They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to. That’s the overriding thought I had throughout my – and it shames me to say it – first ever playthrough of Grim Fandango. It’s a classic for good reason. From the brilliantly strange mind of Tim Schafer comes the tale of Manny Calavera, travel agent to the dead. In Grim Fandango, the Grim Reaper (or Reapers, as there are many) are cast as cosmic and spiritual travel agents, sending the recently-departed on their way to the ever after.
Whilst alive, a person’s deeds determine the amount of afterlife credits they’re rewarded, and thus, their method of transportation to the Ninth Underworld. The very best and kindest souls are given tickets on the Number Nine, a luxury train that takes only minutes to reach its destination. The less-good and thereby less-fortunate are made to take less comfortable and excruciatingly slower means of transportation. Manny, tired of never getting any good commissions, takes matters into his own hands, unwittingly stumbling onto a conspiracy involving tickets on the Number Nine and setting off a chain of events that will take him four years to unravel.
It’s actually quite a complex and intriguing tale and one that’s stood the test of time. The plot is the number one reason to play Grim Fandango and I won’t spoil it here. Games don’t just develop such reverent followings and achieve cult status without reason. Brought to life by amazing voice actors (Manny and Glottis in particular) and a brilliant cast of characters, it’s in uncovering the story that Grim Fandango shines. Supported by a jazz score (re-recorded for the re-release) there’s a lot of life in the Land of the Dead.
We’ve grown accustomed to remastered versions of games in the past couple of years so we know what to expect. Grim Fandango is a much older game than others we’ve seen given new life, so there’s only so much that can be achieved. Graphically, there’s been only a minor cosmetic upgrade. Character models have been given a makeover and textures are smoother, but they remain laughably low in their polygon count. While it doesn’t necessarily detriment the playing experience it’s not a feast for the eyes, but then again that’s not really the point.
The original pre-rendered backgrounds are untouched from the original other than having a few additional shadows and lighting effects added. With the press of a button you’re able to switch between the original and Remastered versions too. There’s an option to play in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, but I found 16:9 much preferable. A nice addition is the option to enable Director’s Commentary. With it on, you’ll come across certain sections that have commentary and will get insights into the creation of the game from Tim Schafer and his cohorts.
The actual ‘playing’ bit of Grim Fandango is probably its weakest element. This may seem strange considering we’re talking about a video game, interactive in nature, but bear with me. Controlling Manny whether you use the original tank controls (for a trophy or not) or the new perspective specific controls is something of a nightmare. Far too often I would accidentally get too close to a door or pathway and have Manny enter a new screen or a direction I didn’t want him to go. Getting stuck on geometry was also one of his favourite pastimes and because – for whatever insane reason – there is no auto save function, more than once I had to trek back through an hour of gameplay because of a bug or glitch.
The bulk of Grin Fandango’s gameplay is made up of puzzles, and not just any; we’re talking the old-school, adventure-type of puzzle. I solved many of them simply, quickly and easily because the answer was obvious and well sign-posted, but others left me scratching my head. Then, annoyed and finally, angry with bewilderment. The solutions to some of the puzzles are so obtuse, so obscure and so illogical that I had to resort to simply trying every object I had with every person and every location until something worked.
I totally get that these type of adventure games are all about these types of puzzles, but when the game offers no assistance or clue about how to proceed it stops being fun. For me, this happened a few too many times. Maybe I’m an idiot and not clever enough, but honestly some of the solutions still make no sense to me. Throughout my playthrough I wished for a hint system like the one implemented into the remastered versions of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2. But alas, it was not to be.
Functionally, Grim Fandango Remastered is ok. I’ve got to cut it some slack, being sixteen years old; much has changed in gaming conventions in the past decade and a half and parts of Grim Fandango Remastered fall flat, fail to land or simply miss altogether. When puzzles do work, they are glorious and fill you with that warm and glowing sense of accomplishment. It doesn’t hurt that everything in Grim Fandango is funny. Really funny. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion, which is something of an achievement in and of itself. The pacing of jokes and visual puns is pitch perfect, even though that of the game is a little off. It may again be a case of games changing in the past sixteen years, but there are sections of Grim Fandango that are a drag.
Split into four chapters, with each set a year after the other, chapter two is far too long, far too drawn out and far too slow. There’s no way to change this because of the way the game is designed and the way each puzzle and element interconnects, but in 2015 it’s too long by half. Thankfully the other three chapters are light, breezy and fun.
Grim Fandango Remastered truly deserves its place among the upper echelon of worshipped games for its humour, story and putting characters first and foremost. While its gameplay may have suffered from changes in gaming and expectations in the last sixteen years there’s still a lot to like and even love about Manny’s adventures in the Land of the Dead. Playing on PS4 or PS Vita means Cross-Buy and Cross-Save functionality let you continue on the road which is excellent value. Fans of the original, fans of adventure games — hell, even fans of a good laugh will definitely find something of worth in Grim Fandango Remastered. It has its flaws, but the fun is in the journey. As Manny says, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”
Review: Grim Fandango Remastered’