Grim Fandango Remastered Review – Back From the Dead (PS4/Vita)
Grim Fandango originally released in 1998 as a LucasArts graphic adventure game. It was an iconic page in gaming history that marked an era of tank-style controls, complex puzzles, and well written stories. The original game was loved critically, but was a commercial bomb, not selling very well, and causing LucasArts to discontinue production of adventure games. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Grim Fandango became a cult classic, and has consistently found its way into conversation as one of the top defining games in history. But that’s all information that anyone could have found out on the internet, so why am I talking about Manny Calavera’s adventures in the Eighth Underworld now?
Remaster From Scattered Assets
Double Fine Productions have taken the initiative to remaster Grim Fandango, bringing us the aptly titled Grim Fandango Remastered. This remaster saw Tim Schafer and crew tracking down the original scattered assets of a game that was out of print in order to bring us a cleaned up version with all of the original elements intact. We recently posted a video comparing the original graphics to the new remastered version (which is something you can toggle in-game by clicking R3). You may notice that the only huge difference is in the characters and interactive objects, as the pre-rendered backgrounds are true to the original. The remaster smooths out the characters and objects, cleans up the textures, and provides more dynamic world-lighting.
Despite the seemingly limited objects that were remastered, the game looks pretty good for a 17-year old title, and the fact that the static backgrounds are unchanged for this remaster is a testament to how ahead of its time Grim Fandango truly was at the time of its original release. But enough reminiscing about the days of yore. We’re talking about the 2015 release of Grim Fandango Remastered. The good news? If you missed the original release and you want to get the full experience of this classic graphic puzzle adventure title, you now can on your PS4 and Vita. The bad? Well, there’s really not much bad about reliving a classic.
The most notable missing part of Grim Fandango Remastered is in the game not holding your hand at all. Some of the puzzles can be difficult to figure out, and the items that you can interact with aren’t always obvious, especially when they are remastered, as they can blend into the backgrounds. If you’re used to the modern way that games tend to give you tutorials and hold your hand, this may be a huge negative. For those who yearn for the classic days of difficult puzzles and no hints, Grim Fandango provides it in spades. There’s nothing that can’t be completed when you really apply some brain cells to thinking of the solution, but there are definitely some that will have you pulling your hair out. Fortunately the game has a bevy of guides online, so if you really need to look up a solution, you can. But you won’t get that help in-game. For me, this kind of gaming is what I grew up on, so I love the difficulty and absence of hand-holding.
Intertwined Narrative and Puzzles
The dark noir narrative holds up well over nearly two decades, as Manuel “Manny” Calavera seeks to unravel a conspiracy behind his employer, the Department of Death, who helps deceased travelers make their journey to the Ninth Underworld. Gameplay and narrative are deeply intertwined and you must pay attention to the story in order to figure out the solutions to many of the puzzles. Whether it’s figuring out how to gum up the “server” or getting a work order signed to get a ride to the Land of the Living, everything is just another step in Manny’s journey. The voice acting is substantial, and branching conversations with characters providing a ton of back story and information on the world that Manny is living- err, well, you get what I mean.
The additions to the remaster actually add a lot of value, much like watching a classic movie remastered on Blu-ray with special features. There’s the previously mentioned feature to swap between the original and remastered, 16:9 stretched ratio from the original 4:3 ratio (which honestly looks terrible stretched out), concept art, and my personal favorite addition: an extensive developer commentary. Enabling this option in the special features menu will have an L1 prompt appear in the upper left corner of the screen during various moments in the game. Hitting L1 will begin a commentary including creators Tim Schafer, Kevin Bruner (you may know him as the head of Telltale Games now), and many others. This commentary gives an interesting and often hilarious behind the scenes look at a variety of aspects of the development of Grim Fandango, and I wish that more games would offer this kind of deep insight from the creators directly in-game.
The game is both cross-buy and cross-save for PS4 and Vita, and while the PS4 obviously looks just a little bit more crisp, the game still looks fantastic on the Vita. In fact, the Vita version offers touch based controls that mimic a point-and-click adventure game, which is a new control scheme for the release of this remaster. There are also new camera-based controls, but the old tank-style controls are in the special features, and there is even a trophy for playing through the whole game with them on. I unfortunately did run into one small issue when I tried to activate an object and Manny became stuck on the corner of the polygons while trying to do the walking animation. Because there is no way to cancel a selection or animation, I was stuck in a perpetual state — essentially frozen. I had to shut off the game, and had failed to save for quite some time, losing all of my progress up to that point. If I had been standing a little more to the left when I clicked on the rope, I could have avoided the issue.
Entertainment or History Lesson?
Like watching a classic old movie, Grim Fandango Remastered feels like a hearkening back to the golden days of gaming, when PC adventure games ruled and games didn’t have difficulty settings so easy that it seems like the game is playing itself. This is as much a history lesson as it is entertainment, lest we forget the roots of great gaming. Sure, the backgrounds and cutscenes are untouched, but remember the fit everyone threw when they edited the original Star Wars trilogy too much (Han shot first…)? Grim Fandango Remastered has been put together with care as a passion project from Tim Schafer, and is sure to delight both players new to the game and long time players of Grim Fandango and the LucasArts graphic puzzle adventure genre. Perhaps most important to this release will be the potential effects that bringing this game back into the limelight will have on the future development of adventure titles, and the thought of a merging of great classics and new technology really excites me.
Review code for Grim Fandango Remastered provided by publisher. Reviewed on both PS4 and Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.