I never thought I’d say this, but a game where you play as a travel agent could possibly be one of the best games I have played on the PlayStation Vita.
Now I am not talking about a game where you sell trips to Disneyland, here we are selling travel packages for the recently departed to make their way to the underworld. Although it doesn’t sound as cheerful as Disneyland, believe me, it is just as fun!
Designed by the mind that is a main feature on the credits list of games such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Psychonauts, Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango originally released for the PC on October 30th 1998 (incidentally, my 11th birthday) to widespread critical acclaim. I missed Grim Fandango the first time around, as I was not much of a PC gamer – the only time I would switch on my PC was to manage my favourite football team on that season’s Championship Manager title.
Sixteen years later, Double Fine and Sony’s Third Party Production team joined forces and revealed to the world at E3 that the adventure title would be heading to the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 – much to the delight of the attending audience. Watching from the comfort of my living room, I was also excited to hear that Grim Fandango Remastered was happening, as it meant that I would be able to experience the adventures of this travel agent for the first time on my favourite handheld.
After downloading the title and starting it up for the first time, you are thrown straight in to the opening of the game, with the main protagonist – Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera – discussing travel options with a client whilst dressed as the Grim Reaper. Manny works for the Department of Death in the city of El Marrow and it is his job to sell departed souls travel packages to reach the Ninth Underworld where they can finally lay to rest. Depending on how well behaved his clients were in their previous life determines the travel package that Manny can offer to his clients. Those that lived a life full of good deeds can have access to the better of the travel arrangements – the best being the Number Nine train that takes the dead to the Ninth Underworld in four minutes. Those that lived a life less kind are forced to walk through the Land of the Dead, a journey which takes four years.
Manny is not happy as it seems all of his clients are not eligible for any of the good packages and because of this his boss is piling the pressure on him whilst his associate Domino gets all the good clients. Manny decides to steal a client from Domino to take some of the weight off his shoulders, and finds a client called Meche who has lived a good life and is a dead cert (excuse the pun) to board the Number Nine train on her journey to the Ninth Underworld. When the Department of Death computers deny Meche the package she deserves and sends her packing on a four-year walk to her resting place, Manny decides to investigate further and finds out that his boss, Don Capal, and Domino have been rigging the computers so that they can keep the Number Nine tickets to sell to an underworld boss by the name of Hector LeMans. Manny sets out to find Meche and to also put a stop to the criminal goings on that he has uncovered.
Grim Fandango’s story plays out in four chapters spread out over four years, each taking place on the same day – November 2nd. During these chapters you will visit many different areas, from the city of El Marrow and the Petrified Forest in Year One, to the city of Rubacava and the gate to the Ninth Underworld in the Second and Third year respectively, before returning to El Marrow (renamed Nuevo Marrow) in the Fourth year. Each area that you visit is full of life and, in a style that will be familiar to those that played adventure games during the Nineties, has pre-rendered backdrops whilst the characters and objects that live in the world are 3D. This Remastered version allows for you to switch between the new animations and the original ones from 1998 at the press of a button (Select), with the game’s lighting and shadows being the main differences that I noticed when switching between the two.
Other new additions to the game are the ability to stretch the game to widescreen from the 4:3 ratio of the original, the ability to choose between tank-controls or more modern camera-relative controls and the option to have a director’s commentary available at certain points throughout the game.
I chose to play through Grim Fandango using the old-fashioned tank controls whilst having the game play in widescreen as I did not like the two big borders that were present in the 4:3 ratio. Although this meant the game was stretched a little to fit the Vita’s screen, Grim Fandango still looks good and I’d argue that even in its original form it holds up well for a nearly seventeen year old game!
Navigating through the game using the tank controls was also a really smooth experience, although I did use the PlayStation Vita’s D-Pad to do this opposed to the analogue sticks as it felt more natural to me. There is also the option to navigate through the game using the touchscreen, but I am more of a physical button kind of guy so did not experiment with this much during play.
The main gameplay elements of Grim Fandango are the puzzles and the dialogue and I have to say that both of these are executed excellently. The puzzles can be fiendishly tough and, unlike the Monkey Island remasters, there is no hint system if you do get stuck while trying to figure out what you need to do next. However, if you pay attention to Manny you will notice that his head will move to look at items or people of interest, which is a neat variation on the adventure game staple of items that ‘shine’ to indicate their importance.
Although, as mentioned, some of the puzzles can get a little tough the majority are not that bad and what I found is that the puzzles are some of the most enjoyable and rewarding ones that I have come across in adventure games over the years. You can also inspect all of the items you currently have in your inventory by diving into Manny’s pockets and inspecting them further, potentially revealing things that you may have missed. There is a certain charm that shines through as you play Grim Fandango, and this is definitely helped by the characters and the conversations that you have as you progress through the game.
The audio in Grim Fandango is fantastic. You will find all-sorts of characters as you make your way through the story, from Glottis the demon mechanic who you befriend at the start of the game to the worker bees who you help unionise in Rubacava, and each of these characters can be interacted with. When you do stop and talk to the majority of the people that you meet you will be greeted with conversation trees that you can work through (doing this will net you most of the game’s trophies) and voice acting that is both brilliant and captivating. This is backed up by a soundtrack that simply adds fuel to the film-noir feel, with everything combining together to make Grim Fandango a joy to listen to, let alone play.
Although I really enjoyed my playthrough of Grim Fandango, there were one or two niggles that I encountered whilst playing. I did come across the occasional bug which caused me to get completely stuck when interacting with objects or transitioning between screens. This meant that I had to quit out of the game and then restart it, with one particular instance where I had to do this four times until I could continue. This is where the lack of an auto-save system in the game could cause people a lot of frustration as if you are forgetful you could find yourself repeating a lot of the game if you encounter any such bugs.
That said, the fact that these few and far between bugs and the games lack of an auto-save function are really the only things I can detract from Grim Fandango Remastered is something of a marvel when the majority of new releases need to be patched a number of times before they work. What makes it even better that the overall game is as good as it is.
I did feel that the game’s third and fourth chapters were over a little too soon, but looking back, I think that is more down to the fact that I did not want the game to end. From start to end you it will take you a good ten – twelve hours or so to see the end of the game – even longer if you get stuck with some of the fiendish puzzles.
Grim Fandango Remastered is a game that I have wanted to play ever since it first released. I did have a copy of it for the PC that I never got round to playing for one reason or another but once it was announced as coming to the PlayStation I knew that I would finally be able to experience it. Now that I have finished it I find myself wanting to play through it for a second time to hear the developer’s commentary and learn more about the making of the game. I find myself looking forward to more of Tim Schafer’s and Double Fine’s work coming to the PlayStation Vita.
It has been a long time coming for me to play Grim Fandango, but now that the wait is over and I have played through all the puzzles and interacted with every character in this charming, challenging and funny game I have to say, it was worth waiting for!