Accepted wisdom is that Grim Fandango is the last of the great LucasArts adventures – a run that took them through a couple of Monkey Islands, a Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Indiana Jones’s best video game adventure, and Full Throttle. It all came crashing down with CD-ROMs, the rising costs of production, and the leaps and bounds of the industry: people were experiencing the thrills of Unreal Tournament and Carmageddon, and the point-and-click looked a little humble.
I’ll admit to feeling a bit of a black sheep on Grim Fandango. I always felt that the last of the great LucasArts adventures actually came a little earlier. While it has a place in a lot of people’s hearts, it was a bit obscure for mine. But with the sudden appearance of three LucasArts remasters on Xbox One and Game Pass, it felt like a time for reassessment. Did Grim Fandango Remastered offer something that 15-year old me just didn’t get?
After sinking a comparatively large eight hours into Grim Fandango, I still agree with 15-year old me. Grim Fandango is a wonderful world, a seamless blend of Day of the Dead and Casablanca, but it can be a long, frustrating, slow and illogical slog to play.
You play as Manny Calavera, a salesman grim reaper, cutting open body bags and cold-selling trips to the afterlife for the Bureau of Acquisitions. Customers buy packages based on the money they were buried with, and how many good works they did in their lifetimes. The richest go on the Number Nine Train, a bullet service to the Ninth Underworld, while the poorest are vacuum-sealed into coffins, or get a walking stick and compass to make the trip themselves. There’s a Glengarry Glen Ross feeling to the start, with Manny complaining that the best customers go to Domino, putting his job on the line.
Since Casablanca and Film Noir are a hefty reference, everything is upended by the arrival of a lady – Meche – who Manny soon falls in love with. She is sold a Nine Train package thanks to her good works, but she never gets on board. It’s the unravelling of a conspiracy, and Manny unwittingly tugs at the frayed ends as he looks to save her. It’s a journey that spans four years, petrified forests, casino outposts and an offshore mining rig.
As a setup and world, it feels like a refinement of everything that came before it. It’s pitched perfectly between comedy and tragedy, while LucasArts’ other adventures have always fallen heavily on one side or the other. It’s not a parody or a heavy reference of something that came before it: Grim Fandango’s world is very much its own. And while some of the backgrounds have a poorly aged 3D-rendered style that Myst and multiple other games had at the time, the characters are unique. It’s Day of the Dead with the personality dialled up. Glottis, the demon mechanic – a giant bear-thing who screams throughout most of the game – is up there with the best characters they’ve ever made.
There’s the Tim Schafer guarantee of quality, too, which is the dialogue. It’s always whip-smart and witty. Particularly in the casino lands of Rubacava, the snark is superlative. Everyone bickers at each other like pros.
The problem is, it’s all a bit like doing a marathon with a mate. It might take your mind off it occasionally, but you’re still doing that long, painful, stamina-sapping 42k.
The puzzles are a big problem in Grim Fandango. Talking to friends about the game, they reminisce about how far they got, rather than favourite sequences or characters, and it’s clear why. The ultimate objective is always pretty clear – get a customer, get on a boat, leave an island – but the means of doing it are massively unclear. There might be dozens of steps to get there, and they’re often an illogical sequence that leave you castaway with what you’re meant to do at any given time.
Individual interactions between items are a mixed bag, and probably make sense in a corner of someone’s mind, somewhere. You’ll stumble across some of them – why did opening the fridge cause the tattooist to stop tattooing? – while you won’t be as lucky with others. Walkthroughs will be your friend, as I challenge almost anyone to naturally know how to use the fork-lift truck to reach an incriminating briefcase, for example. It’s not helped by several sequences being timed – you have to perform the action in a set window of time, and that makes the chance for error slightly too high. An ash-tray bit still bemuses me, and I lucked through it.
This combos with the frankly huge sandboxes that Grim Fandango is capable of. Rubacava is a nightmare; a sprawling casino complex that requires you to walk everywhere, without any fast travel or Monkey Island-style maps for you to sprint through. You will probably find you missed areas too, due to the labyrinthine nature and the poor signposting of potential paths. It feels like a regression for LucasArts adventures, and when you’re blindly looking around for something, anything to progress, it can be a chore. It’s symptomatic of modern gaming that we’re entitled enough to expect safety nets, speedier play and less abstraction, but – in this case – I think it’s justified.
Like Full Throttle, Grim Fandango dabbles in gameplay that’s not just your traditional point-and-click. You will be driving cars, maneuvering forklifts and spinning vault locks. They’re all horrible, and the remaster had every opportunity to update the controls. Their preservation, warts and all, can be lowlights in Grim Fandango.
You could put it down to fatigue, having played Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle in quick succession before taking on Grim Fandango. Ending on the longest, most thinly stretched and obscure of the bunch was never going to win favours with me. It’s certainly the most original and surprising in terms of plots, and – dare we say it – most adult of the lot, with peaks as high as any game in the LucasArts canon. But I was willing the game to end by its fifth hour, and I felt, like the characters, I was often stuck without any sign of an exit.
The weakest of the LucasArts remasters, Grim Fandango Remastered on Xbox One has aged the most in terms of its visuals and obscure puzzling. There’s a fantastic story being told here, with Glottis, Manny, Chepito and the rest being absolute belters. But they’re stuck in a limbo of bloated sandboxes, plodding character speeds and puzzles that should have come with a pre-packaged walkthrough. It’s a relic for those who think today’s adventures handhold too much, but others might want to buy a ticket for one of LucasArts’ other rides.