Grim Fandango Remastered – PC
Platform: PC (Steam)
Developer(s): LucasArts (Original); Double Fine Productions (Remastered)
Publisher(s): LucasArts (Original); Double Fine Productions (Remastered)
Release Date: October 30, 1998 (Original); January 27, 2015 (Remastered)
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Nerd Rating: 9.5 out of 10
When a game decides to make the nature of death a major topic for its story, it had better have a good performance in mind, and I don’t think I’ve seen any game tackle this challenging subject matter better than Grim Fandango. Originally released by LucasArts just before Halloween in 1998, it turned the foreboding world of the hereafter into an approachable and human landscape populated with cities and the lost souls drifting between them, seeking the way to their promised rest. Since its release, it’s been one of the most powerful and beloved point-and-click adventure games in video game history, with its only problems being the inclusion of tank controls and, well, the fact that its hour was being eclipsed by the advancing technology. But thanks to creator Tim Schafer’s hard work and perseverance, and the sponsorship of Double Fine Productions, we have Grim Fandango Remastered, the modern update that proves that a little love can make an old classic purr like a showroom new road beast once more. Let’s take a look at your travel packages this Halloween and we’ll see if we can land you a nice spot in the Eighth Underworld…
Grim Fandango Remastered is a noir story that follows Manuel Calavera (Manny), a once-proud travel agent of the Department of Death, now fated to hand out walking sticks to bums to work off his time in El Marrow, the Big City of the Dead. Tired of his bad luck, he decides to steal the perfect client, a penniless nun named Mercedes Colomar (Meche) and a dead running (pardon the pun) for the Number Nine, the ultimate travel package for the purest of souls. However, this decision makes his dead-end afterlife unravel and reveals a conspiracy that threatens good souls all across the Eighth Underworld if it isn’t stopped. Driven by the promise of freedom and the hope of love, Manny and his faithful driver, Glottis, start a four-year journey to save Meche, one that takes them across the breadth of the underworld and back, meeting lost souls from all walks of life, some good, others less so, and all of them just as troubled as he is. Not only does it feel like a modern-day Casablanca, but it also addresses the subject of death and the afterlife in a humorous yet respectful way, which I really like.
The story of Grim Fandango Remastered is a strong one, and it stands out so much because of the depth of its characters. Manny Calavera may look like your standard travel agent (with the bonus that he plays the Grim Reaper to his clients), but beneath the coat of his starched suit beats the heart of a true salesman, trapped in a career that no longer respects his talents. The secondary characters are quite strong too, such as Celso, the poor soul from the game’s opening, whose determination completely reverses his fortunes by the final quarter of the game. Even the small unnamed roles are extremely detailed, such as the ill-tempered clown at the Day of the Dead parade, who doesn’t make any attempt to hide his contempt for his job (or you, for that matter). In Grim Fandango Remastered, every soul is unique and their story is layered through their actions in ways that most other adventure games can’t approach.
One thing that helps Grim Fandango Remastered stand out from other adventure games is its aesthetic style. Befitting the noir theme of the game, the contemporary characters dress in the style of the 1920s, and a lot of modern buildings follow the Jazz style, with fantastic Art Deco architecture visible inside and outside. However, the game is steeped in Mexican heritage and belief, and so you’ll see a lot of Mayan decor as well, from lobby statues to scrimshaw tattoos. Add all of the characters having that charming and expressive Day of the Dead look about them, and you have a formula that is distinctly Grim Fandango Remastered, to be copied by no other. The Remastered version enhances this effect not only by cleaning up existing graphics, but creating totally new and extremely expressive graphics for areas and set pieces that had faded from the old version. Everything looked good before, but it definitely looks better now, which takes away one of the pains of trying to play the original in this day and age.
Of course, the graphics weren’t the only thing that needed to be tackled when the time came to make Grim Fandango Remastered, there was also the question of how the game handled. Because the original Grim Fandango came out in the years when the Resident Evil games were getting popular, clunky “tank controls” were the hip thing, and of course a swinging cat like Grim Fandango isn’t going to be left wanting for hip cred, daddy-o. Unfortunately, this design choice didn’t hold up very well, so thankfully the Remastered version allows you to control with the mouse as well as the keyboard, and the classic tank controls are an optional feature. This gives you more time to appreciate the scenery, enjoy exploring the dialogue trees, and poke your brain over what the solution to the next puzzle might be. The game doesn’t feature auto-saving, which it thankfully warns you almost as soon as you start the game. As long as you save when you feel you need to, you’ll have little problem with this detail, since Grim Fandango Remastered isn’t very prone to crashing, at least in my experience.
Since you don’t have to fight the keyboard just to get anywhere, the only real difficulty in getting anything done in Grim Fandango Remastered is a place where it should be difficult, that being the puzzles. Some of them are easy, some of them aren’t, but the game won’t leave you hanging where clues are concerned, it just won’t offer more hints than you need. It may not be Myst, but you’re still expected to take notes to some degree, though like a good private detective in a noir story, you’ll learn more from what you hear than what you see. Paying attention to dialogue trees, in-game cut-scenes, and audio and visual cues in the environment will give you important hints on solving current and future puzzles. It may seem mind-boggling at times to go phalange to phalange with the complicated puzzles of Grim Fandango Remastered, but at the same time, when you’ve found the solution, it’s clever enough to make you feel really clever too! It won’t just hide the voodoo anti-root in front of your face and make you feel like a tool for not checking, like in The Secret of Monkey Island.
I’m pleased to say that the soundtrack is where Grim Fandango Remastered got the biggest overhaul, with the mostly MIDI-dominant tracks being upgraded into full orchestral affairs, playing everything from big band jazz to native Mexican folk music. Domino’s Office is a nice down-tempo ambient track that just sounds cool, exuding the smooth confidence that Manny’s rival, Domino Hurley, generates wherever he goes. Swanky Maximino has impressive and intimidating brass sections, reflecting the (optional) secondary character’s larger-than-life power and how he gets fat off of all of the souls blowing their money at the racetrack. 9th Heaven has a very upbeat, relaxing feel to it, with the wonderful acoustic and woodwinds moving in time to the gentle folk drums. These are just a spoiler-free taste of the Grim Fandango Remastered soundtrack’s full range, and it greatly improves the experience while not once detracting from its classic feel.
At the end of this haunting review, my opinion is that Grim Fandango Remastered deserves to be enjoyed with as much reverence as the original Grim Fandango. Nothing has really been changed, it’s just been modified to be better, just like Glottis’s Bone Wagon. The graphics have been tuned up, the handling’s more user-friendly, and the tunes play clearer and with more heart than the original was ever capable of. The story, the dialogue, and all of the other essential elements are still there, polished to a mirror shine, and its stylish and soulful performance has never felt more alive. If you’ve never had a chance to experience this game, find yourself a copy of Grim Fandango Remastered on Steam and give it a play. Whether you buy sugary candy for Halloween or make sugar skulls for Cinco de Mayo, this journey of the soul is a trip worth taking, whether your ticket’s been punched or not.
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