By Martin Mulrooney
Who would have ever thought that a game about the four-year journey of a travel agent in the land of the dead would enjoy such a long and fruitful life? Grim Fandango Remastered is a lovingly restored and updated version of the classic critically acclaimed 1998 LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango. Skeleton-in-a-suit noir hero Manuel Calavera has returned after 17 years looking sharper than ever – but has this cult classic stood the test of time successfully enough to resonate with a modern audience?
“We may have years, we may have hours, but sooner or later, we push up flowers…”
Before I begin this review, I must confess – I’m a massive fan of Grim Fandango. How much of a fan? Well… I have a Manual Calavera skull tattoo on my right arm, I have a Department of Death wallet and mug, several t-shirts, my Gravatar is Manny, he features prominently in Alternative Magazine Online’s header… the list goes on. The game had a profound effect on 10-year-old me that has only grown in strength over the intervening years – I’ve completed the game more times than I can remember and it still utterly delights and enthrals me with every single revisit. It’s like an old, familiar friend.
Yet, I’ve never claimed it be the perfect game. The tank controls were a necessary evil I merely tolerated (although, it turns out there were camera relative controls in the original!), the Petrified Forest always felt like a mixed bag and that betting ticket puzzle… don’t even get me started. Regardless, it’s a forgone conclusion that I think the original game is a masterpiece despite any minor annoyances – this review will therefore ultimately address the Remastered version, with all its new bells and whistles.
“Sorry for the wait Mr Flores, I am ready to take you now.”
For those of you who haven’t played the original game, I truly think it’s worth stopping right now and simply taking a punt – Grim Fandango has reached classic status for a reason. If you love a good story, you’ll be well served here. Set in the land of the dead, players take control of Grim Reaper/travel agent Manual Calavera. Working off his debt for mortal sins never revealed (much like how we never find out why Rick in Casablanca fled America – it certainly wasn’t for the desert waters…), the game begins with the relative – relatable? – mundanity of a lost soul trapped in an office job where progress has ground to a severe halt.
In short, once the stilts have been kicked into the locker – Manny needs a lead on a rich, dead saint. His co-worker and arch nemesis Domino Hurley seems to be getting all the solid leads: the recently departed who lead good enough lives to be eligible for a Double N ticket on the Number Nine, a luxury express train that takes only four minutes to reach the gate to the Ninth Underworld. Instead, Manny’s clients must often make the standard four-year journey of the soul on foot. Yet even if they make it through the Petrified Forest alive (relatively speaking) and reach the small port town of Rubacava, many lost souls become disillusioned, get jobs and settle down.
“I am an elemental spirit summoned from the Land of the Dead itself, given one purpose, one skill, one desire… to DRIVE!”
Something is rotten in the Land of the Dead, and Manuel Calavera is in the thick of it. Frustrated with his recent streak of bad luck, he teams up with speed demon Glottis (a large, scene-stealing, instantly loveable orange petrolhead who literally lives to tinker with vehicles – seriously, if he doesn’t he could die!) to steal one of Domino’s clients – Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, a saint who should be a guaranteed shoe-in for a Double N ticket. When Manny still can’t get her a better deal than walking via the department computer, he returns to his office deflated to find her gone. Riddled with guilt, he sets out after her to make things right and in the process begins to uncover a conspiracy fuelled by greed, crime and corruption.
It’s a classic noir tale with a twist and the writing honestly couldn’t be better – game designer Tim Schafer has always been a funny guy, but he’s arguably never topped the razor-sharp, self-aware comedic brilliance of the dialogue and storytelling in Grim Fandango. It helps that the voice acting and delivery is nigh on perfect, with Tony Plana in particular giving a beautifully affable performance as the ever-resourceful Manny. María Canals as Meche and Alan Blumenfeld as Glottis are likewise fantastic, but practically everyone involved gives a standout performance.
“With bony hands I hold my partner
On soulless feet we cross the floor
The music stops as if to answer
An empty knocking at the door
It seems his skin was sweet as mango
When last I held him to my breast
But now, we dance this grim fandango
And will four years until we rest.”
So, what exactly has been improved? In truth, the Remastered version is more about honouring the original game than outright replacing it – not that that’s a bad thing at all. The original source files have been dusted off and presented at their highest possible quality. The pre-rendered backgrounds remain untouched and it’s a testament to their inherent artistry that they still hold up under modern scrutiny – they’re detailed, stylised and gorgeous.
The 3D character models have all been upgraded and a subtle lighting system has also been introduced: a small change that visually makes a big difference from the moment the game begins and the Venetian blinds in Manny’s office cast atmospheric strips of shadow across the room. Moments later, the burning ember of a lit cigarette lights up his skull with a warm orange glow. Subtle changes perhaps, but a click of the right analogue stick will switch back to the old graphics and immediately remind players just how much of a difference they make. The original 4:3 aspect ratio remains the best way to play (with black or decorative borders) – a 16:9 option is available but it merely stretches and in the process distorts the graphics to fit modern screens.
“I don’t believe you Calavera, you’re losing a fight so you pick on one of my pets?! Why aren’t you more like me Manny? I’ve been trying to show you how but you don’t listen! If you’d just adopt the proper attitude, just look what could happen to you!”
Peter McConnell’s accompanying soundtrack of ‘South American folk music, jazz, swing and big band’ instantly became one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time upon release and the remastered version goes one step further, with many of the songs now fully orchestrated by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – Grim Fandango has never sounded better.
Adding to this audio feast for the ears is a comprehensive Director’s Commentary feature that prompts the player to tap L1 during certain scenes, whereby key members of the original development team wax lyrical about their memories of making the game. For newcomers this will give a fascinating insight into the history of a classic – for long-time fans it’s utterly essential and worth the price of admission alone.
“You know, sweetheart, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”
Grim Fandango Remastered takes the original 1998 journey through The Land of the Dead and breathes new life into it for a modern audience. The years have done little to diminish its magic or appeal. The puzzles are still excellent and continually help to progress the story (with one or two exceptions – plus, driving the Bone Wagon has aged pretty badly) and it really does feel like a long journey with characters you care about. The ending hits particularly hard simply because it’s the end of the line.
A 17-year-old classic LucasArts game remastered in HD, looking and sounding better than it has ever done, playable with analogue controls on a Sony PlayStation console – what’s not to love? There are some small graphical glitches, the save system is antiquated and slow (a checkpoint system and/or chapter select would have been greatly appreciated) and some parts have admittedly dated more than others. Yet Grim Fandango Remastered succeeds for much the same reason Manual Calavera does: everybody loves an underdog. Buenos días Grim Fandango – it’s great to have you back with us in the Land of the Living. Viva la Revolución!
9.5 OUT OF 10