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Grim Fandango Remastered review: A witty but tedious classic

(Courtesy of Double Fine Productions)
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Developed by:  Double Fine Productions
Published by: Double Fine Productions
Available on: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita

Since it was originally released in 1998, a consensus has hung around “Grim Fandango” in the gaming community, such that it’s tempting to connect the word “classic” with it even if you had never touched it.  So it was that I welcomed the announcement at Sony’s E3 press conference last year that the comedic noir would be spruced up for current technology. The update features hi-res assets, revamped lightning, and a score performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

As someone who used to love adventure games, I was surprised by my disjointed reaction to “Grim Fandango Remastered,” (The fact that I schlepped through two-thirds of the game on a shaky PC beta build before switching over to the PS4 version didn’t help.) I was irritated by the feeling that I should have dug it more.  I suppose my frustrations had something to do with how my expectations have changed since the heyday of genre.

In the 1980s and 90s, point-and-click adventure games, largely the province of PC gaming, offered a more meditative experience than most console fare. With their snuggly-bound environments that unfolded more like a series of dioramas than like a ribbon of tarmac, adventure games funneled players’ attention to their background elements where the solutions to their puzzles lay. By contrast, console games tended to focus players’ attention on kinetic threats in the foreground. Out of this difference in perspective rose another calling card of the adventure genre: visual splendor. Back in the day when companies like Sierra were churning out their “King’s Quest” series, the gulf between the amount of visual information that could be packed onto a single screen versus that which could be infused across a contiguous level was noticeable. Those of a certain age will be able to recall how enchanting it used to be to gaze on a computerized image with the detail of a comic book panel.

That said, movies, not comic books, were the yardstick usually applied to celebrate a game’s quality. But as time elapsed and video games grew more complex in their means to tell a story, the old chestnut, “It’s like an interactive movie!” began to carry a connotation of rigidity. One of the frequent criticisms leveled at big-budget games like “Uncharted 3,” for instance, is that they overly rely on bombastic set-pieces that dictate the flow of action at the expense of giving players more wiggle room – e.g. more malleable gameplay systems – to tailor their own experiences.

With its director’s commentary, dialogue script, cutscene gallery, and lengthened name, “Grim Fandango Remastered” exults in its cinephilia and progressing through the game feels like passing through a set of meticulously storyboarded camera shots.

At the helm of the story is Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a travel agent at the Department of Death (D.O.D) whose job entails helping the newly deceased across the Land of the Dead to their place of eternal rest. Plucky disposition notwithstanding, Manny is down and out when we first come across him, on the Day of the Dead since he’s has been unable rustle up enough deserving souls that qualify for D.O.D.’s premium sales package, a ticket on the No. 9 express train.

The higher-ups at his company haven’t made life easy. After his boss gives him a tongue lashing, Manny decides to take matters into his own hands. Once players figure out how to clog the company’s pneumatic tube messaging system, Manny scores a lead on a premium client. With the help of an orange demon whose stocky polygonal body has the look of a child’s drawing, Manny outflanks his rival – the D.O.D.’s top salesman – and retrieves the client for an interview. But when he taps her information into his computer, it inexplicably appears that she doesn’t qualify for passage aboard the No. 9 train.

Manny’s discovery of the ins-and-outs of the D.O.D.’s corruption sends him on a career-shifting journey that sees him become a club owner, a ship captain, and an agent for the Lost Souls Alliance – a revolutionary group that aims to bring down the D.O.D. This brings him into contact with proletariat bumble bees, idle beatniks, and insolent light-bulb making children, among others. All of the characters are supported by commendable voice acting and a script that’s witty enough, at times, to budge one’s long-term memory into action.

Charming as the characters are, I found “Grim Fandango’s” gameplay intermittently grating.  Some of the puzzles in the game are so idiosyncratic that they seem predicated less on the deployment of practical reasoning than on the achievement of a mystical mind-meld with the game’s project lead, Tim Schafer, and the rest of the developers. For those playing on the PlayStation 4, an added difficulty is the context sensitivity of the controls. Whereas on a PC you can hoover the mouse’s cursor over an object and easily tell if you can interact with it, on the PlayStation 4 I sometimes found myself mashing the interact button while Manny patrolled a tiny area searching for the appropriate pixels.

Because the cinematic aspects of the game are so prevalent, and one’s ability to affect the narrative is so minimal, I found myself attached to the snappy dialogue but impatient with the puzzles that left Manny suspended among faux-camera shots for too long. Call me selective, but I wanted the comedy without the tedium which broke the cinematic effect. Perhaps this inability to fawningly linger over “Grim Fandango’s” highly static environments is a product of time. Regardless, the bony truth is that our lives sometimes intersect with games at inopportune moments.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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