Review: Grim Fandango

How appropriate that Grim Fandango was the last dance for the old style of adventure game. Ambition overflowed from its messy package- beautifully orchestrated music compressed into MIDI files, puzzles running on antiquated clock speed-dependant code, clunky tank controls in the team’s first attempt at a 3D game… the writing and artistic vision was incredible, but the execution was always struggling to keep up. I tooled around with my sister’s copy back in the day, just enough to be simultaneously enchanted and irritated. After that, years of hardware incompatibility meant I never went back to it. Now, Grim returns, remastered for modern machines, and I’ve taken my first journey through the Schafer epic. As it’s new to me, I’m as interested in reviewing the game itself as I am its updates.

As an outsider, it is a great relief to see how easy it is to compare the remastering to its original. Like an increasing number of remasters/remakes, Grim Fandango Remastered includes the ability to toggle between its modern form and the original with the tap of a button- no loading required. It’s this feature that allows me to say with confidence that GFR is the most emotionally honest remake I’ve ever seen. The game absolutely looks better- anti-aliasing and redone textures are highlighted by dramatic new shadow tech, giving the game a hand in presenting its abundance of style. It still looks old, though. The original aspect ratio is preserved with a tasteful, minimal frame on the border and the prerendered backgrounds don’t change an iota. That MIDI soundtrack has been redone with a proper orchestra, and it is inarguably more beautiful and striking. However, it feels so natural that it quickly ceases to stand out, and simply becomes a cohesive part of the noir experience. The game’s presentation changes just enough to make it play in 2015, and not an ounce more- the most respectful way it could possibly have been handled.

dominoboxing

The changes to how Grim controls, on the other hand, are under no illusions about how much help the game needed. The original character-relative controls (aka tank controls) were considered clumsy at the time, and are unacceptable in this day and age. They’re still included for those who want to relive the classic clunk, but the default is the camera-relative controls that have become industry-standard (referred to as “Super Mario controls” in the original, and only accessible by manually modifying game files). In addition, by moving the mouse or touching the touch screen or touchpad (PC, PS Vita and PS4 respectively) you can access point-and-click controls akin to those modded into the original by eager fans years later. The transition is as smooth as you’d hope- on PC, moving the mouse fades a cursor into sight, and using keys or a gamepad causes it to fade back out again. On PS Vita there isn’t even this tiny adjustment- since you’re simply tapping what you want to interact with, there is no transition whatsoever. The control revamp was entirely necessary, and does nothing but aid the game in presenting its vision.

There are a few bugs outstanding- new or or old, I am unsure. I saw our hero Manny get stuck running in place, ignoring any inputs and requiring a restart to fix. I had the game crash, and once or twice I saw a little weirdness with stilted animations. Other than what I’ve mentioned so far, it is the same game it was nearly two decades ago. To many gamers, that’s all they need to hear. For some of us, though, the question remains of if Grim Fandango can be enjoyed as a new game.

glottisisthebest

It really depends on what you’re looking for. I won’t waffle, I absolutely enjoyed my time with Grim Fandango. Tim Schafer’s writing and worldbuilding is in top form, like none of his works I’ve seen from before or since. Manny is charismatic and cunning, with motives that are easy to empathize with. Glottis is the best “sidekick” character I have ever seen, and many of the personalities you bump into along the way are enjoyable to deal with. The puzzle solutions are often clever and satisfying in motion, and the game manages to feel epic in scope despite not actually being of grueling length.

That said, though, every time it gets particularly “adventure game,” Grim gets in its own way. For as clever as the puzzle solutions can be, figuring out what you’re even supposed to do can be maddening, let alone figuring out how you’re supposed to do it. I loved the idea of trying to outwit rival salesman Domino to steal his client, but 90s adventure game logic is an exercise in getting inside the heads of a group of game designers you’ve never met. The solution to that puzzle makes you feel incredibly clever if you figure it out, but it is by no means a natural train of thought, and it’s just classic point-and-click bullshit to expect me to randomly poke at the game until I stumble upon the answers.

The adventure game elements also get in the way of characterization. Manny is a supremely competent protagonist who overcomes corruption, opposition, and terrible luck to make the best of any situation (through the aforementioned obtuse puzzles), but often the people around him just look incompetent as they stand around waiting for Manny to make it work. Some characters fare better than others: Glottis, for instance, isn’t supposed to be particularly smart, and it makes perfect sense for him to stand around waiting for Manny to figure things out. Meche, on the other hand, is seemingly a quite intelligent and thoughtful lady, so the passivity and helplessness she exhibits in nearly every situation is distressing. Nothing about her tone is that of a damsel waiting to be saved- why does she act like one?

donsoffice

Grim is bad at directing the player at times, it is tonally inconsistent on if Manny is a scumbag or genuinely heroic, and the entire Petrified Forest section of the game is quite frankly terrible. It’s a game of clumsy brilliance, and while its writing still stands toe-to-toe with the best in the industry (partially because our writing has been depressingly stagnant for years), the only way to play it if you’re new is with a walkthrough. It’s a damn shame, too- the puzzles are satisfying when you manage to solve them on your own, as I certainly did more than a few times, but stumbling around the same series of rooms using every item on every other item until something works is not a kind of game design we tolerate anymore. Playing Grim now calls into question why we ever tolerated it.

Grim Fandango’s flaws are the reasons the adventure game genre died, and its best elements are a testament to why the genre ever worked to begin with. It’s important game, and a great story. You have to ask yourself- is that enough for me? If it is, dive into Grim- its style, tone, characters and story will absolutely wow you. But if it’s not, all that awaits you here is the kind of gameplay that made Gabriel Knight infamous, and you should pass. We can never go back to the time when Grim was the cutting edge of gaming, but we can look back at it, and marvel at what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Codes for PlayStation and PC were provided to Scanline Media for the purposes of review. Played on PS Vita- the PS4 download did not work, sadly.