set in a loose interpretation of the Aztec underworld, you play as Manuel “Manny” Calaveras. He’s a travel agent working for Department of Death (D.O.D.) and he serves the recently deceased in the hopes that one day, he can join them in eternal rest in the Ninth Underworld. Those who’ve lived a good life get an ticket to the Number Nine train that leads straight to the Ninth Underworld while those who’ve sinned are sent on a four year journey through the underworld. Many corrupt souls who lose faith in the journey end up making a living (so to speak) in the Land of the Dead. Manny’s job is to set up clients with travel accommodations but he’s sick & tired of getting clients who can’t afford anything. After his boss threatens to terminate his job if he can’t close a “Premium Client”, Manny decides to steal one. Enter Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, a seemingly innocent soul who Manny believes is a shoe-in for a Number Nine ticket but his computer tells him she doesn’t even qualify for a bicycle. After sending Meche on the four year journey to parts unknown, he discovers corruption within the D.O.D. as part of a scheme to swindle clients their hard owned tickets out of the underworld. With the humungous car mechanic demon Grottis by his side, Manny flees his job and sets out to find Meche in hopes of righting his wrongs and to find salvation among the damned.
The game is broken up into four acts with each act spanning a year from the previous day of the dead. It’s interesting to see where Manny, Meche, and Glottis end up & seeing their relationships with one another evolve over time is compelling. The narrative borrows many aspects from Noir films like the Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and most notably Casablanca. Crime and sorrow fill the atmosphere, characters have morally ambiguities and often betray one another for their own self interests. Hell, the second act takes place in a casino run by Manny who’s dressed as Humphrey Bogart (minus the skin).
Like many of LucasArts past adventure games, Grim Fandango’s charm comes from the humor and the whip smart writing. There’s all manner of wordplay and puns to be found but most of the laughs come from Manny’s observations of the world around him. This brings a feeling of warmth to this cold skeleton’s outlook on the afterlife. The plethora of macabre jokes that deal with characters being dead and even dying (so to speak) don’t make the game feel dour but work in tandem with the “anything goes” vibe. Top all of that with some memorable side characters with their own ludicrous motivations and you have the recipe for a great adventure game.
It’ll take you around 12 hours to complete but each in game year brings new interesting characters for you to meet, new sets for you to explore, and new puzzles to solve. The game by design doesn’t have any user interface and it doesn’t hold your hand like modern adventure games with their tutorials and hint systems. Manny’s head will track to things you can interact with and specific items can be pulled in and out of Manny’s coat to solve puzzles. Puzzles are incredibly silly and obtuse to figure out but the items used to solve them are literal. For instance, the metal detector in Year 2 is used to detect metal objects but how you acquire it and how you use it is clever and subversive. With the exception of one contrived instance in the fourth act of the game, you can’t combine items together to solve puzzles but for the most part, they’re all well designed and move the plot forward. You could look up the answers to puzzles online as there is no hint system for modern gamers with no patience but putting all the pieces together by your own wits will make you feel like the genius’ who made them.
Grim Fandango: Remastered is somewhat misleading as it’s more of a restoration than a drastic overhaul of the existing game. The game runs on a cobbled together patchwork of game and video engines and it’s amazing that it all runs well on the PlayStation 4. The game runs at 60 frames per second but several background art assets are locked at lower frame rates due to Double Fines insistence on preserving the game. Character models and interactive objects have been given upgraded resolutions and a new dynamic lighting system compliments the noir aesthetic. You can switch between the original and remastered visuals with the press of a button and it’s amazing how everything has held up over the years. Video cutscenes look a bit choppy but they feature no color banding. By default, the game runs at the original 4:3 resolution with options to change the screen borders. There’s even an option to switch it to a 16:9 resolution but it looks awful stretched out to fit wide screens.
The game works well with the PS4 controller but no matter what control scheme you choose, you’ll run into issues. Controlling Manny with the original tank controls is terrible (think the original Resident Evil) and switching between isometric areas is confusing. The default controls are much better but all bets are off when controlling vehicles. I got stuck on a forklift puzzle for 30 minutes due to the frustration of not being able to drive straight on a tilted isometric plane. Be sure to save often as the game does not have an auto save feature and several game ruining bugs still exist.
Easily the best special feature on this remastering is the developers commentary which is enabled in the options menu. It’s fascinating hearing Tim Schaffer and several artists and programmers talk about the games influences and the design choices that went into the game. However, once you activate a commentary blurb, you’ll need to stay in that area as leaving will cut the track off. The second best feature is the remastered sound design. The crazy cool mix of Big Band Jazz, sweeping orchestras, Mexican guitars, and Peruvian folk music on the remastered “live” soundtrack adds atmosphere to each of the games environments. The vocal tracks have also been restored with kudos to the cast on performances that have held up all these years. Lastly, serval pieces of never before seen concept art from illustrator Peter Chan can be unlocked through play. Looking at these stellar pieces of art, it’s no wonder why Tim Schafer insisted on preserving the games look and feel.
I was 8 Years Old when Grim Fandango came out and by the time I was old enough to own a PC, the game was unobtainable. Jewel cases for the game became scarce as LucasArts stopped producing them and pirating the game was never an option as the outdated game couldn’t run on my modern computer. What the folks at Double Fine have done with Grim Fandango Remastered is a miracle in archival retrieval and because of their efforts, the game holds up nicely. I hesitate to call this “the definitive edition” due to bugs and a lack of modern accoutrements but it’s still an incredible experience worth playing though from beginning to tear jerking end. The characters are memorable, the blend of comedy and fatality is brilliant, and the rich environments with the orchestral score feel grand. The puzzles require leaps of logic and will frustrate newer gamers but this is a game about talking skeletons leaps of logic is already a given. If you’re interested in video game history, point-and-click adventure games, or if you’ve never danced the Grim Fandango, grab a ticket and ride the express train to the underworld. Oh, and Happy Anniversary!