Grim Fandango Remastered review: it's worth admiring this lovingly restored antique

£11.99; PC, PS4 & Vita; Double Fine Productions

The Lazarus-esque revival of Grim Fandango from cult obscurity should hopefully ignite a debate about the historical preservation of video games. In an industry entrenched in the new, always looking for the next revolutionary piece of technology that becomes the ‘game-changer’, it’s easy to overlook the fact that antiquated disk drives and outdated system requirements are turning once-heralded classics into forgotten pieces of ephemera.

When Grim Fandango: Remastered was announced by the game’s offbeat director Tim Schafer at E3 2014, it was easily my highlight of the show. It’s strange to feel nostalgic about a game I’ve never played before, but then again Grim Fandango was always my holy grail. It’s the game I’d bought second hand on CD-ROM after years of wondering how high it sat among the echelon of great LucasArts adventure games I’d pored over as a child, only to discover that even a basic modern PC was too advanced for its once state-of-the-art graphics engine.

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And so while I’d known for over a decade that Grim’s main protagonist was Manny Calavera, a reluctant, unsuccessful corporate stooge for the Department of Death (a skeletal grim reaper/travel agent for the afterlife) looking to pay off his debts and bank a ticket to the haven of the Ninth Underworld, my actual memories of playing the game began and ended with this heartfelt, but inescapably flawed remaster.

Unsurprisingly for a remaster of a game originally released in 1998, the problematic elements of Grim Fandango: Remastered are inextricably tied to its past. Rather than remake the entire game from scratch, the latin-fused, Chandler-inspired noir tale has been upscaled and retooled with particular focus on the once blocky character models that have been smoothed out to adequately fit into its high definition makeover.

 

The pre-rendered, art deco backgrounds however remain largely untouched, as does the game’s original 4:3 aspect ratio which leaves two decorative bars on either side of the frame. While the lack of a true widescreen experience (it can be stretched to 16:9 in the options menu) and although some environments jar with the character improvements, locations like the second act’s Casablanca-styled port town of Rubacava still exude noir-chic under the glow of moonlit skies and flickering neon.

The lack of an autosave feature also stands out as an oddity when considered amongst modern game design, but it is the gameplay itself that marks Grim Fandango out as a product of its time. While any point-and-click veteran will have dealt with their fair share of obscure logic puzzles, several of Grim Fandango’s more obtuse riddles will leave many exacerbated players reaching for a walkthrough and a pack of ibuprofen. The Petrified Forest, for example, has always carried an air of notoriety even among the most hardened of adventure game enthusiasts, and the section’s dreadful signposting and viciously enigmatic design leave it truly deserving of its reputation.

Thankfully, Grim Fandango: Remastered’s most lauded quality is unhampered by technology, design and, most importantly, time; the writing. In the intriguing director’s commentary track that accompanies the remaster, there are frequent discussions about how the work on screen has been inspired by life, which made it easier for the developer’s lives to not become solely about work. This sentiment cascades across Grim Fandango’s immediately engaging cast and permeates the effortlessly comedic dialogue, leaving every verbal nuance and character trait feeling organic and, considering the heavily and bizarrely stylized aesthetic, naturalistic.

Playing Grim Fandango: Remastered is like admiring a lovingly restored antique; a classic work delicately pieced back together where the underlying cracks can’t dispel the beauty and creativity that made it so well regarded in the first place. For a game based on the Day of the Dead you’d be hard pressed to find a title with more vitality and soul than this.

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