Grim Fandango Remastered review: from the boneyard

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Double Fine Productions
Developer Double Fine Productions
Release Date Jan 27, 2015

As much as you love Grim Fandango, I promise that Grim Fandango Remastered loves it more.

Double Fine (lead by Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer) has taken every scrap of the beloved classic and transported it to modern platforms with the feather-light touch of a National Archives curator touching up the U.S. Constitution.

If you're someone who was already in love with the adventures of skeletal salesman Manny Calavera, you're getting exactly what you'd want. If you've only heard the praise that had been heaped on Grim Fandango (like myself a few days ago), you may do well to keep your expectations in perspective.

The real strength of Grim Fandango is its sweeping story
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As Grim Fandango opens in the Land of the Dead, Manny Calavera has fallen on hard times (even for a dead guy). As a travel agent who escorts the deceased to their final rewards, the best mode of transport he's been able to scare up for his clients lately has been a walking stick. That all changes when the saint-like Mercedes Colomar walks through his door. He assumes that someone who spent most of their life volunteering is a lock for a much sought-after ticket on the Number Nine, a direct train to the Ninth Underworld.

When Mercedes doesn't qualify for so much as a tricycle, he smells a rat and is launched into an adventure that takes him from his hometown of El Marrow to, literally, the end of the world.

The real strength of Grim Fandango is this sweeping story, the brilliant actors that deliver it and the still stunning aesthetic, a blend of Aztec folklore, Art Deco design and a heavy dose of film noir. It's honestly just a little sad that the heavy Latin influence of Grim Fandango feels just as fresh and invigorating in today's milquetoast landscape as it must have in 1998.

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The scope and scale of the narrative is also leagues ahead of what most of modern games winkingly refer to as story. The game spans four years, and its endearing characters are allowed to grow and evolve over that time in ways that still feel revolutionary today.

If you want to get an idea of just how little of the original presentation has been changed, press the button that instantly switches between the "original" and "remastered" versions. Characters and some items are affected by the lighting around them and the jaggy lines have been smoothed out with better resolution, but nothing else appears to have been touched.

This slavish devotion to the original is a big part of the expectation-setting new players need to do. The game is presented in 4:3, for starters (though you can switch to a stretched-out widescreen view). Also, Grim Fandango was an early example of 3D characters and, as such, the polygon count is distractingly low if you're going in expecting a modern look. This isn't an overhaul; it's a museum piece, as evidenced in part by the interesting developer commentary available throughout. I actually found myself switching back to the original frequently, as the new lighting can make characters hard to track when the camera is zoomed way out.

This isn't an overhaul; it's a museum piece
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Just how faithful is Grim Fandango Remastered? I fell victim to a bug from the original that crashed the game! The game preservationist in me cheered. Every other part of me was honestly pretty ticked off.

One notable exception is the soundtrack, which has been re-recorded by The Melbourne Symphony. It's a jazzy, Latin-infused delight that I require on Spotify immediately.

There have been a few tiny, merciful concessions to the modern landscape in how the game is played. Grim Fandango is already sort of an odd duck, eschewing the point-and-click controls of the adventure games that proceeded it in favor of a more direct control system. There's no hovering over items, Manny simply turns his head towards objects that he can interact with. Though this approach has become commonplace, Grim Fandango was in uncharted waters, so there are occasional irritations, like when several objects are close together and you can't tell precisely what you're trying to interact with.

Grim Fandango Remastered addresses this with a point-and-click interface that is a massive improvement, if only for the time it saves in not wandering around. That said, if you prefer the direct controls, they've also been overhauled, replacing a Resident Evil-style "tank" setup with a more intuitive, camera-relative system that should be familiar from other third-person games.

That's about where the concessions end. I'm admittedly a dummy, but I found a lot of the puzzles to be difficult, bordering on inscrutable. Players accustomed to the less intellectually demanding adventure games of today are likely to go looking for a hint system, so let me save you some time: There isn't one. There also isn't an auto-save system, in case you were curious.

My difficulty in navigating the world exacerbated the obtuse nature of many of the puzzles for me. Frequently, I'd find myself stumped because I was unaware that if I walked off the screen at a certain angle I'd find a new area I'd completely missed before. Tough puzzles became miserable spending as much time as I did trying to get from A to B. Games have had 17 years to get a lot better about communicating that sort of thing, but Grim Fandango Remastered isn't interested in putting glowing arrows on the ground to help you find your way.

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Wrap Up:

Grim Fandango Remastered is a great history lesson but not always great to play

If you're a seasoned vet of Calavera's adventures, you're probably having a soft, grandfatherly chuckle at my struggles. The good news for you is that the game you love is back in as-close-to-original state as you could hope for, and you're in for a real treat.

For the rest of us, it isn't hard to see why Grim Fandango has achieved its hallowed place in video game history. It's beautiful, it's funny, it's capital "C" cool. But as someone with no attachment to the original, it's hard not to wish for a version that makes it easier to find the brilliance without climbing through so many caveats.

Grim Fandango Remastered was reviewed using final "retail" downloadable code for PlayStation Vita and Windows PC provided by Double Fine Productions. You can find out additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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