Guacamelee! (PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita)
Developer/Publisher: DrinkBox Studios
Released: April 9th, 2013
Guacamelee! has a clipboard with two checkboxes on it: Make ‘Em Laugh, and Make ‘Em Remember.
That first box is checked cheekily enough. The few scripted events are certainly amusing, with each character and scenario is sure to get a comical rise out of you. Should that fail to tickle you, there are plenty of 8-bit and indie game references to tide you over. There are Mario and Mega Man silhouettes in the brickwork. Reddit meme references, if that’s too dated for you. All besides the point.
Where Guacamelee! truly succeeds is when it’s reminiscent of a far-gone era of games. There have certainly been a few Metroidvania romps since the genre’s heyday in the 90s — the Metroid Prime trilogy and Shadow Complex being the prominent examples — yet it rarely demands more than one or two releases per year, at best.
As the latest offering, Guacamelee mostly does a great job. It takes you back to an when exploration was king, making players study maps and bone up on platforming technique if they wish to see the entirety of the game. The twist here is that you play as a Mexican luchador, meaning that you engage your enemies almost entirely in hand-to-hand combat. You’ll also eventually be able to switch between “live” and “dead” dimensions, with waves of enemies coming at you from both sides and forcing you to adapt on the fly.
Like every other 2D action-exploration game, you eventually find upgrades and abilities that allow you to enter areas that were otherwise unavailable to you, earning further upgrades to your health and stamina. Finding these is certainly useful, but the abilities mostly amount to you punching your enemies better. As flippant as that may sound, it makes for a good time, uppercutting your way through a Day of the Dead landscape that simply isn’t seen much in our medium.
Much of the exploration comes rather easily. Until you get into the latter part of the game, you can get through most sections with little more than a bit of resolve and perseverance. However, there are a couple of sections that will test the mettle of even the most ardent action-platform aficionados. While one of these areas occurs in one of the game’s optional fetch quests, one of the most frustrating parts is a boss battle against one Jaguar Javier. There is seemingly no rhyme or reason to his fight pattern, his every strike taunting you with how much more powerful he is. It is undeniably the worst part of an otherwise fine game.
It also highlights the blemishes on Guacamelee’s combat — it’s not quite as precise as it wishes to be, often times missing attacks by a pixel and forcing you to face the wrong direction when coming out of a dodge roll. It culminates into a frustrating fight on the game’s default difficulty; I can’t imagine most players enjoying the encounter on the unlockable Hard setting. And in a game with a “melee” pun in its title, that’s not exactly the best news.
I don’t wish to go on sounding as if I hated my time with Guacamelee. For the most part, it’s great and borders on excellent. The art really does sell the experience of the Day of the Dead, an oft-misunderstood Mexican holiday. Character designs are also wonderful, while the story text elicits sincere belly laughs on more than one occasion. Piledriving skeletons will never be dissatisfying.
DrinkBox Studios have clearly learned from their time making the Tales from Space games, and it’s clear that they wish to continue working their development chops. Whatever they plan to take from Guacamelee — either a sequel or an entirely new game — holds a lot of promise. I can’t wait to see it.