Grim Fandango Remastered Review (PlayStation 4)
Five years ago, Tim Schafer and his team released a remake of the 1991 adventure classic, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. I was hoping that Grim Fandango Remastered would have been rebuilt from the ground-up as LeChuck's Revenge was in 2010. Instead, Manny Calavera, Meche, Glottis and the rest of the Land of the Dead cast have received some fresh makeovers laid atop the same exact backdrops we saw 17 years ago. The overall effect is great for nostalgic fans of the original, but its presentation and frustrating mechanics could easily be dismissed by newcomers to the game. Double Fine has certainly catered to all those who fell in love with this masterpiece long ago, but also prove that Grim Fandango is not as timeless as we thought.
The first thing you'll notice about Grim Fandango Remastered is its graphics. Whether you're familiar with them or not, Manny and everyone he encounters look strange -- be prepared for calaca-style skeletons and other bizarre-looking characters you normally don't find. The characters have a unique visual style where each face's movements seem to be projected onto the front, flat side of the character's skull. The result looks unique in terms of animation, and could be seen as dated for those who have never encountered this polygonal form of animation. Luckily, the in-game models have been given an overhaul. Characters' bodies now offer more details, look a lot smoother and properly react to environmental lighting to make things look much more natural.
In terms of graphical prowess, the upgraded character models are pretty much the extent of the changes integrated into Grim Fandango Remastered. The original's pre-rendered backgrounds and full motion video cutscenes were left untouched, which makes their dated looks stand out. While these scenes are meant to show how well this title has stood the test of time, they certainly could have been fixed for this HD remaster. Considering that Double Fine allows you to switch between the original and Remastered versions of Fandango on the fly (by pushing in R3), having redone backgrounds would have definitely helped, just as they did in Halo's anniversary titles. This means switching back and forth between the old and new styles of graphics usually just end up with simply a comparison of Manny and whatever items or people he can interact with on screen. It's easy to see how the bulky designs of Grim Fandango and its backgrounds, which scream "late ‘90s PC game," can make those unfamiliar with LucasArts' classics shy away.
You would think that Grim Fandango would have gotten the Resident Evil treatment in this remaster and offer a default 16:9 aspect ratio, since we're in the era of rectangular flat screens and not square-shaped cathode ray tube computer monitors. Instead, 4:3 is the default display, with a border design option allowing you to fill in the sides of the screen. Fandango does allow you to choose a 16:9 display, but everything is stretched out to accommodate the size to the point where it simply does not look good. Manny and most of the characters were already wide and a bit deformed-looking (in terms of shape and builds) to begin with, and the 16:9 display only made things noticeably worse -- this reiterates the point that the backgrounds were left untouched in this remastered version. If Double Fine would have re-rendered the backgrounds and added more to the peripherals (which I know is no easy task), this re-release could have looked a lot better. It probably would have also cost a lot more money during development to do so.
On the other end of afterlife presentation, Grim Fandango Remastered's voice acting and music are fantastic. Tim Schafer's excellent writing and the game's untouchable voice acting performances help Fandango transcend the standards of both the ‘90s and contemporary gaming. Fandango's soundtrack has been redone using a full orchestra, which helps its jazz, South American and swing-inspired tunes really pop to the point where you'll forget that you're mindlessly stuck on a puzzle or looking at a 17-year-old background image. I love the new developer commentary track, which can overlay with the in-game audio (which you can freely toggle on or off), so you can hear Schafer and his team speak their minds about what it took to create this 1940s film noir-inspired adventure. I found myself playing through Grim Fandango Remastered twice -- the first time was to just clear it while going back and forth between the original and Remastered graphics, and the second time was to play it with Schafer's team commentating alongside Manny's escapades.
While the PC's remastered version is getting an optional point-and-click control mode, you'll manually navigate this afterlife travel agent across each pre-rendered screen and search for every minute detail with tank-like controls. If you're not a stickler for checking everything, you're not going to get far. Double Fine added a new control scheme that lets you move Manny in a more free-form manner, but I'm sad to say that these movements were quite unreliable. I would often find myself backtracking to the previous screen by accident many times upon entering a new area/camera angle -- I ended up staying with the tank controls simply due to the frustrations that accompanied the free-roam style.
The hardest parts of Grim Fandango have returned in full force. You pretty much have to explore every square inch of every screen before moving onto the next one if you plan on seeing Manny's adventures through to the end. Fandango's item system is also still a mess. Like its untouched backgrounds, the inventory mechanics just scream for a redesign in this remastered edition. Unfortunately, you'll find yourself scrounging for items and details whenever you're stuck at a certain part, and Double Fine has offered very little help for those who are stuck -- thank goodness for Google. Whether it's the crane sequence in Year 3, or trying to get to Rubacava, you need patience if you're going to try and get through this on your lonesome. I can see younger/inexperienced gamers or those with shorter attention spans becoming impatient with many of these sequences, as Grim Fandango Remastered evokes a different kind of player mentality -- it requires one who takes notes, experiments and can walk away from their screen when infuriated at a dead end and return with a collected and calm mind. Even then, I still found myself visiting YouTube or Google for a few solutions.
If its backgrounds and FMV cutscenes were given updates and if there was a better inventory/hint system at play, Grim Fandango Remastered would have had the proper incentives needed for all gamers of all types to enjoy. This obscure tale of the underworld still provides an experience unlike any other, just don't be surprised if you find yourself wishing there were more features implemented to help modernize it. Nevertheless, Grim Fandango Remastered is a must-have for fans of the original, adventure game enthusiasts and those who simply want something different from the norm accompanied by top-notch storytelling.
This review was based on a purchased, digital copy of Grim Fandango Remastered for PlayStation 4.