By the time the late 90s were coming to a head, the adventure game genre was slowly dying. The tastes of the day were trending towards increasingly complex first person shooters, survival horror and platforming action/adventure hybrids — all featuring full 3D graphics. The genre that had dominated most of the PC gaming landscape beginning in the mid-80s was being pushed out in favor of these newer types of games and a continued expansion of the console market — the lack of sales showed this in full. So where does the subject of this review fall in perspective of gaming history? Many consider Grim Fandango to be the best and final of the adventure game era. We can surely amend that latter statement to “one of the best and last of the classic adventure game era”, as this style of game has certainly had a resurgence over the last roughly six years or so.
That is not to say that there weren’t great adventure games post Grim Fandango; the Longest Journey and Discworld Noir would close out the 90s, fully moving into 3D characters. The Syberia series and several others would follow in the early 2000s, however the proliferation of this particular genre in the market was over. Most of the adventure games attempting to go 3D around the same time as Grim — as much as it pains me to say this, as they are series that I loved dearly — were terrible. See Gabriel Knight 3, Quest for Glory V and Escape from Monkey Island (which uses the same engine as Grim). The majority looked terrible then, and more-so now. So how did Grim Fandango manage to “close out” an entire era of a specific gaming genre and still remain so beloved? And more importantly for our purposes… how well does it hold up after a remaster?
Grim Fandango is the delightful tale of Manny Calavera, travel agent for the Department of the Dead (DOD). Based on how a soul behaves during their lifetime, they qualify for a certain quality level of transportation through The Land of the Dead and on to the Afterlife. DOD agents are dispatched to the scenes of deaths and must secure the new “client” and then present them with choices for afterlife transportation. Manny is one of the souls there to work off his debt, in order secure his own passage forward. Trouble is, he is in a bit of a slump. His rival co-worker Domino has been snagging all of the top clients for quite sometime and Manny begins to suspect a conspiracy. After some shenanigans that allow Calavera to steal a top client, his fears are confirmed and she disappears on foot through the dangerous Dead lands. He sets out to follow her and unravel the conspiracy… and he may have already fallen for her.
Grim is neo-noir. That is, it showcases many of the major characteristics of the film noir genre and employs them within a more modern setting or with a specific twist. Some of the plot conventions of noir involve the use of high contrast lighting — from its black and white roots, a crime of some sorts — most often murder, and the femme fatale — a female character under duress at the crux of the story. Other conventions usually see a detective character of some sort, cigarette smoking and night clubs often playing down-tempo jazz or similar music. All of these ideas are conveyed within Grim Fandango’s story and settings.
There are clear and direct references to classic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. Fans of classic cinema will notice characters resembling popular actors from those films. The core of the story is Manny chasing his femme fatale, Meche, through various location in The Land of the Dead, including nights clubs and urban areas, while murder and intrigue surrounds him. The big twist here is that Grim Fandango features a good amount of humor and is set in a Mexican, Day of the Dead-inspired world. And, it works superbly.
This is lead designer Tim Schafer’s (and his co-writers) indisputably best work in the area of dialogue. His comedic skill is evident from previous works with the Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion series, as well Full Throttle. However, the writing here relies less on sight-gags, though there are still plenty, and more on pure wit. This is the type of game where you go back to a previous dialogue tree, just so that you can exhaust all of the options. The deliveries from the voice actors are perfect, I really don’t think there’s a weak link among the group.
Manny: Look at all the diplomas!
Domino: You have to have the proper attitude to get diplomas like those, Manny!
Manny: Really? I thought you just had to have the proper postage.
Make no mistake about it, this was an early, primitive 3D adventure game. Yet, it managed to avoid the awful that-sure-hasn’t-held-up-well look of other early entries, and this is probably the biggest key to the game successfully surviving the remaster treatment. The characters were very purposefully designed to be highly stylized and work within the polygon and texture resolution limitations their early 3D engine provided. In short, though 3D, the characters were inherently flat. This has allowed the upped resolution to really shine through in the remaster; providing an easy surface to paint higher resolution textures onto.
Where the visual upgrades fall short are in some of the background work and the cinematics. Manny and his counterparts are looking good in-game with clean lines showcased on their simplistic textures; it’s a big jolt to head into a cutscene and see the screen become noisy and muddy, and watch the sharp lines on characters become heavily jagged. It’s a shame these scenes couldnt be completely re-rendered from scratch into cleaner versions.
Similarly to the cutscenes, there is some mixed quality in the area of voice recordings. Here and there you will find the audio scratchy or distorted – I’m not sure if this a byproduct of original low bit-rate recordings, “hot” mics, or both. They still sound good though, and again, I have to say how top-notch the voice acting is. This is very well-written dialogue for certain, but the style and character with which it is delivered, makes it even better. The music received the full upgrade package. Peter McConnell has done some amazing work over the years, including Monkey Island 2, Full Throttle, The Dig and numerous Star Wars games while at LucasArts. Grim Fandango was another feather in his composing cap. In Remastered, he gets to oversee the Melbourne Symphony in the recording of orchestral versions of many of the game’s tracks to pair with the live swing music it already had. The results are fantastic – they really fit the comical, neo-noir mash-up of the game.
Manny: As a rule, I never touch anything more sophisticated and delicate than myself.
Nitpicking aside, I really don’t have anything bad to say about the game. My biggest complaint with the original release were the infuriating tank controls, but those have been replaced with an easy-to-use, classic style point-and-click interface. So, what do I have to complain about? But then again, this game is specifically made for someone like me – who grew up playing classic adventure games, appreciates a good story with smart dialogue, and enjoys a healthy dose of wit in the mix. I honestly also believe that a huge amount of this positive feeling comes from the fact that it has been so long since we’ve seen this game. This is not something that was 5-6 years old or even less, being remastered, as has been the “HD Remaster” trend of late. I knocked off some points for the Resident Evil HD Remaster, because I had loftier expectations for it, and a lot of that probably had to do with the fact that I have played iterations and remakes of that title already.
Grim Fandango is truly a classic, enjoyable adventure game from a time when the genre was king. At the ripe old age of 16 and at a time when the genre has once again hit its stride, this was the perfect time to bring back the title that was “the last of its kind”. I really hope it does well. With the announcements of a new Syberia game, new entries into the Longest Journey series, as well as Broken Sword and a new Tex Murphy, I can’t help but hope that thoughts of a sequel find their way to fruition. But I’m content to play this remaster for now, and then a second time for the included developer commentary.
For those that have played it before, this is still the same game you’ve loved forever. For those who missed this one the first time around, or weren’t even alive to experience it, it’s well worth the $14.99 price tag. If you hate adventure games and “walking simulators” or “interactive stories”, there’s nothing here that will probably change your mind. Sad though, because this is a great gaming experience. Welcome back, Manny. We missed you. And… very special thanks to Disney, for releasing their special, kung-fu death-grip on a LucasArts IP, and even more thanks to Sony for helping get this (re)made!
Grim Fandango Remastered is available on PC and PS4. This game was reviewed on PC via Steam.