But you more than likely have played Grim Fandango before, right? The name conjuring up fond memories of corruption, conspiracies, shady gangsters, a dame to chase after, and a great lead character named Manny Calavera. Indeed, your very own noir tale, but in the land of the dead, with a pigeon-obsessed military leader, and a giant orange demon who turns out to be your best friend.
Grim Fandango was a truly great game back in the late twentieth century, arguably the pinnacle of a genre that at the time was struggling with the advent of three dimensional gaming landscapes. Its control scheme back then could only be described as “awkward”. Thankfully, this remaster on PS4 introduces a new, direction-relative control scheme that, while sometimes still awkward when moving from one scene to another, is somewhat more intuitive than the original “tank” controls.
However, aside from the updated controls, and improved character models and lighting, there isn’t all that much this remaster offers over the 1998 PC original. If you’ve played the recent special editions of the Monkey Island games, and are expecting the same treatment here, well, you may be disappointed. The game looks almost identical, even retaining the now ancient 4:3 aspect ratio. There is an argument here that Double Fine has been too reverent to the original game. To call this a remaster is actually a bit a of stretch; it’s a restoration of a relic.
On PS4 however, it’s a restoration that could, and indeed should, be better. The PS4 version suffers quite a number of technical issues and bugs, from invisible inventory items and characters, to game breaking lock-ups and glitches. The former will simply annoy on the rare occasion they occur; the latter will infuriate you if you have not saved your game for a while. During the course of this review two major glitches were encountered, one of which lost a fair bit of progress.
Mercifully, replaying this game is not a chore. There’s a very good reason the love for this game has endured for so long: its wonderfully crafted story, complimented brilliantly by the accompanying voice acting and music. The tale Grim Fandango weaves is timeless, and as hinted at in this review’s opening paragraph, is at times completely bonkers. If you have played the original you will know how easy it is to wax lyrical about this game. The writing is sharp, nuanced, and full of humour with punch-lines so funny you will laugh no matter how many times you hear them. The line delivery from the actors, particularly the lead, is near pitch-perfect, and the music, a wondrous mix of jazz and spanish guitar, sets the tone of every scene brilliantly.
If there’s one area here than can be criticised, it’s the actual sound mix. Some of the dialogue is incomprehensible because of other characters talking at the same time. It doesn’t happen often, but given the game has you hanging on its every word, it’s disappointing that efforts were not made to rectify this. Many of the actual gameplay elements also let this game down, sadly. The PS4 remaster lacks the PC version’s brilliant new point and click interface. So to interact with objects and areas, you’re still reliant on Manny moving his head to look at points of interest, which was never intuitive back in 1998, and is no more intuitive now in 2015.
Additionally, the static pre-rendered backgrounds, while nicely restored to a higher resolution, rarely highlight where Manny can traverse. There is one particular area in the game, which is critical to progressing the story, that is outrageously easy to miss. Then there’s the puzzles. If you haven’t played this game before, or have simply forgotten most of it, you will likely struggle. Many of Grim Fandango’s puzzles have a certain wacky logic that you can work out; many others are so nonsensical that even Tim Schafer has gone on record and said he doesn’t know how people were supposed to work one of them out.
Short of resorting to walkthroughs, you’re forced in to trying to use everything in your inventory on everything in the environment, hoping that something works. It’s a very old and tedious gameplay mechanic, the constant reliance on which has no real business in games of today. Many of these problems are solved with the PC version’s point and click interface; its omission here on the PS4 is glaring, and somewhat shameful on Double Fine’s part.
There is however, one aspect of this remastered version that is fantastic: a Director’s Commentary. With the option turned on you can listen to commentary from Tim Schafer, and many of the original development team, by simply tapping L1 when the prompt occurs on-screen. The commentary is interesting and very informative; the love the developers still have for the game is a joy to hear. It’s also a great insight into what was going through Tim Schafer’s head for some of the puzzles and scenes. It really is a wonderful addition.
It’s difficult to recommend this PS4 version to anyone with access to a PC. Even your average laptop will likely run the remastered version just fine, and you’ll have the advantage of the excellent point and click interface. That being said, Grim Fandango’s story, characters, and superb sense of style really do shine through for most of the game, so it’s with that in mind that you see the score below. If you’re getting it on PC, you can probably add two points on. On PS4 however, be prepared for some needless frustration that sullies an otherwise excellent noir adventure in the land of the dead.