Widely considered to be one of the jewels in the crown of the graphic adventure genre, Grim Fandango ushered in a new era when its original developer, LucasArts, used 3D computer graphics overlaid on pre-rendered, static backgrounds (thanks Wikipedia) to deliver a title that was considered to be ‘jaw-dropping’ back in 1998. Fast-forward to the current day, with Double Fine Productions now at the helm, and the Grim Fandango Remastered version receives something of a face-lift with textures smoothed out and dynamic lighting effects added to give an all-round glossier look.
The adventure begins with players in control of an afterlife travel agent called Manuel "Manny" Calavera. Manny is essentially a salesman, trying to tempt those who have recently died with a fast passage through what should be a four-year journey of the soul to reach the Ninth Underworld. Providing these souls have led good lives, Manny can offer those who have the cash various travel packages via train, car or boat to reach their destination in style. Those who didn’t lead a ‘godly’ life however, are left to make the long journey by foot. That’s Manny, who now works in The Land Of The Dead for the Department of Death as a travel agent taking on clients and attempting to earn his way to the afterlife through hard work.
Though the concept is definitely intriguing, with script-writing that overflows with humour, the plot suffers with pacing issues and begins to wander by the time you reach Year Three. With so much dialogue to listen to, and logic-defying puzzles to get your head around, it’s easy to get distracted as you move slothenly from one object and location to the next, examining stuff, talking with NPCs and scrolling through your increasingly-bulky inventory to work out which item might help you progress. Nevertheless, the humour and kooky characters make the journey slightly more bearable. In Grim Fandango Remastered, the voice-acting is superb and the wry wit is genuinely funny; none more so than with Manny and his sarcastic tongue. As you watch his character develop, from something of a pessimist to a hero as he seeks to look after his clients and put an end to the wrong-doings of the Department of the Dead, I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of warmth towards his evolving personality.
Unlike the point-and-click adventures of old, Grim Fandango Remastered requires you to move Manny around locations and interact with objects and people to solve puzzles. There’s a lot of guesswork involved as you scour rooms for clues, revisit NPCs to listen out for hints, and fill your inventory up with random items, which can then be used to interact with other objects or people. Indeed, gameplay hails back to the golden era of the graphic adventure, and as such it feels rather nostalgic attempting to detach yourself from any logic and remember that the most ludicrous of interactions may yield the right result. However, Manny moves so slowly that it makes all the back-tracking and searching around for clues feel rather painful and more drawn out than it could have been; it’s also quite difficult to spot some of the items that you need to interact with, without squinting at the screen and examining every single pixel.
Having never played Grim Fandango before, I didn’t work out that you had to use the hole-punch on the secretary’s desk to mark a playing card in your pocket. In fact, I cheated and reached for the walkthrough on GAMEFAQs. Despite having the solution at hand, I still couldn’t see the hole-punch at all on the secretary’s desk and only found it by accident by moving around the desk and pressing’ X’ until something happened. It’s a theme that continues throughout leading to frustration, and while some puzzles are cleverly conceived and give you the sense of satisfaction from working them out, others are ridiculous, demotivating and require nothing but guesswork.
Softening the frustration somewhat are the array of wacky characters that you meet, as well as the attraction of the game world. Inspired by the 1930s Art-Deco style, the Mexican Day of The Dead festival and Aztec designs, Grim Fandango Remastered is wonderfully colourful and eccentric, and looks good, despite its default 4:3 ratio. There’s the option to switch to widescreen, which stretches the images and looks odd (or play the original version), but it’s the remastered version in 4:3 that looks the best with character models looking much sharper and dynamic lighting giving environments more depth. The use of clever camera angles is also superb, with viewpoints regularly switching to open up locations to give a sense of scale.
In the 90s, it’s clear why Grim Fandango was seen as an evolution of graphic adventures such as Discworld and The Broken Sword series. Not only would it have looked great, but its characters and humour keep you engaged in its wacky world. However, it’s the logic-defying puzzles (which I did find entertaining back in the day) that don’t quite hit the mark in this generation. There’s a reason we don’t see games of this ilk in the present day as developers take a softer approach by holding our hands to ensure we don’t get too frustrated.
With no hint system and many laborious puzzles, Grim Fandango Remastered still very much feels like old-school gaming with players having to work it all out for themselves to reach the next head-scratching puzzle. The problem is: that audience has evolved. As a result, it feels more like a punishment than a joy to play in 2015. Nevertheless, Grim Fandango Remastered does have its highlights and its presence is still relevant to those who marvelled at its ingenuity back in the day. While the developer commentary that accompanies this version offers real insight into the minds of its creators, the characterisation and humour is excellent.