As a fan of adventure games it is hard to admit that I have never played Grim Fandango, a game lauded by so many for its witty darkly-surreal script, brilliant voice acting and wonderfully charming and atmospheric world. A bold step towards the future of gaming. Yet at the time, as a pubescent boy falling in love with the bizarre range found in LucasArts’ back catalogue, it felt like a betrayal: a misstep by a beloved studio into the realm of 3D visuals when the classic pixelated world felt so much more reliable, trustworthy.
After playing through this remastered version of the game, published by Double Fine (founded by ex-LucasArts designer Tim Schafer) who secured the rights from Disney after they purchased the LucasArts studio, it is becomes strangely apparent that my wildly misinformed younger self was, for once, oddly correct in his assessment. To play through Grim Fandango today, surrounded by a renaissance of wonderfully created adventure games, feels horrendous. A shattered vision of the past that causes one to wonder how they coped back then.
For the younger or uninitiated crowd the premise behind Grim Fandango still follows the classic LucasArts’ adventure design of surreal comedy and backwards logic problems. You take on the role of Manny Calavera, a grim reaper travel agent, of sorts, living in the land of the dead whose job is to sell tickets to worthy souls that allow them to pass quickly through and reach the ninth underworld, a place of eternal rest. It is a world that strings together forms of ‘Day of the Dead’ Aztec beliefs with chunky cartoon elements and then layers it with a film noir-styled direction and a fantastic night time jazzy musical score. Manny Calavera does not remain at his desk for long as a suspicious encounter with a client causes him to doubt his company’s intentions and soon the player is swept up into an undead underworld of skeletal gangsters and crazy comedy demons.
One can see why the original game is beloved by so many. The arty filmlike direction was fresh and the delightfully dark world is memorable, with a constant stream of silly events that remain in the mind a long time after the game has been finished. But as someone that has no nostalgia to fuel the ride deeper into the game, it is extremely hard to shake the awful problems that plague Grim Fandango and enjoy the genius behind its flaws.
The game’s biggest issue is that of navigation. The fixed camera 3D pre rendered landscapes that Manny must navigate may look wonderful, but moving the avatar around is deeply frustrating. On the remastered PS4 version specifically the left analogue stick is used to move around in the direction pushed and as he reaches certain, sometimes unclear, areas the camera will flick to a new angle. The problem is that often the angle of each camera is at an opposite position to a previous one, such that continuing to hold a direction from the previous screen will cause Manny to walk back counterintuitively to the first viewpoint. At first it is fairly nauseating and it barely improves over time. In the options menu the settings can be changed to the original’s tank-style controls, which not only sounds ridiculous but plays even worse. Frankly it is a mess. Fortunate PC owners are treated to a classic point and click style interface, but even this has its fair share of issues, with Manny refusing to follow commands or belligerently walking at a snail’s pace instead of running.
It is not only navigation that these fixed 3D pre-rendered shots ruin, but also they really hamper the pacing of the game. Many of the puzzles, as is common to most games of the genre, require collecting items from across the map and figuring out their purpose. Unfortunately there is no form of quick travel from screen to screen so every time the player wants to move to a certain area they must cross all of the intervening screens to reach them and this can consume a huge amount of time. So much so that a huge percentage of actually playing the game is just waiting for Manny to run across from one side of the screen to the other. It makes puzzle solving farcical since every attempt is preceded by long dreary minutes of moving. Thank Quetzalcoatl they added a run function to the shoulder button, though why this is not on by default is beyond comprehension.
The issues continue to pile up further. The artistic inventory screen, which at the time of creation must have seem remarkably inventive by removing any form of scarring Heads Up Display, shows Manny reaching inside his reaper’s cloak for each item. Flicking between every single item in his inventory takes a few seconds, and since they seem to be in no discernable order often it can take an infuriating amount of time to reach the one you are looking for. That familiar method of trying every item with everything becomes a huge chore, yet at the same time due to often nonsensical solutions becomes essential. All of this added together makes playing Grim Fandango a huge unenjoyable waste of time, perhaps scattered with a few golden moments in between.
The final nail in this long-buried coffin is that even the buggy nature of the original game has not been fixed in this remastered version. Several times the game has frozen completely on the PS4 version, each time calling for a hard reset. This compounded with the bizarre omission of an autosave function, which the game wilfully points out at the beginning as if it is a quaint charming feature that we all missed from the last century, means that often hours of work (as that is what it feels like to play) is lost. It’s enough to drive you into the underworld and punch Manny in his ever-grinning face yourself.
And all of the above causes us to worry about this version of Grim Fandango and the general remastering trend that has appeared in the last few years. The developers appear to have done very little to change or improve the game and make it relevant in today’s scene, instead using it as a quick cash-in rerelease. What you do get is Manny and the cast looking much sharper in their suits (hitting the right bumper causes it to show the original textures which actually just shows just how little change there is), nicer lighting and a rather drudging directors’ commentary. Oh, and the ability to actually play the game on modern machines, which is surprisingly hard to manage with the original. But that is it. For a fair chunk of money you are getting a dusty seventeen-year-old game, wrapped in shiny new clothes but with the faint stench of aging mould billowing out from beneath.
If Double Fine had taken the effort to make Grim Fandango playable without changing the atmosphere of the game: made navigation faster, fixed the inventory, added autosaves and stopped it crashing, then it may have been a worthwhile effort. Instead it is only possible to recommend this to those truly looking for that nostalgia hit. Those with their heads lost in the memories of the time Glottis, Manny’s crazy colossus dog-shaped demon friend, pimped out the hearse, or when Glottis got addicted to gambling at the cat races, or how Glottis disappeared off the edge of the world. Glottis is the best character.
Those interested in the history of gaming may also find something worthwhile to study in Grim Fandango. It is one of the first games to really create a true sense of atmosphere by combining all its elements, from the movielike HUDless direction to the genuinely witty script all wrapped in that wonderfully jazzy musical score. One can see how it influenced so many great games that would come later, from Double Fine’s own Psychonauts to modern adventures such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. Yet, in a way, it was LucasArts’ attempt to strive for genuine gaming evolution that caused all these problems, that clunky but necessary start along the long bumpy road to real change. It makes it all the sadder that this remastering shows little love or respect for the original and fails to gather in the new audience it may deserve.