Grim Fandango Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux
It’s always interesting playing a game considered to be a genuine classic. More so than any other medium, games age badly. If we remove nostalgia, I’d say that there’s only a tiny portion of games which remain truly timeless. One of the very few games I’d call timeless is the original Secret of Monkey Island, as adventure games tend to age better than a lot of genres. Grim Fandango though…well I’m not so sure.
Grim Fandango takes place in the afterlife, in a sort of purgatory between life and the mysterious ‘9th Underworld.’ Manny Calavera works for the DoD, the Department of Death, who sell travel packages to the recently deceased to make their journey to the 9th Underworld easier. Only people with relatively clean souls qualify for the more deluxe packages, with the worst of all being forced to walk the arduous journey to the end themselves. Manny uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the DoD, with good souls having their golden tickets stolen. The game takes place over four years, with each part taking place during the Day of the Dead where most spirits go to visit their families.
Tim Schafer is a hell of a storyteller and Grim Fandango told a story I thoroughly enjoyed. As with games like Psychonauts and Broken Age, Grim Fandango is a whimsical experience which I wouldn’t necessarily call a comedy, although you certainly will laugh. His stories are always very human, making each character, even the minor ones, feel better developed than the cast of your typical AAA blockbuster. Sure, the central conspiracy isn’t necessarily that interesting but the core of Manny’s journey from self serving middle man to genuinely caring and heroic leader is compelling. This is helped by a wonderfully understated performance from Manny’s voice actor.
The game looks great as well, with the remaster tidying up some of the character models and smoothing off some of the edges. It’s not a huge change but it doesn’t need to be. Generally, games from this era don’t age well, but by the sheer quality of the world and character design Grim Fandango has. The voice acting is exceptional across the board and the music is fantastic; that jazz clarinet theme song isn’t leaving my head any time soon.
Sadly, I didn’t like the actual gameplay nearly as much as I did the story and presentation. Now, I grew up on adventure games. I get that they’re trial and error and that the puzzles are obscure, but that’s part of the charm. I even didn’t mind the infamous inflatable duck/subway key puzzle in The Longest Journey. However, there was one reason that adventure games could get away with this sort of design and that was simplicity of their interface. There’s a reason the SCUMM engine was the best possible for game design; any interaction with the world was, at most, three clicks away. You could experiment and try loads of stuff and it wouldn’t waste too much of your time. However, Grim Fandango is not point and click, so traversing the world is a bit clunkier and it can be difficult to interact with the object you want to. The time it takes to remove items from your inventory makes experimentation a drag, with this awkwardness making many puzzles painfully irritating. Fine, call me soft, but a hint system would have been invaluable. Sure, a lot of people would have complained, but keep it optional and who’s harmed? Coming to this as a seasoned adventure game player who missed this one back in the day, Grim Fandango simply isn’t a particularly good adventure game.
Overall though, in the end, Grim Fandango was a positive experience for me. You may perhaps need to adjust your expectations though; as with any classic you have to remember that times have changed and that, as much as we tend to mythologise the past, there are certain ways in which modern gaming has simply gotten better. Regardless, I’m really glad that I got to play this influential and important game.