Let’s Review Jazzpunk and Grim Fandango Remastered

I love old school point-and-click adventure games, Hypothetical Audience. Indeed some of my earliest experiences of videogames, after the myriad platformers on the Mega Drive in the mid nineties, was playing Discworld on my families Mac Performa 5200 and things like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island on my uncle’s Windows 3.1 machine. The immersive interactive storytelling, and the often insane logic puzzle, had a deep influence on me growing up and I still have a massive soft spot for the genre as it stood back then. Unfortunately, once we began to be able to produce visually interesting backdrops in other, more faster paced game genres, point and click began to die out beyond relatively obscure and indie title. But recently there’s been something of a mainstream revival, with Telltale Games producing things like The Walking Dead and the Monkey Island Revival. This makes me very happy indeed. So for this week’s Let’s Review I thought I’d have a look at two games that at least embody the ideas of the Point And Click Genre, first a very modern take in Jazzpunk, which while a first person game it does have a lot of what made the earlier games work, and secondly a rerelease of an old classic, in the shape of Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango Remastered.

Jazzpunk is a surreal comedy game by Necrophone games and published by Adult Swim (yes, That Adult Swim) in which you play as Polyblank, a secret agent during an alternate take on the Cold War. And by “alternate” I really mean it, the world of Jazzpunk is heavily influenced by Cyberpunk and film noir, including oddities like hovercars, cyborg hotel porters (who lost their eye in the great porter war of 1917b, donchaknow), robots everywhere and very surreal, overly engineered technology in all walks of life. The game starts with you arriving in the office of your secret organisation (which is in a subway station, of course) in a suitcase and all spirals onwards from there when you take your first “missional supplement,” the drug which takes you on missions. The writing is incredibly witty and very surreal, every line of dialogue, from important plot dumps to incidental chatter, is dripping with thematic otherworldliness, interspersed with references to the works that inspired the game. For instance, in one area I found a character who looked like he’d stepped right out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who quoted William Gibson at me. The self awareness is never at the expense of the tone, even the tongue in cheek moments seem to fit entirely in with the craziness that saturates the game world.

The presentation is very heavily stylised to fit in with theme. Don’t expect any hyper-realistic graphics here, people resemble faceless icons from infographics and everything in the world looks like a futurist’s nightmare from forty years ago, and every item, no matter how bat-shit insane, adheres to the theme beautifully. The soundtrack too is entirely in theme, with freeform jazz mixed with more modern electrical tunes bursting from your speakers, with what you hear differing depending on where you are in an area. There are also a tonne of mini-games scattered throughout the level, including a space invaders game inside a petri dish, a strange pizza-themed survival horror segment and a wonderfully realised Quake 3 parody hidden inside a wedding cake where the looser of the round is forced to get married. None of these are integral to the plot, and can be passed by with little consequence but they do add to the satirical tone wonderfully.

There are some issues, of course. Like a few older adventure games, some puzzles often devolve into “try item X on object Y,” especially towards the end, although not as much as a few older titles that come to mind. The first person controls, while not terrible, have some peculiar aspects that I couldn’t tell were deliberate or simply oversights. Movement has a very awkward momentum about it, similar to old-school platformers, and while precision movement is never a requirement, it takes some getting used to. Similarly, the default mouse look controls are very flighty too. Perhaps my biggest issue was that it’s criminally short. I managed to play through the entire storyline plus a fair chunk of the minigames and side-tasks in a single sitting that couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours long. Sure, it’s meant to be short-form game, but the rather abrupt (though appropriately non-sequitur) ending did leave me wanting more. There is enough to warrant a replay, since I’m certain I missed a few side things, but given how my Steam achievement meter (I know, I know, this is a horrible way to gauge anything in gaming but bear with me) is more than three quarters full off of just the one play indicates how short the thing actually is.

Jazzpunk is well worth a play, but due to it’s shortness I’d recommend waiting until it’s on sale on the various digital distribution platforms. While it certainly kept me entertained, I can imagine many would have reservations paying the full price (a tenner at time of writing) for something this long. Nevertheless I’d say give it a go, there aren’t enough comedy games being made right now.
And now the inappropriate score: Sixteen thoroughly Degaussed pigeons out of a possibly 23.

The second game we’ll be looking into this week is Grim Fandango Remastered, a rerelease of the critically acclaimed 1998 LucasArts adventure game helmed by Tim Schafer (Of Psychonauts fame). In it you follow deceased travel agent (known professionally as Reapers) Manny Calavera as he uncovers a dark conspiracy in the very Mexican culture-meets film noir Land of the Dead that tries to strip the deceased of their rightful afterlife. A later entry into the original wave of adventure games, Grim Fandango is one of the finer examples of the genre. The writing is incredibly witty and fits wonderfully into the mix of genres it employs. All the characters genuinely seem to have leapt straight from a film from the late forties, despite the incredibly surreal situation they are all in. Even now, seventeen years after the fact, the game represents a shining highpoint for comedic games narrative and is alone well worth the price of admission.

While the narrative remains unchanged, it’s the visuals and interface that has really changed for this remaster. The original release in ’98 featured 3D graphics typical of it’s era, by which I mean blocky and jagged, against pre-rendered background and instead of point and click like it’s predecessors, the interface was entirely keyboard based tank controls, making Manny control in a rather awkward manner akin to the early Resident Evil games. The remaster changes both of these. While the pre-rendered backdrops remain the same (as is often the case in remasters) the character models have been upgraded to higher polygon counts and sharper textures, and the lighting engine has been overhauled making the entire thing far more atmospheric.

The tank controls haven’t been totally removed, but the primary interface method is now a more traditional left-click to move, right-click to do method. This makes the majority of areas much easier to interact with, and speeds things up a fair bit. It is not a perfect solution, however. There are a couple of areas where the point and click movement conflicts with the area layouting and several areas are almost impossible to access without reverting to the keyboard. Similarly theres an area where Manny need to shimmy along a pipe, and the point and click seemed very at odds with the lateral movement. The issue seems to arise from making a new system work with a game that isn’t designed for it.

Therein lies the major problem with the remaster: Beyond that mentioned in the previous two paragraphs it’s almost exactly identical to the original. Areas which could have been improved, like area design or certain puzzles, are immediately apparent but nothing has been done to them. I would have loved it if they’d taken the time to alter things to make it a better fit for the updated controls. Similarly, whilst I can tell the difference between the original and the current graphics unlike some on the internet (Even my memory of playing the game as a child doesn’t look as good as the remaster), I would have loved for the graphical update to make more use of modern technology as the characters still look rather blocky, in sharp contrast to the background. I appreciate, however, that this would have likely pushed the game from remaster in to out and out remake and moved away from the original intent. The one thing that annoys me the most, mind you, is the fact there is no 16:9 resolution mode, the game still displays in the classic square format from when it came out. While there is a nod to the disparity with a rather nice art deco, aztec style frame in the blank space, this does feel like the biggest missed opportunity in the whole remastered presentation.

Grim Fandango remains a brilliant game, and the remaster is a perfect chance to play an old classic in a form that is guaranteed to work on modern systems. It is also a brilliant gateway into other adventure games, and definitive proof that LucasArts were masters of the genre in the days before they became a Star Wars factory. I would recommend this game more highly than Jazzpunk simply because if this game didn’t exist, I doubt the more modern one would either. Give it a look if you can.
For the inappropriate score: I give it 8 Robert Frost balloon puppets out of a possible rooftop bird-seed bowl of 9

Both these games are ones I would certainly say you have to play. The revival of the adventure genre is being led by titles like this, both adding new blood into it and re-familiarising players with the old. With Telltale’s ongoing efforts, and the recent news that DoubleFine will be remastering another of Schafer’s classic works, Day of the Tentacle, it seems exciting times are ahead for adventure fans. And that makes me a very happy man indeed!
Until next time, folks,
— Ndro
— Life long adventurer


Jazzpunk is available now on Steam and GOG.com for Windows, MacOSX & Linux

Grim Fandango Remastered is available now on Steam and GOG.com for Windows, MacOSX & Linux, as well as PlayStation Network and the Xbox store.

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