Originally released in the late ‘90s, Grim Fandango quickly established itself as one of the best – if not the best – adventure game ever released. Its writing and wit in particular are considered by many to sit at the pinnacle of the genre. Unfortunately, Grim Fandango also signalled the death knell of the genre back in a time where publishers and players were far more interested in First-Person Shoot Gun than Third-Person Shakespeare.
Now, 17 years after its original release and a decade since it’s been available on store shelves, Tim Schafer’s team at Double Fine have released a remastered edition of this beloved classic. Touting high resolution textures, a new control scheme, improved audio, and creator commentaries, Grim Fandango seems on the verge of a triumphant return.
Grim Fandango follows four years in the unlife of Manuel Calavera; an indentured Grim Reaper working off his debt by ushering the recently-departed through the land of the dead to their final destination in the Ninth Underworld. What this actually means is that Manny sells travel packages to the deceased based on how well they have lived their lives.
Dissatisfied with his job and a string of “bum” clients, Manny steals a client from another Reaper only to discover that despite her almost-saintly life, she does not qualify for a ticket on the luxury Number Nine train. This is the catalyst for a string of events during which Manny uncovers corruption within the Department of Death and sets off to save his client from a fate she does not deserve.
Playing out in four chapters over four years, Grim Fandango is one of the longest adventure games ever made. In a genre where padding is the norm and needlessly complex puzzles are often used to artificially lengthen a game, Grim stands out simply due to the sheer amount of content within.
However, Fandango also has some of the most infuriatingly obtuse puzzles found in the genre. For the most part, these head-scratchers are inventive and internally logical, it’s just that newcomers should know what they’re in for. They should also know that overall, the game is a joy to play.
A big part of that joy is derived from one of the best scripts found in all of video gaming. The dialogue, which ranges from the dry to the absurd, is consistently hilarious, and each major character has an arch that develops naturally over the course of the story.
There is nuance and depth here seldom seen in games, and despite Grim’s bizarre and comedic tone, each character and situation feels grounded in a believable if fantastical reality. This is Tim Shaffer at his very best!
Grim Fandango also sets a standard for voice acting that every game should aspire to, and the accompanying soundtrack – think ‘40s-era jazz, big band, and orchestral – is also one of the best ever produced. Every piece adds depth to the world, with the music almost a character itself.
The visual identity of Grim Fandango is similarly unique; a striking blend of gritty film noir and traditional Day of the Dead calaca figures. The minimalist look of each character – from their paperwork-like appearance to their simple yet effective facial detail – is expertly executed, and has made Manny Calavera one of the most easily-recognisable characters in gaming.
Remastered adds vastly-improved textures to all characters, some greatly-appreciated point and click controls, and a superior UI to the game, but elsewhere, things feel underdone.
Every background is simply a screen from the original release that has been upscaled to fit the higher resolutions of modern monitors. This creates a disconnect between the crisp characters populating the world and the fuzzy world itself. That disconnect doesn’t exist in the game's cutscenes, but that’s just because everything including the characters are low-res there, which is pretty jarring.
Also, while character textures have been vastly improved, their associated meshes have not, and so the constant clipping of body parts is unfortunately far more noticeable as a result.
There are also various bugs. The much-anticipated commentary often doesn’t trigger correctly, or cuts off so much so that I stopped attempting to use it after a couple of hours. The audio suffers from random cut-offs too, and there is an issue with scene transitions where it feels like parts are missing and suddenly you will jump to a new scene.
Grim Fandango is still one of the best – if not the best – adventure games ever released, and it is as enjoyable now as it was almost two decades ago. However, as appreciative as gamers will be that this classic now works on modern machines, Remastered feels like a massive missed opportunity, like the bare minimum has been done to bring this version to release.
Grim Fandango is a terrific title despite these gripes. But as far as a remaster goes, it all feels very undercooked.