The original 1998 LucasArts cult classic, Grim Fandango has finally been remastered and re-released on PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Windows and Mac. Resurrected by none other than the masters of obscure adventure games, Double Fine Productions, Grim Fandango has returned so that all players can once again take a trip through the Land of the Dead with our own hombre favorito, Manny Calavera.
The 1920s calaca-noire world of Grim Fandango is one filled with Spanglish speaking sugar skulls working to make ends meat in limbo Metropolis. Running the show in the afterlife, The Department of Death Bureau of Acquisitions specialize in reaping the souls of the holy in hopes of selling them cushy seats on the road to the Ninth Underworld to “reap” a profit.
Just a simple grim trying to serve his time and being stuck with less-than-holy clients, Manny Calavera soon becomes the least profitable salesman in his department. In an effort to steal a client from the top salesman, Calavera meets the pure and lovely Mercedes Colomar (Meche) and hopes to send her on a lavish trip to the next life. Although pure of heart and innocent in death, Meche does not earn a spot to the next life and soon after disappears. Sensing corruption in the Bureau, Calavera and his buddies adventure through the Edge of the World to restore order, find Meche and send her to the Ninth Underworld where she belongs.
Closing their doors and ceasing all operations in 2013, LucasArts‘ revival of Grim Fandango was left to Double Fine Productions, a company famous for titles such as Psychonauts, Costume Quest and The Cave. Although not entirely similar, I couldn’t help but notice Grim Fandango’s many similarities to the classic adventure game, Psychonauts—well, one similar level. Following the story of a young psychic warrior named Raz, players visited the world of Black Velvetopia, meant to resemble a black velvet painting complimented with neon colors and romantic mariachi melodies. In this particular level in Psychonauts, Raz helps a Spanish matador build a stairway of cards to reunite with his beautiful Latin-love trapped in the sky. With both games possessing such incredibly artistic Hispanic styles, one can’t help but feel that Grim Fandango was meant for Double Fine from day one.
The play style is very similar to older titles of the late nineties/early millennium era, where puzzles are many and you must use your own logic to find out where to go to next. There is never a point in the game when any points of interests are hinted at, which makes things a little more difficult if you don’t remember what you saw in the last room or what you picked up the last time you played.
Storing items in his suit jacket, Calavera uses random objects to interact with things around him. For example; it wasn’t until I needed to scare birds away from their eggs that I remembered I had a stored a cat balloon and a loaf of bread in my jacket. Interacting with the bowl in front of me, I hid the cat balloon at the bottom of the bowl and sprinkled bread on top so when the birds ate the bread, the balloon would pop and scare them into flying away from their eggs.
As for the visual quality of the game, it is very simple. Characters are the only things that move and environments merely resemble watercolor-like, stationary backgrounds. Similar to the old Resident Evil style, the camera is placed in one angle until walking into the next frame where the camera completely switches sides. I found that while playing, walking towards one destination became an errand because I frequently forgot which part of the background to walk into in order to take me to the next frame. Once I did get into the next shot, I lost the ability to navigate Calavera in one direction due to the game’s old-school, camera angle flips.
Since the game’s backgrounds never change, only the characters in-game were actually remastered for better quality. By pressing the right analog stick, players are able to switch back and forth from original to remastered quality, which is where you’ll see the stunning difference among your favorite characters.
Aside from its dated controls and somewhat flat backdrops, Grim Fandango does an excellent job at creating a unique gaming ambiance and relating to its Hispanic players, even 17 years after its original release. With relatable dialogue that all Spanish speakers can appreciate, players can’t help but admire the personable qualities found in the game’s characters and subtle Latin attributes.
From the homestyle Spanish melodies playing in the background to such references as Pan De Muerto (Bread of the Dead), I felt completely at home while playing Grim Fandango. I still remember my first Pan De Muerto at the grave of mi abuelo when I was a little girl, which made that reference unforgettable.
On top of its cultural themes, Grim Fandango has an incredible dark side to its art style, which makes it that much more detailed of a game. At one point, Calavera hops in the car with his demon chauffeur friend Glotti on a ride to the Land of the Living. When Calavera arrives at the local diner to claim a soul, the scenery he arrived upon was actually quite disturbing. Standing at the diner’s countertop were the strangest depictions of humans. With 1920s magazine cut outs for faces, they stood at the counter only mumbling strange words, not moving a muscle. Below them was a wiggling body bag. Using his scythe, Calavera slices open the bag to reveal a skeleton of a dead man, waiting for his soul to be claimed. Not only were the faces and body bags strange but the background sounds were low, eerie and completely unnerving. As the player, curiosity begs the question; what was the artistic driving force behind creating a scene that felt so incredibly strange and out of place with the rest of the game? Whatever the reason, I appreciated it.
Overall, Grim Fandango makes for a fun adventure if you’re looking to play something on the casual side. But beware; this player experience is a tricky one that is somewhat dated and may take up a bit of time trying to figure out. So grab yourself a bag of popcorn, kick back with the kids and travel back to 1998 to the land of the dead with Manny Calavera. It won’t kill you.
This review of Grim Fandango is based on a digital copy for the PlayStation 4 which was provided by Double Fine Studios.