System(s): Vita (Also for PS3 – cross-buy promotion)
Release Date: April 9, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Sony (Drinkbox Studios)
ESRB Rating: “Everyone 10+” for Fantasy Violence and Use of Alcohol
Mexican art is fascinating. There’s such detail in every piece and everything feels vibrant and alive. Even pieces created specifically for the Dia de los Muertos celebrations, celebrating the day of the dead and depicting skeletons, are enthusiastically bright and alive. There’s nothing like it, and Drinkbox’s Guacamelee! captures the overall ambiance perfectly. I’d go so far as to say this isn’t just one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve played in recent years, it’s one of the prettiest. It is a celebration, to be sure, of both fine gaming and stylish design.
The life of a luchador
Juan Aguacate is a simple man. He lives in Pueblucho, the same town as El Presidente, and works growing agaves and making tequila. It isn’t a bad life, as he is liked and depended on by the townfolk and even has something going on with El Presidente’s daughter.
But things can’t always stay good, and Carlos Calaca shows up to ruin things. He is a cursed luchador who made a deal with the devil. He was denied the glory he felt he deserved in life, so now he’s kidnapped El President’s daughter and is working to combine the worlds of the living and dead so he can rule over and have the adoration of all. He dismisses Juan as a threat and sends Juan to the world of the dead.
However, all is not lost. Juan runs through the world of the dead’s version of Pueblucho and comes upon a legendary luchador mask. Its guardian, Tostada, bestows it upon him, giving him the power to face Carlos, rescue his love and save both worlds.
Guacamelee! pays homage to the classics while feeling fresh.
Guacamelee! follows the typical Metroidvania tropes. Players control Juan and have access to a pretty large, 2D world, where they’ll have to visit specific locations to advance the story and fight bosses. Side-quests are sprinkled here and there, throughout towns like Pueblucho and Santa Luchita. Most important, Juan starts out at his “weakest,” and earns new abilities, like a massive, jumping uppercut or headbutt, and improves his health, stamina and grappling moves as he goes on, making him more capable of facing the challenges ahead and reaching new areas. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from such an adventure.
However, Drinkbox mixes things up by making combat feel more like a beat’em up affair. The secret to defeating Carlos’ undead army lies in combos. By mashing the attack button, grappling with and throwing enemies, Juan can do an amazing amount of damage. Truly skilled players will even eventually master dodging and perhaps rarely take damage at all. Getting in one or two hits is very rarely good enough. You have to unleash devastating combinations, especially during boss fights. Even more impressive is the way that the new abilities, which I initially thought were getting to new areas, are used to break through certain enemies shields. Those special strikes, such as the headbutt, have a color assigned to them, in this case yellow. If an enemy has a yellow shield, Juan must first headbutt them to break the barrier so they can actually take damage.
It all works well together, but I think what really makes Guacamelee! special is its presentation. This is a gorgeous game and I really came to appreciate that as I played on my Vita. The OLED screen guaranteed that every area popped with vibrant color schemes and the soundtrack is just incredible. That isn’t even taking into account all of the Easter Eggs referencing other games and internet memes or getting into the writing, which includes hilarious lines like, “Apparently, sobbing could be heard over that Adele song playing on repeat from X’tabay’s lair in Pueblucho.”
As good as Guacamelee is, I feel that the dimension swapping ability is used to make things more frustrating than challenging. This is a difficult game that will test players and requires smart thinking to successfully save El Presidente’s daughter. I understand that and I can appreciate some precarious and perfectly timed jump-swap segments. However, I think the game would have been a more solid and even experience if the most difficult of these weren’t mandatory to actually proceed and instead used to guard additional heart or stamina pieces. For example, see this screenshot below?
It took me about 20 minutes to get the jumping and timing right for this section. That’s with a break in between, because I was getting so frustrated. It was the only time I was stumped and it was beyond frustrating. I couldn’t just avoid this section – it was mandatory- and there were multiple, similar jumps in this tree. I think segments like these should have been supplemental.
Aside from that, I only have one other Guacamelee! complaint. I didn’t really feel a tremendous need to backtrack unless the story required it. In a Metroidvania game, you expect to be returning to various areas around the map to discover hidden secrets after learning new abilities. I didn’t feel that kind of urge until after Juan had learned his chicken transformation or how to swap between the worlds of the living and the dead. Even then, the pay-off wasn’t too substantial, perhaps another step closer to a health or stamina upgrade. A little more reason to explore every nook would have been nice, though I suppose it isn’t terribly necessary. I enjoyed myself, regardless, and I’d rather have too little backtracking than too much.
Guacamelee! is a delight
Though I firmly believe Guacamelee! was harder than it needed to be, due to some frustrating mid and end-game dimension-swapping segments, I think it’s a game that can’t be missed. I spent time with it on the PS3 and Vita, thanks to the cross-buy promotion, and in both forms it is a beautiful, detailed and engaging experience. I even say it’s better on the Vita, as it feels more suited to portable adventures, though I do appreciate the local multiplayer of the console adaptation. Really though, how you play it doesn’t matter. I think it’s just important that we support an independent developer like Drinkbox Studios that’s willing and able to make such a vibrant, challenging and entertaining game.