There just aren’t enough Metroidvania games inspired by spicy Mexican folklore on the market. Average 2D platformers that brandish vivid art styles and free exploration are a dime a dozen, but how often do we see one that slaps a colorful lucador mask over the hero’s face? Toronto-based developer DrinkBox Studios does just that with its PSN-exclusive title Guacamelee. But it’s not just this one aesthetic flair that makes the game a success. Instead, the quest of the valiant Juan Aguacate is worth experiencing because it never stops being fun. Guacamelee doesn’t innovate with its beat-‘em-up nature and emphasis on backtracking to discover new secrets, but its wacky tone and unique setting give it a flavor all its own.
Calling the plot of Guacamelee ludicrous might be a bit of an understatement, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from a game where the leading luchador has the ability to travel to the land of the dead at will. Juan, an agave farmer living in the most humble of conditions, catches a lucky break by losing his life to an evil skeleton. Instead of being sent to the big, four-cornered ring in the sky, he’s brought back to life by coming into contact with a legendary lucador mask. The adornment lands him some new, amazing powers that are quickly put to the test when El Presidente’s beautiful daughter is snatched up by a bony henchman to the insidious Carlos Calaca. This villain instills fear into the small Mexican village, but Juan vows to save the damsel in distress. Using his powerful mix of punches, grappling and dimension-switching techniques, this unlikely hero must travel across miles of dangerous terrain to rescue the girl he loves.
Humor stands as a significant tonal element from the onset of Guacamelee, and remains integral to the dialogue to the very end. Mexican-themed billboards that display parodies of popular gaming characters litter the backdrop, while spoken references that only seasoned gaming veterans would understand make cameos in dialogue. Some of the jesting truly enriches the experience, but with this level of comedic density, a few jokes are bound to miss. Whether a reference goes right over the player’s head or comes across as a bit too forced, the slapstick has a tendency to feel a bit uneven.
However, the dedication to the folklore remains entertaining throughout, and the grappling-based combat is interesting enough by itself to carry the game. It’s a seemingly simple system that’s centered around a single attack button, but the addition of jump moves, special techniques gained through story progression and fight-ending throws accessible after doling out a specified sum of damage all ramp up the game’s complexity. A half man, half goat mentor teaches Juan the power moves mapped to the circle button, and while they add necessary variability to the moment-to-moment action, they turn out to be most useful during exploration.
Like any other game with heavy Metroidvania trappings, the substantial map found within Guacamelee opens up as new skills are discovered. Areas once inaccessible are unlocked through careful use of the flashy offensive moves learned over the course of the game. Both exploration and combat are enriched as Juan gains the ability to jump higher, smash through colored barriers and even run up 90 degree angles. And the deeper you dig into this downloadable adventure, the more adept you feel in each area of play. Pulling off sophisticated combos and air juggles becomes almost second nature as the move set continues to expand. Even the game’s tendency to mix in enemies coated with colored shields only breakable through the use of specified techniques makes Guacamelee! feel like a thinking man’s brawler.
It plays great, but the fluidity of the animation makes every spicy scuffle just a bit sweeter. DrinkBox Studios has managed to pack each nook and cranny of Juan’s adventure with charm, as this is one of the most colorful, robust worlds found on the PlayStation Network. The sharp, angular textures resemble papercraft when stationary, but the true brilliance of the art direction can only be appreciated when everything’s put into motion. No matter how preposterous the narrative setup is, the sharp environments and lively townsfolk make the world of Guacamelee feel authentic. Being able to switch between the world of the living and the world of the dead through a simple button press is also a joy to witness, as both realities have their own unique presentation and color palette. It’s a visual feast, and the foot-tapping mariachi soundtrack is the perfect dollop of sour cream atop this zesty gaming enchilada.
All the in-your-face action and incessant gaming references can also be enjoyed with a friend, but only if you’re playing on PlayStation 3. The game is cross-buy compatible on the PS3 and Vita, and whether playing alone or with a partner, chucking undead enemies across the screen is a blast. However, the lack of a cooperative feature on the handheld entry is disappointing, and the absence of online functionality (other than the included leaderboards) feels like a missed opportunity. Playing with a friend on the couch adds a whole new dimension to an otherwise strong single-player game, so to exclude the Vita’s audience from what’s possibly the best way to play Guacamelee is a shame.
It may be lacking in cooperative features, but that doesn’t stop Guacamelee from being one of the most entertaining downloadable games of the year. From the crisp, skill-based combat to the delightful presentation, every element of DrinkBox Studios’ latest project has been polished to a blinding sheen. It’s fast, involving, and most importantly, fun. At the low price of $15, it’d be a mistake to pass up the four to six hours of fun packed into this delightful package.
Guacamelee was developed and published by DrinkBox Studios. A PSN copy was provided by the publisher for reviewing purposes.