Review: Grim Fandango Remastered

Kim has finally had the opportunity to complete the classic adventure Grim Fandango through a remastered version. But did she come away with a smile on her skull or does she have a bone to pick?


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Grim Fandango
Developer: LucasArts
(remastered by Double Fine Productions)
Publisher: LucasArts
(remastered by Double Fine Productions)
Release date: October 1998 (remastered in January 2015)
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: Mac, Linux, PC, PlayStation 4, PS Vita
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

Although Tim Schafer conceived the idea for a Day-of-the-Dead-themed adventure title before starting work on Full Throttle, he didn’t begin production on Grim Fandango until after the release of the former in June 1995. It was seen as an attempt by LucasArts to rejuvenate the failing genre which was in decline but, although it received critical acclaim when released in October 1998 and is now widely-regarded as a classic, it was sadly a commercial failure. Grim Fandango actually factored into the company’s decision to terminate their adventure game development.

I first played the title seventeen years ago but unfortunately never finished it as college and coursework got in the way. I was therefore looking forward to picking up from where I left off and finally completing it for the 1001 Project; but the game’s out-of print status meant that it was almost impossible to track down a copy. That was until Double Fine Productions – with a little help from Sony to secure the intellectual-property (IP) after Disney’s acquisition and closure of LucasArts – released Grim Fandango Remastered in January 2015.

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Plot

Grim Fandango Remastered is set in the Land of the Dead, where recently-departed souls start their journey towards paradise: the Ninth Underworld. Good deeds in life are rewarded with access to luxury travel packages such as the Number Nine, a train that takes just four minutes to reach the pearly gates; but those who have been naughty are left to make a dangerous four-year trip via foot. Travel agents from the Department of Death (DOD) are ‘Grim Reaper’ figures who escort souls from the mortal world to their offices in the Land of the Dead, then use their computer system to determine which mode of transport each deserves.

Surely the kindly Mercedes ‘Meche’ Colomar, a volunteer in life who read stories to dying children, deserves a ticket on the Number Nine?

Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera is one such skeletal travel agent in the city of El Marrow, forced into his job to work off a debt to ‘the powers that be’ as he puts it. Unfortunately however, his co-worker and rival Domino Hurley seems to get all the good clients and he’s left with lowlifes who have access to nothing more than a walking stick. His boss Don Copal threatens to fire him if he doesn’t obtain a premium sale soon so Manny comes up with a plot to steal one of Domino’s clients; surely the kindly Mercedes ‘Meche’ Colomar, a volunteer in life who read stories to dying children, deserves a ticket on the Number Nine?

Unfortunately however, Manny’s computer system reveals that Meche has access to nothing despite her good deeds. There must be a conspiracy! It’s up to Manny to click on objects, pick up items and solve challenging puzzles to uncover the evil within El Marrow and the Land of the Dead beyond.

Grim Fandango Remastered’s storyline spans a period of four years – a chapter for each year of the journey of the soul – and it’s lovely to see the characters and their relationships develop over this period. Individuals who seem to play small parts at first often make re-appearances later in the game and these feel like the return of old friends. Each character is well-written with layers of depth and while Manny has so much charm, it’s Glottis who steals the show; this loveable, orange, speed-demon sidekick serves as comic relief in his roles as driver, lounge singer and ship mechanic, and easily has some of the best lines throughout the title (“Is there an engine that can resist the love in these hands?”).

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Gameplay

When the title begins, players are treated to a humorous opening sequence but are then thrown straight in without any help.

Modern gamers may struggle with Grim Fandango Remastered for several reasons: the lack of a tutorial, the absence of a map or fast-travel option, and some obtuse puzzles. When the title begins, players are treated to a humorous opening sequence but are then thrown straight in without any help. Back in the 1990s any questions would have been answered by the physical manual that came in the box but there’s nothing similar here; you’re left to figure out the controls for yourself and perhaps this is one area Double Fine could have improved on in their remaster. Personally though I didn’t find this a problem and perhaps it’s a case of modern gamers needing to ‘suck it up’ a little.

Something that has been improved upon is the controls themselves. I remember hating them when I played the original Grim Fandango: the arrow keys were used to control Manny’s movement and, as stated in the printed manual, ‘essentially the interface is Manny himself’. Our hero’s head would turn when he noticed something interesting and it was up to the player to hit ‘5’ on their keyboard to get him to examine it. But that wasn’t the end of it: you had to press ‘+’ to pick up the item, ‘+’ again to store it in your inventory, ‘0’ to access the inventory and ‘Escape’ to exit it again. This led to all sorts of issues and plenty of frustration.

Double Fine has enhanced gameplay by now adding a point-and-click interface. Simply click on the area to which you want Manny to move and he’ll walk there or double-click and he’ll run; and when your pointer encounters a hotspot you’ll see options to examine the item, interact with the object or talk to the character. This makes things so much easier but you’ll still have to deal with the original inventory. Clicking on the coat icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen displays Manny’s coat and he pulls items out of his jacket as you cycle through them. It’s a lovely and fitting way to display an inventory within this game, but it’s frustratingly slow.

This title is particularly well written and extremely few characters and locations that feel as if they’ve been put there just for stock content.

Grim Fandango Remastered is split into four chapters and each is crammed full of locations, characters and objects. As mentioned above, this title is particularly well written and it’s extremely few (if any) of these that feel as if they’ve been put there just for stock content; but it’s easy to become lost at times and players may find themselves having to backtrack often. This isn’t much of an issue in smaller locations such as El Marrow in year one, but when you get to the larger film-noir-style Rubacava in year two it can be a bit disorientating. Unfortunately there’s no map or fast-travel option meaning that you’ll have to travel to areas by foot, but stick with it because each new scene is a joy.

The staple of any adventure game is the puzzles and those encountered within this title are a mixed bag. There are some that are particularly clever – the challenge involving the counterfeit betting-ticket machine in the second chapter is one of my favourites as the clues are all there if you listen carefully – then there are others that don’t make much sense. For example, when trapped in the engine room of a boat my first thought wasn’t to rip it in half using its anchors. At a later stage in the game I struggled with an item which had to be combined with something else before being picked up, as this couldn’t be done from within the inventory screen itself; and I found myself stumped at a certain point because I hadn’t realised another room could be accessed if I walked off the screen at a different angle.

On a positive note, the humour expected of LucasArts’ adventures shines through in Grim Fandango Remastered and there are some laugh-out-loud moments along with plenty of movie references. Characters refer to getting shot as ‘being sprouted’, and being hit with a sprout gun causes plant growth to bloom and spread throughout the victim’s body; the flowers that grow amongst their bones are a clever reference to the floral motifs seen on Day of the Dead decorations, often referred to as ‘calavera’ (Manny’s surname).

Modern gamers should take note as there isn’t an autosave feature and not saving regularly can potentially set you back by several hours.

Unfortunately Double Fine missed some bugs within their remaster. Most of them are small such as sound glitches and characters appearing on the wrong side of a scene, but I had to restart my game twice after Manny became unresponsive after using a particular item. Modern gamers should take note as there isn’t an autosave feature and not saving regularly can potentially set you back by several hours. In addition, I found that I couldn’t record my gameplay via method without the title crashing – so I apologise for the absence of a video below!

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Visuals and audio

Grim Fandango was the first adventure game by LucasArts to use 3D graphics overlaid on pre-rendered, static backgrounds. Recent remakes such as The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition have been a little heavy-handed, changing the original pixelated visuals to cartoony caricatures which haven’t been entirely well-received; but Double Fine have treated the title like a fine work of art with just a little touch-up here and there. Texture quality has been increased so characters appear sharp and some additional lighting effects add to the atmosphere. It’s possible to switch between the original and remastered visuals at the press of a button if you want to see the difference.

Backgrounds have been upscaled but otherwise left alone and look as glorious at they did back in 1998. At first they seem like a mish-mash of art deco, film-noir and Mexican calaca influences but somehow Schafer managed to make all these difference elements come together beautifully to create a gorgeous world. Grim Fandango Remastered runs in a screen ratio of 4:3 with decorative borders down either side of the screen to fill the space but it’s possible to remove these and play in widescreen, although this simply stretches out the graphics and isn’t all that pleasing.

The original game’s music was a mix of South American folk music, jazz, swing and big-band sounds.

The original game’s music was a mix of South American folk music, jazz, swing and big-band sounds, and was composed at LucasArts by Peter McConnell. The score featured live musicians that he knew of made contact with in San Francisco’s Mission District including a mariachi band. For the remaster, the soundtrack was fully orchestrated through performances of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as the development team opted to re-record it after finding that some of the original samples used by McConnell didn’t sound too great.

The music is definitely one of the highlights of Grim Fandango Remastered with each scene using the score to suitably enhance the atmosphere. The jazz numbers heard throughout Rubacava are the perfect backdrop to Manny’s casino and his white tux; and the sounds of trumpets coming from a street festival outside the Department of Death in El Marrow add to the party vibe. You’ll hear music of some variety in almost every scene but it never becomes annoying or overpowering, and many of the tracks will stick with you long after you’ve finished the title.

Tony Plana is the voice of Manny and full credit goes to him for adding depth to the protagonist. This native Spanish speaker suggested alternative dialogue throughout the development of the original game, really making for a very personable character and natural-sounding conversations with little bits of Spanish thrown in. Manny has a certain dry wit but he’s never unlikeable, and our downtrodden hero becomes more optimistic and courageous as the title progresses. Also worthy of a mention is María Canals Barrera who plays female-lead Meche; she doesn’t come across as an annoying do-gooder but rather a strong-willed and independent woman. Grim Fandango easily contains some of the best performances within a graphic adventure.

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Replay and innovation

It’s easy to see how the well-written story and characters would make you want to return to it at some point in the future once their memory has faded.

As with many classic adventure games, I can’t imagine that the original Grim Fandango held much instant replay value for a lot of players. It’s easy to see how the well-written story and characters would make you want to return to it at some point in the future once their memory has faded (as was the case for myself) , but there was little to inspire you to jump straight back in after initial completion. Double Fine has added to replayability in their remaster by including a new developer commentary: turn this feature on to hear stories and humorous retrospective observations from a number of key creators including designer Schafer himself. Perhaps this will encourage some gamers to play through a second time but, while I’ll likely pick up Grim Fandango Remastered again in a few years’ time, this wasn’t the case for me.

With its influences including Aztec beliefs, 1930s Art Deco design and film-noir touches, it’s hard to say that the game isn’t innovative in terms of design. The Aztec motifs were inspired by Schafer’s personal fascination with folklore, stemming from an anthropology class he took at the University of California, Berkeley and talks with folklorist Alan Dundes; he saw that the four-year journey of the soul in the afterlife would make a great setting for an adventure. Add to this the fact that the original game was LucasArts’ first attempt at creating an entry in the genre in three dimensions, and you can see the innovation it contains.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

The original Grim Fandango received universal acclaim from critics when it was published in 1998 and was selected for a number of gaming awards. Examples of these are ‘Best Adventure Game of the Year 1998’ by IGN, ‘Best of E3 1998’ by GameSpot and ‘Computer Adventure Game of the Year’ for the 1999 Annual Interactive Achievement Awards by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (and that’s to name only a few). The title is also often included on lists of the greatest video games of all time, including 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. As mentioned above however, it was considered a commercial failure and factored into LucasArts’ termination of their adventure development, contributing to the decline of the genre.

It’s hard to explain how a character, particularly one contained within the bones of a downtrodden skeleton, can hold so much charm and so many different layers.

So does this mean that it shouldn’t be included within 1001 lists? Hell no – it definitely deserves its place there. It’s hard to explain how a character, particularly one contained within the bones of a downtrodden skeleton, can hold so much charm and so many different layers. The storyline here is one of the best-written for an adventure despite its plot holes and if you’re a fan of longer games, ones that take between ten and twelve hours to complete, then this one is for you.

In an interview with Kotaku after the announcement of the remaster, Schafer said ‘never say never’ when asked whether a sequel was on the cards. However, he thought that the plot would be a difficult component as: “Manny went to the land of eternal rest at the end. We’d have to drag him back from there or make a game about another character. It’s tough to imagine a satisfying story about that.” Personally, I’d like to see this happen. I mentioned plot holes in the paragraph above and there’s a question I’d love to have a question answered: what was the sin Manny committed to have himself forced into a travel agent job at the DOD? This is a review and therefore not really the right place for speculation, but there’s a short thread about the subject on Steam if you’re interested.

I haven’t included the following point as the negative in the round-up section above as it’s minor and hardly affected my view of Grim Fandango and Grim Fandango Remastered, but the end seems to come about rather abruptly; and when it does, it’s pretty short. But perhaps that was the case for Manny. And as they say about life: it’s not about the destination, but the journey.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from Steam for £10.99
Positive: Warm, well-written story and characters, with layers of nuance
Negative: Lots of walking around and no fast-travel option
Score: 46 out of 60
Grade: Buy it now!
Grim Fandango Remastered, video game, review, graph, Buy it now!

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8 thoughts on “Review: Grim Fandango Remastered

    1. Not just you wanting the Full Throttle special edition my friend. That was a truly special game!

      I did enjoy this game quite a bit though, I’ll always love Manny’s voice acting. Some fast-travelling would’ve made this remake amazing, but I enjoyed the dev commentary.

      Speaking of Monkey Islands, any favourite? Mine is Monkey Island 2.

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  1. I played the original version a few years ago. I noticed it was a little glitchy too. Sometimes, when transitioning between screens, my character would be transported to a future chapter, but with the same inventory he would have in the one he left, thus making the game unwinnable. Fortunately, having played many adventure games, I know to manually save after every major development. It also crashed several times nearing the end of the game.

    Despite all this, I feel it’s one of those games people rave about that actually lives up to the hype surrounding it – much like Deus Ex and Half-Life 2. Indeed, Grim Fandango quickly became one of my all-time favorite adventure games.

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      1. The first point-and-click adventure game I played as a kid was King’s Quest VI. I do think I should try out the Monkey Island series at some point, as I’ve heard great things about it.

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