“This deck of cards is a little frayed around the edges, but then again so am I, and I’ve got fewer suits…”
Grim Reaper/Underworld Travel Agent Manuel “Manny” Calavera utters the above line once in the game and, in doing so, unintentionally summarises Grim Fandango Remastered perfectly. If you haven’t heard the title before, Grim Fandango was a classic LucasArts adventure game from the 90s, back when the genre was in its heyday. Tim Schafer, who you might know as the head of Double Fine, was a developer on the original release and has now led the team behind the remaster. And the word remaster is key here; this is not a port, nor is it a remake. While it does feature some upgrades, it’s more or less the same game it was nearly twenty years ago, for better and worse.
Ever wonder what will happen to you after you die? In the world of Grim Fandango, the deceased are reaped by a travel agent who then tries to sell them various packages to get them to their final resting place in a faster, more convenient fashion. Those who were selfless and honourable in life may be eligible for a ticket on the Number Nine Train, the express route out of the Land of the Dead. On the other hand, those who were selfish and treated others poorly might be forced to make their own way on foot across the treacherous underworld. Manny Calavera works as a travel agent for the DoD (Department of the Dead) in order to pay off a debt for the wrongs he committed in life. Unfortunately for him, all the good clients, the ones who would earn him the highest commission, always seem to go to his rival agent Domino. Convinced there’s a conspiracy, Manny steals one of Domino’s saintly clients in the hopes of a fat paycheck. However, instead of a raise, Manny finds himself wrapped up in a revolution and a four-year journey through the underworld.
Grim Fandango’s themes and designs are heavily based on Mexico’s famous Day of the Dead festival. Almost all the characters that appear are skeletons, but they’re often mixed with bright and vibrant colours in an unintimidating, but macabre fashion. A quick look at the screenshots will show you that Grim Fandango is hardly a technical wonder, even remastered, but beyond the dated graphics lies incredible artistic design and direction. There’s humour to be found through the visuals too: Manny’s scythe dismantles and folds-up, the skull and crossbones on weapons feature flowers (pushing up daisies, as it were), and huge demon Glottis is a sight to behold playing the piano in a white tux. Environments are wonderfully varied, from the sleazy port-town of Rubacava to the heights of a snow-covered Aztec train station, and are filled with memorable characters and details.
Like many LucasArts games, there’s a relatively small cast of characters, but they tend to make recurring appearances in clever “full circle” ways. Early on in the game, for example, Manny packages a recently deceased man for shipping with a complementary mug, and he appears again near the end of the game just when that item might be useful. Every character has an important role to play, sometimes more than once, and this creates a living world where it feels like everyone really lives their own lives… well, deaths. They’re supported by a delightfully witty script, filled with laugh-out-loud moments, fun one-liners, and plenty of giggling. Grim Fandango has a subtlety to its humour that sets it apart from its contemporaries, such as Monkey Island, but it’s no less amusing to experience. There’s plenty of optional dialogue you can find by examining and interacting with certain items too, so exploring is worthwhile.
When trying to solve puzzles, however, figuring out what to interact with is a complex task. In true 90s adventure game style, Grim Fandango is filled with useful items to find and hours of head-scratching when you try to determine what they’re used for. At times, puzzles are not completely logical, or you accidentally discover the solution to one before you fully understand what you’re doing. This can be frustrating, and I will admit to consulting a guide on a few occasions when I felt completely lost. If you’re a point-and-click aficionado, then Grim Fandango should prove a comfortable challenge. For everyone else, expect to be stumped on numerous occasions. Trial and error was a common fallback for me, though you can’t combine items like in other adventure games, which helped to limit potentially incorrect options.
Before playing the game on PS4, I was concerned about how a point-and-click title would function on a console. Fortunately, this remastered version controls, for the most part, amicably with a controller. Opening the inventory is as simple as pressing triangle, and interacting with the environment can be done through a combination of the remaining buttons. The game can be played with either the original “tank” controls (up on the stick is always forward) or the remastered controls, which will be much more comfortable for the vast majority of players. Since the PlayStation 4 version can also be played on Vita, the game supports cloud- and cross-saving. There’s no auto-save though, which was a real problem since the game froze and crashed on me a handful of times during my 10-or-so hour play. I experienced a number of other bugs too: objects temporarily vanishing, object clipping, and getting Manny stuck in door frames. These were frustrating issues, and Double Fine QA should have spent more time ironing them out.
So what else does the remastered version include? A fun selection of special features, primarily. There’s a gallery of concept art included, improved graphics (an upgrade akin to an HD port), significantly enhanced lighting, and even the option to switch between the original and new graphics on the fly, which was fun to do. Also included is developer commentary, which is available in most areas of the game and can be listened to by pressing L1. A few key developers provide interesting insight into how the game was developed, stories about the characters, and other fun information. While it’s not advisable to listen to on a first play, it makes a second all the more inviting.
Grim Fandango Remastered is a must-buy for any fan of the genre’s games from the 90s. It features the same complex, but rewarding puzzles, entertaining writing, and is one of LucasArts’ best games. If you’re not an expert in this sort of game, Grim Fandango is a pretty easy one to get into and enjoy, just keep a walkthrough on hand! Though it may now indeed be a little “frayed around the edges”, this noir-esque adventure game is one not to be missed.