Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, PS Vita

Re-mastering old game titles to fit next-gen graphics seems to be the thing to do these days. Xbox One got Halo, the Wii U got Windwaker, and pretty much every platform under the sun got Resident Evil. Now, fans of the old-school LucasArts point-and-click adventure games are getting their share of this nostalgia road-trip-back-in-time with the re-mastered cult hit Grim Fandango.

At first glance it seems a bit like a money grab, resembling the tried-and-true Hollywood method of remaking an old franchise-with-a-following when they are feeling the brunt of cyberattacks and dwindling box office sales. It just seems a bit lazy for studios to release old titles in a new format (in the case of video games, the new format is simply shiny new graphics). As long as all they’re doing is an extreme graphics makeover, fans get to relieve their fond memories of the game without having to squint at their Ultra HD monitors.

grim fandango title

For the studios, being able to use an old IP means an unfettered cash flow. Everyone wins. Still, there’s some risk involved on their end. You can’t just re-master every title. It has to be one that hits that sweet spot of nostalgia and accessibility. There’s no point reviving an old game if the aged mechanics mean it’s no longer fun to play in a next-gen ecosystem.

Grim Fandango manages to strike that balance, and any trouble I may have had with the puzzles as a newcomer to the classic hit was outweighed by the enchanting environment and the charismatic cast of characters that I’ve come to expect from the repertoire of Tim Schafer, the genius behind some of the most successful indie games of all time.

grim fandango glottis

The Temptation Of Walkthroughs

Perhaps part of the reason why Grim Fandango aged so well is because its mechanics are so simple. It’s a point-and-click puzzler very similar to the Monkey Island series. Actually, there’s less reading involved in Grim Fandango than in Monkey Island, much to my relief. Of course, the less text there is to deal with, the fewer clues you have to work out the puzzles. If you’ve never played Grim Fandango, be prepared for a lot of wandering. You have to poke and prod at things to see how they work and how they might interact with the environment.

I could see myself losing an entire summer to this game as a teenager, but as a busy adult with constant internet access, it was hard to resist the urge to Google. Eventually, I did come across a puzzle that I just couldn’t figure out. It was in the petrified forest, after rescuing the heart of my demon driver and companion from a spider’s web. I had no idea where to go next. One area of the map just had a bunch of pathways that all looped back on themselves once I drove through them. I caved and read through a walkthrough. Then I read through it again to make sure I understood. Then I wandered around the map planting a magical sign in the ground, hoping it would tell me where to go.

grim fandango puzzle

When this didn’t work, I had to look up a video of someone playing through this section before I was able to replicate the process myself and complete the puzzle. There were simply no hints given in the game to provide the right answer. I supposed it was just one of those ‘trial-and-error’ sort of things that games like Myst are so happy to toss in your direction.

The rate at which the puzzles’ difficultly increased from fairly straightforward to “I need to sleep on this” was a bit dizzying. It’s worth it though, because despite my later struggles with the puzzles, I wanted to keep playing. This is where I believe Grim Fandango has earned its remastered status. It holds up in a next-gen ecosystem because the real meat of the game is not in its mechanics or even its challenging puzzles. What carries the game is its rich storytelling and world building.

grim fandango office

Land Of The Dead

Set in a world heavily informed by the traditions of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, you play as Manny, a grim reaper trying to get ahead in the DOD (Department of Death). This involves selling upgraded travel packages out of Limbo and into Heaven to the recently arrived souls. You also get assigned a demon driver—the adorable Glottis who quickly became my favorite character (and whose love of car modifications would rival that of Xzibit). However, you quickly discover a conspiracy in the DOD, and with the aid of an underground group (the Lost Souls Alliance), it’s up to you to root it out.

The artwork and styling stands out as a testament to video gaming as an art form. It’s like a cross between a Tim Burton movie and the Saturday morning cartoons of the ‘90s. The title itself betrays its mood—grim, but charming, like attending a birthday party at the Addams family house. The voice acting is a huge component to this success; I greatly enjoyed exploring all the dialogue options so I could hear every bit of recorded audio.

manny office grim fandango

There were also many moments where I laughed out loud at the responses given by the NPCs. A balloon twister you encounter early on is especially entertaining; he fires back retorts one after the other, not even trying to hide his disdain with sarcasm. When Manny makes a comment about how the balloon twister couldn’t have carpal tunnel if he didn’t have any tendons anymore, he snaps back by saying “Yeah, well you don't have a tongue but that doesn't seem to shut you up, now does it?” Perfect.

Another bright spot in Grim Fandango is in its score. The sultry, lounge-feeling jazz is pulled straight out of a noir film classic. There are even more obvious nods to this genre—the suits and fedoras the reapers wear, the art-deco styling of the office building, and the way the light casts shadows through closed blinds all points to this LA Confidential vibe, but with a backdrop of Dia de los Muertos. It’s a match made in Heave—err, Limbo.

grim fandango glottis quote

During the beginning cut scenes, Manny will even take a long drag on a cigarette (even though he has no lungs) and dwell on his sorrows as if he had jumped straight out of Death of a Salesman (the irony is certainly not lost on me). Speaking of cinematics, Double Fine chose to maintain the game's original aspect ratio for the gameplay—4:3. During cut scenes, patterned bars appear on either sides of the screen, adding to its cinematic feel by making it seem as though you’re watching it play out in a movie theater.

My View

These are the criteria I consider most important for reviewing Grim Fandango Remastered:

Presentation: 9/10

The updated graphics and soundtrack are wonderful, though you still aren't likely to mistake Grim Fandango for a modern game.

Story: 8/10

There are a few places where things drag and meander, but for the most part the story is tense, funny, and surprising.

Atmosphere: 10/10

The Day of the Dead aesthetics combine beautifully with film noir-style lighting to make Grim Fandango's world an unforgettable one.

Gameplay: 6/10

Occasionally awkward movement commands can make it trickier than it should be to accomplish tasks.

Puzzles: 7/10

Sometimes they're too hard for their own good, so don't feel shame if you need to consult a walkthrough.

Overall: 8/10

Grim Fandango manages to feel fresh in a crowded gaming market. Its bright colors, foreboding setting, and compelling story kept drawing me back. When every side character comes alive with personality, that’s when you know the writing is good and the game has staying power. On top of that, you drive around in a car called the Bone Wagon. Who knew the afterlife could be so much fun?