“…but now we dance this grim fandango and will four years before we rest.”
This review originally appeared on University Observer.ie
1998’s Grim Fandango marks what many regard as the last great vestige of the classic era of adventure games. The genre managed to ride out those rough early millennial years, quietly bubbling away in the niche, before re-emerging into the mainstream thanks to the likes of Telltale Games. Had it not, the opportunity to revisit this difficult to procure gem may not have ever been a remote possibility.
Players assume the role of Manny Calavera, a salesman working for the Department of Death in the Land of the Dead. Corruption is afoot though, with the powers above cheating souls of their rightful places in the afterlife, a conspiracy Manny soon finds himself tangled in. It’s an eccentric, absurd premise complemented perfectly by the world and characters used to explore it; an eclectic film noir, Art Deco, Mexican folklore mishmash, making for one of gaming’s most distinctive locales.
The gameplay mould is traditional adventure game fare through and through. There’s objects to amass, characters to converse with, and environmental puzzles to solve using a combination of the two. Grim Fandango is a notoriously difficult example of the genre and newcomers may be feel a little shell shocked at just how obtuse and unforgiving it can be. Still, it’s a template that easily stands the test of time, with intelligent and mostly consistent puzzle logic that almost always presents an appropriate level of challenge.
It’s important to point out that this is a remastering of the original game as opposed to a full-on remake, akin to transferring a classic film to high definition. It looks and sounds better than ever but the core is unaltered. The collective strengths of Grim Fandango Remastered‘s facets, in their updated forms, come across so strongly that a total overhaul simply wouldn’t have been necessary. The lick of paint is striking, especially given that you can flick back to the original visuals at the push of a button.
The game benefits from a new lighting system, greatly improved textures, and an overall bump in clarity. Even when it does occasionally show its age (the pre-rendered nature of the backgrounds meant they received the least enhancement and sometimes it’s very apparent) the sheer style trumps any technical misgivings. Certain tracks from Peter McConnell’s masterful jazzy score have been re-recorded and fully orchestrated with excellent results. The voice acting cast remains a marvel.
Rather than adhere to the genre’s mouse pointer staple, Grim Fandango opted for direct character control, leading to moments of clumsy frustration. It’s undoubtedly the game’s biggest sticking point. This has thankfully been rectified in Remastered, with reworked controls that make the act of playing a more relaxed affair.
Untouched is director Tim Schafer’s writing, which remains just as impressive now as it was then. It’s a tremendous achievement, expertly blending wonderfully clever humour and moments of beautiful poignant drama with a degree of eloquence that arguably still hasn’t been surpassed by any other game since.
There’s a solid helping of bonus materials too, with insightful and entertaining developer commentary along with the documentary series on the project. Double Fine continue to be industry leaders in demystifying the game development process.
Unlike so many, this re-release isn’t a cynical cash in but a highly justified loving restoration. It’s an essential act of preservation of a critical milestone in the maturation of gaming and an effort to ensure that anyone who wants experience it can finally do so at their convenience.
That such an unlikely project managed to not only come to pass but also with many members of the original team manning it, is one of those rare incredible convergences. How apt it is that this coming together was all in service of an equally incredible game, one whose mastery time has done little to diminish.