Grim Fandango is one of the most treasured of Tim Schafer’s inspired works. It is a game that sticks out in my childhood as being one of the first games that showed me that a game’s story need not be simply window dressing for game-play mechanics or a giant flame-spewing weapon. That stories could instead drive a game and make it unique, make it stand out and most importantly be truly memorable and thought provoking in the same way that a movie or book could be. Needless to say then I was looking forward to GF’s re-release.
The various gaming marketplaces have been flooded recently with many re-releases, whether they be of the “HD remake” variety or touted as major overhauls to their game mechanics. I am generally underwhelmed with many of these remakes as they generally feel to be simply cash-grabs or such minor tweaks that forking out any more money for effectively the same game would be a luxury that most would balk at. A few though of course have stood above the average (extra points for partial site reference) such as the recent Binding of Isaac: Rebirth as well as earlier releases last year like The Last of Us: Remastered and Metro: Redux.
Grim Fandango takes place in the Land of The Dead, rest stop for dead souls making their way to the “Ninth Underworld”. The game itself follows the story of Manuel Calavera, agent of the Department of Death responsible for transporting souls from the Land of the Living to that of the dead. Agents of the department act as salesmen, selling transportation for the recent denizens of the Underworld to their final resting place, the class of travel available to them being determined by the life they led before. Agents of the DOD are themselves trapped in the Land of the Dead and unable to find peace until they have worked off their own debts racked up by sins committed in their past lives. Manuel’s recent batch of clients have all failed to qualify for anything above taking a four year journey into eternal rest, resulting Manny’s boss Don Copal threatening to fire him if he is unable to come up with better clientele. Being fired from the job of death’s travel agent wouldn’t be such a bad happenstance, however without it Manuel would be left without a means to work off his debt and be trapped for eternity without peace. Manny is therefore confronted with the task of finding better clients that eventually leads him to the seedy criminal Underworld, and skeletons in the closet of the Department of Death (pun intended, I’m sorry).
Upon loading into the new Grim Fandango a new game will immediately start, and upon the games beginning you will first notice that the games cutscenes are the same as they always were. By this I mean that they have not been touched up from the original in anyway. This is not a huge concern but it definitely shows from the offset that the chief reason for this remake as far as I can see is to localise an old game to modern gaming platforms rather than anything stretching too far beyond that. When control is given to the player to move about freely, it becomes apparent that some graphical improvements have been made to the character models in-game, and these are definitely welcome. The improvements however only really seem to make a real difference in this regard, with very minor tweaks being made to the game world and objects, the original 3D backgrounds remaining the same. Again I must stress that this is not a massive complaint but something that only reminds of the games age, something that -try as it might-bleeds into the entire game for good and for ill.
The game’s puzzles are suitably obtuse as they always were, a feature that if changed would be to make a new game entirely, in addition GF also lacks a hint system, unlike the remake of Monkey Island. The lack of a hint system is by my preference a good choice, as I have always found such in-game hints for puzzle games to simply ruin the experience by allowing for a get-out button that in moments of crisis, might well spoil the fun of solving them at all. Similar to the game’s aged mechanics, such hint systems are only really useful in the world the game originally launched into: a world without good, universal internet connection.
Another addition to the remake is a redone, fully orchestrated score, which is nothing short of brilliant. Not only is it just as catchy and suitably fitting to the game’s Meso-American/Film Noir theme as it was before, but the best new feature of the entire remake by my estimation. In a similar vein a developers commentary has been added which gives a lot of insight into the original games development as well as the remake’s road to completion.
Certain issues remain with the game that might sway from purchasing the remake. The first is simply the lack of an auto save function which really stymies long gaming sessions due to the possibility of losing huge amounts of progress. This lacking feature is frankly one that cannot really be forgiven or understood in this day and age, I doubt I am the only one who would of waited longer for release, so that this addition could be implemented. Beyond this I have noticed bugs with certain textures not loading in, the occasional musical bug where crackling audio can really ruin the mood, as well as being trapped in certain areas because of going about a puzzle not exactly as the game planned. These problems with the game might well be fixed in later updates and patches, but the inclusion of them at launch is definitely something to mark against the game.
In the end, Grim Fandango Remastered lives and dies by it’s original source material, and that source material is still as fantastic as it was back in 1998. The remake is not all I hoped it would be, and indeed it lacks in key areas that would make purchasing this a sure thing for old fans and new, alas I cannot sing it’s praises to that degree. It is a game that I feel needs to be experienced by anyone interested in the aforementioned genre, and so it’s remake’s greatest gift is it’s sheer existence and accessibility to a new, younger audience. But to one who played it way back when, one might look again with fresh eyes, and see the game they knew and loved yet see a few more wrinkles and pot marks than at first recalled.