Grim Fandango is an artefact, a lovely one that was a wee bit cursed. LucasArts’ first 3D adventure, it was hailed as exceptional, but either existed before or after its time and was subsequently a commercial flop, tipping over an entire genre. Adventure gaming went out with a bang and took the better part of a decade to recover.
Today marks its return; a digital return complete with a spruce up. Grim Fandango Remastered is the first time in years that the game’s been readily available, with a spot of bonus content and a visual touch up. And over 16 years since its first appearance, the four year journey of undead travel agent and Grim Reaper Manny Calavera remains an intoxicating, tricky adventure. But along the way, you might find a few stones in your shoes.
Manny Calavera is dead, and he’s never been busier. Death is only the beginning; it’s the opening chapter in a journey through the afterlife, from a bustling city to a final resting place, with a whole world in between. And Manny’s job is to arrange for the newly dead to be transported to their destination.
If you’ve lived a good life, then you’re fast tracked through the pulpy noir and Central American land of the dead, given a comfy seat on the glamorous Number Nine train. The less virtuous your life, the less comfortable - and more arduous - the journey will be. Manny’s dream is to work his way to the afterlife-proper.
A suspicious clerical mix-up, however, sends Manny on four year trip - accompanied by a catchy jazz soundtrack - in search of a woman he hardly knows, with his elemental demon sidekick, degenerate gambler and car enthusiast, Glottis. Enter hitmen, gangsters, conspiracies and one mean octopus - it’s all a lot more exciting than staying in the office.
It’s a rescue mission, a detective thriller, a supernatural Aztec adventure - what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot to Grim Fandango. It’s a big, sprawling thing in an eccentric world where the undead bet on giant cat races and pigeons fly on wings of bone. It’s overflowing with charm and character, with even the most dimwitted of Manny’s acquaintances being quick with a joke or sarcastic retort.
It feels twice as long as the 12 or so hours it takes to finish, thanks to the long period of time it covers. Manny's adventure turns into a Mexican Aeneid, with skeletons instead of heroes from antiquity. There are gaps in the game where Manny grows and changes, has flings and makes new enemies, and with each new year, we’re meeting him all over again.
Looking at it through the lens of nostalgia, it’s perfect. But I’ve got reality knocking at the door, reminding me that it really isn’t. The absolute highlight is Year Two, where Manny has become a fixture in Rubacava, a mob-run gambling town. It’s a busy place, fat with characters that get fleshed out in seconds by sharp writing as funny and smart as any LucasArts had managed before, and where puzzles are elaborate bamboozlers with consistent payoffs. This is the third time I’ve played the game, but a notepad and pencil were never far from my side.
That’s all in stark contrast to Year Three, which is just a bit of a mess. The jokes are fewer and weaker, the potential of the underwater environment is mostly ignored and the puzzles are either frustrating or fiddly. Year Four turns it around, but gosh, it was a bit of a slog to get to. If you can forgive it for mucking around for a few hours, though, Grim Fandango is still a sterling adventure game.
And now for the number at the bottom… no, hold on a minute. The presence of “Remastered” at the end of the title necessitates that I write about the new features. Hmmm. Frankly, there’s not a lot that’s been changed, let alone improved. There’s something to be said for only making subtle changes to something that’s already pretty great, but if you’d held any hope that there’d be some big, refreshing differences, then this is about the time that I’m going to disappoint you. If you enjoy a good developer commentary, though, then that will at least keep you happy.
The two most notable changes are the character models and the control scheme. Manny, his chums and his enemies have all been given a good polishing, with some lighting wizardry applied to them for good measure. They are crisper, with cleaner textures and colour tweaks. But standing in front of backgrounds that have gone unchanged in 16 years, they look extremely out of place. And while the shadows they cast are greatly improved, the lighting on the models themselves make them look rather flat.
Back in 1998, 3D adventure games were experimental, and some muppet (did Tim Schafer get into the office liquor cabinet?) had the bright idea to change the control scheme to match the extra dimension. It was a terrible mistake. Point and click controls were flung out the window, forcing players to essentially drive Manny. Grim Fandango used tank controls. It still does, if you fancy it, but you can also switch to point and click mode, and crikey is that a relief.
It’s a bit buggy too, unfortunately. Manny gets a bit stuck on objects (both visible and otherwise) from time to time, and it’s a bit temperamental when it comes to registering clicks. There’s nothing game breaking, and not even anything that made me want to go back to tank controls, but it did create a few moments of minor frustration.
There’s no autosave! Sorry for blurting that out, but I’ve been holding it in. It’s a problem. And one that’s wholly unnecessary. I know there’s a group of people who wear pants on their head and yell about how games are too easy now, and autosaving removes the challenge. But they are nutters.
This isn’t a game where you can die because you cocked up. You’ll only be sent back to an earlier manual save if the game crashes, which is something it does occasionally do. So it’s got bugger all to do with difficulty and everything to do with convenience and not wasting bloody time. Yes, I was a victim of a crash or two, and yes, I was sent back quite far because I forgot to save. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that there isn’t a quicksave, either.
While we’re on the subject of things that should have been changed, I really should mention the inventory system. It’s a novelty that outstays its welcome an hour after its introduction. Instead of there being an ugly inventory screen that takes you out of the game, there’s Manny’s jacket. He pulls out objects individually, and you have to scroll through them. Every single god damn time. And it’s inconsistent, not always starting at item number one, Manny’s scythe.
I’ve been hammering away on the keyboard without writing anything positive for quite a few paragraphs, so I feel that it’s necessary to emphasise that I do genuinely love Grim Fandango, and I think you should play it. Again, if you already have. It’s loaded with some of the best adventure game one liners; a gripping, winding plot that only slips up three quarters of the way through the game, and then improves drastically afterward; and a vibrant, bizarre world that, for all its weirdness, is extremely easy to get attached to. It’s just not a very impressive remaster.