Grim Fandango Remastered (PS4/Vita): A Short Pause Review
This is your brain:
This is your brain on Grim Fandango Remastered:
Whew buddy! I've never had a game test me in quite the way that Grim Fandango Remastered tested me. With a heightened sense of logic and reasoning an implied prerequisite for entry to this adventure game staple, the mental gymnastics required to solve Grim Fandango's punishing puzzles are not an altogether unexpected surprise. That said, the diabolical nature of the game's multi-tiered conundrums cannot be understated; these brain busters are not for the faint of heart. There is a light at the end of this metaphorical tunnel, however. Throughout all of the piercing migraines and depleted aspirin containers arises a sense that everything is totally worth it; Grim Fandango is simply an unforgettable yarn that gamers owe it to themselves to experience.
For those who don't know, Grim Fandango follows the story of Manny Calavera, a travel agent tasked with finding the best path through the Land of the Dead for the recently deceased. Manny's clients have a wide variety of backgrounds, and it's up to him to analyze their life's work to determine which passageway to the soul's final resting place (i.e. Heaven) they're qualified to receive. Travel options range from a four minute ride aboard the coveted Number Nine train — a transportation package only the saintliest souls qualify for — to a walking stick with a built-in compass for those who've led less savoury lives. Manny's got a life debt of his own to work off before he can personally gain access to Heaven, and the only way he can get there is by selling premium travel packages like the aforementioned ticket on the Number Nine train. The trouble is, only the lowliest of scumbags are being sent his way. As Domino, Manny's interoffice rival, continues to pull in all of the "good" clients, Calavera begins to suspect something foul is afoot. When a chance set of circumstances finally puts Manny in touch with a morally pure client worthy of a premium travel package, everything changes. Like all good stories, a woman and a demon bear mechanic change everything, and what follows is an unbelievably memorable adventure through four years of Manny's life in the Land of the Dead.
If it wasn't clear in the brief synopsis above, Manny's story is wonderfully unique and brilliant, and is undoubtedly the main attraction of Grim Fandango. This is the first time I've ever played the heralded adventure classic, so I went in fresh and naive, only aware of the game's legendary reputation and heaps of considerable praise. And it's praise that's well-deserved, as the level of narrative craft on display here is above and beyond almost any other game out there, even to this day. Imagine if Pixar were to make an animated film that was edgier and geared more towards adults, and you'll have a good idea of how Grim Fandango's story plays out over the course of the game's 12 hour campaign. *Chuckle**Chuckle* Oh, I'm sorry... I was just laughing at that "12 hour campaign" line I just spewed out. See, Grim Fandango Remastered can on occasion (and by "on occasion," I mean all the damn time) be incredibly complex and perplexing with its brand of adventure game riddles. So while the story can be completed in 12 hours, those of us with normal human brains will probably spend quite a bit longer as we limp our way through the games epic puzzles, lazily calling on some higher power to imbue us with a sense of the crazy adventure game logic required to solve many of the game's brain teasers. I'm not sure how long I actually spent playing this game before I completed it — the game logs some type of time when you save, but it's not clear exactly what it is tracking — but my Vita was repeatedly on the charger as I burned through the battery time and time again. Let's just say I had to play the game significantly longer than 12 hours to reach the end. More on this in a little bit.
But anyway, I digress. Getting back to the story, it's easy to see why this game is so fondly remembered, and why so many people are excited to see it resurrected in remastered form here. A tale like this is only so effective without the production values to back it up, and thankfully, Grim Fandango Remastered delivers on this front in spades. The writing is razor sharp, weaving in and out of situations both serious and comical, and the dialogue trees are full of quotable lines and memorable exchanges. Tim Schafer was at the top of his game when penning Manny's story back in the late '90s. All of those great lines would be all for naught, however, if not for the terrific voice acting in the game. Many games, movies, and other forms of media make the bold claim that their characters are unforgettable, but Grim Fandango is the rare exception that backs up this lofty proclamation. Tony Plana is brilliant as Manuel "Manny" Calavera, and Alan Blumenfeld regularly steals the show as Manny's wingman mechanic, Glottis. As a whole, it's tough to really single out any one actor in the game, because they're all so good. They bring Schafer's unique fusion of Mexican mythology, crime noire and jazz music to vibrant life. In fact, while gameplay is typically king when it comes to enjoying a video game, Grim Fandango Remastered is the rare title in which story rises above everything else. If you were to simply grab a walkthrough and solve each of the game's notoriously difficult puzzles without breaking a sweat, you'd probably really enjoy your time "cheating" your way through the title because the narrative is so strong and engaging.
Now, about those puzzles... boy, there are some doozies awaiting those brave enough to take the strategy guide-less plunge. At once both brilliant and maddening, Grim's puzzles are enough to break the most hardened of adventure game vets. This dichotomy stems from the way in which the game's nefarious puzzles are elaborately constructed and layered. Every time you think you've solved a problem and made progress, another roadblock is quick to present itself. You want that better client? Sure, you just need to get inside the server room. Think you figured out how to get inside the server room? Nope, the maintenance technician is standing in your way. You're in the server room, but now you can't hack into the server. Hope you paid attention earlier in the game. You've really got to train your brain to think the way Grim Fandango thinks. Admittedly, this takes some time. After year two of Manny's life, and its sprawling seaside metropolis, took literal, stress-riddled years off of my life, I really started to hit my puzzle solving stride in year three (the game is broken into four distinct sections, each representing one year in Manny's life). Year two is easily the most intricately plotted and complex puzzle sequence I've ever attempted in a game. Consider this fair warning. Be prepared!
While adventure games are once again part of the modern video game vernacular thanks to Telltale Games and their efforts with titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Grim Fandango is a cherished relic of the LucasArts period of point-and-click adventures. It was an era much different than the one Telltale dominates now. Whereas a title like The Walking Dead is more concerned with player choice and consequence, Grim Fandango is a rigorous puzzle solving experience. It's an exercise in patience and, oftentimes, frustration as you search through the same environments over and over, looking for that one item or that one interaction you missed the first ten times you were there. The lack of any kind of a hint system (ala the Monkey Island remasters) with this remaster is definitely a missed opportunity. A cleverly implemented hint system could have gone a long way towards relieving players, both casual and hardcore, of their frustrations.
While the solutions to the game's riddles are generally logical, there is an element of crazy adventure game reasoning required to solve several of the game's more perplexing challenges. A few times I had to just wave the white flag and seek out a hint somewhere on the interwebs in regards to what I was supposed to be doing next. It's a disappointing feeling when you've given all you could to solve a puzzle only to come up empty, but some of the game's solutions, to be frank, I probably just wouldn't have figured out. Let me make this clear, though: the puzzle solving in Grim Fandango Remastered is still a ton of fun. The riddles are so carefully constructed and the solutions are so infinitely clever that oftentimes, whether stuck or not, you can't help but sit back and smile in admiration. If you're easily frustrated, Grim Fandango Remastered probably isn't the game for you — as least not without a walkthrough. As I said though, the story is absolutely something that should be enjoyed by as many gamers as possible, and those in it for that reason shouldn't be afraid to peek at the answers to some of the game's puzzles should they get stuck.
Technically speaking, the game's pre-rendered backgrounds and blocky character designs hold up surprisingly well some 16+ years after its initial release. Outside of improved lighting effects and some smoothed out edges, not a whole lot in regards to the game's look has changed between the 1998 original and the modern remaster. The included widescreen option puts an ugly stretch on the game's original fullscreen aspect ratio, so I recommend sticking with the 4:3 option for the best visual fidelity. The totally awesome jazz soundtrack has been fully remastered as well, and sounds great over a nice pair of headphones. On the PS4, the game controls exceptionally well with the DualShock 4. The original tank controls (a la Resident Evil) have been replaced with modern analog movement on the DualShock sticks, though they remain an option for those interested in securing the gold "The Right Way" trophy.
While the game looks and controls great on the PS4, I primarily played through Grim Fandango Remastered on my Vita. It is really cool to have this title on the Vita. After being lost in the gaming ether for so long, it's crazy to think that I can now carry this around with me and play it wherever I want. And honestly, this game feels like it was made for the Vita. While there is no auto-save (Protip: Save often!), the game lends itself to a pick-up-and-play style wonderfully. You can save your progress at any point, and it's nice to be able to put the system in suspend mode if you get stuck on a puzzle. Cross-save works like a charm, simply requiring you to save the game while connected to internet in order to pick up your progress on the PlayStation system of your choice. The game looks and sounds great on Sony's handheld as well, although I did encounter several game crashing bugs when playing the portable version. While the bugs were seemingly random, popping up in various spots throughout the game, they always produced the same result: an error that would require a full reset. In a game with no auto-save, this can be frustrating if one of these bugs shows up and you haven't saved recently. It's unclear if this is an isolated issue or something more widespread, but here's hoping a future patch rectifies the problem. It's not a game-breaking issue by any means though, and it shouldn't deter you from trying out the game for yourself.
I'm thrilled I finally got to experience Grim Fandango for myself. I've heard whispers of its greatness for years now, and I wasn't sure I'd ever have the chance to play it. The game's narrative lives up to the superlatives it's routinely decorated in, while the voice acting and production values behind the title take everything to the next level. The puzzles, while brilliantly designed, can be frustrating at times in the absence of a hint system, and it's unfortunate that a number of modern adventure gamers may find their patience tested too much to see the game through to its conclusion. That's not to say that puzzle solving is not fun in this game, mind you. Figuring out one of Grim Fandango's brain teasers elicits a feeling of exhilaration and jubilee that few games do. There's nothing quite like finally discovering the solution to a puzzle you've been staring at for hours. While there are those that will be mental casualties, those that do persevere and learn to adapt their mind to Grim Fandango's particular way of thinking will be rewarded with an endlessly creative romp through the underworld. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to take up meditation and hard liquor as I prepare my mind for Day of the Tentacle's impending release.
Ben is a hardcore PlayStation fan and a lifelong gamer. He hopes to play a game other than Destiny at some point in 2015. Follow him not tweeting @piccolo930.
- Amazing story
- Endlessly creative
- Voice acting and production values
- Brilliantly designed puzzles...
- ... that can be frustratingly perplexing without a hint system
- Technical issues on the Vita