Developer Drink Box Studios' "Metroidvania" title Guacamelee! never takes itself too seriously, but it's still one of the best entries within that genre. What appears to be a downloadable title built on a single gag — the player character, Juan, is a super powered luchador — is actually a mechanically sound, if a tad bit challenging, 4-hour combination of platforming, exploration, and really fun combat. However, can it stand up to the likes of its forebears: the Metroids and the Castlevanias of old? Read on to find out.
As was mentioned, players take control of Juan, a wannabe luchador who wants nothing more than to spend his days with El Presidente's daughter. However, when a supernatural force — a skeleton named Caraca — kidnaps his love, and kills Juan in the process, all that goes to hell…literally. Luckily, Juan is resurrected by the power of a magic luchador mask, and turned into a punching, kicking, slamming force to be reckoned with.
From there, the player must travel through various interconnected areas in pursuit of Caraca. However, getting to Caraca is easier said than done, and that's where the Metroidvania comparisons come into play. See, as Juan explores the game's 5 or so levels (which our interconnected by interactive hub worlds and smaller sub levels), he will pick up new abilities, which allow him to access new areas. These abilities are, for the most part melee based, and every time Juan uses one he expends some of his stamina (stamina and health can be upgraded by collected 3 pieces of either a heart or a skull a la The Legend of Zelda). One ability allows him to uppercut through red blocks that had previously been impassable, while another lets him slam downward through green blocks. As Juan picks up these new abilities, he gains access to areas that were literally blocked off, but well highlighted on the game's map. As far as the upgrades go, it's fairly rudimentary set of upgrades, but only as far as unlocking new areas is concerned.
Each of these new moves also factors into the game's combat, which is sublime. Juan will encounter various enemies along the way, each of which requires a different approach. At the outset, a few quick jabs will do the trick, but it doesn't take long before enemies require a more concerted approach. A lot of times enemies will be surrounded by a particular color barrier, which means Juan must use the same attack that breaks those colored blocks to damage the enemy. This adds some strategy to an otherwise button mash-heavy experience.
That being said, the combat itself is still wholly engaging, with an added focus on mixing and matching the various attack abilities with basic punches, or Juan's luchador-influenced grapple moves (pile driver, body slam, etc.). As long as Juan doesn't get hit, a combo multiplier will tick upwards, and the higher the multiplier the more money Juan earns. Players can then use the currency to buy new moves, stamina or health pieces, or boosts to health or stamina regeneration. Guacamelee! doesn't go too deep down the RPG rabbit hole, but there are plenty of incentives to learn the combat and use it well.
The game is also smart about pacing new enemy types in such a way that each feels like a breath of fresh air. Just as players will get tired of facing the same mariachi skeleton, or undead armadillo, the game will throw a new enemy type into the mix that requires a different approach. That way the combat stays engaging the whole way through, and doesn't outstay its welcome.
Boss battles are a completely different bag, however. As Juan nears his goal, Caraca will throw three of his minions player's way in order to deliver more focused combat encounters. Each of the three battles is unique — including the final showdown with Caraca — with the player using a different strategy each time. The game's latter two boss battles are as unforgiving as can be, but that's part of the fun. Guacamelee! is very timing based, meaning you'll never feel like a death was anything but your fault — you simply couldn't react fast enough or you didn't see the enemy's "tell."
That timing focus extends into the platforming elements of the game, which can be brutal but are still smartly constructed. At the outset, players will simply jump from ledge to ledge, occasionally using the dodge button to slip by some deadly vine unscathed. But, as Juan learns new moves, the platforming becomes extremely complex. Towards the latter portion of the game, players will be forced to jump, dodge, do a dash attack to move sideways, use their double jump, and then use their uppercut ability, all to cross a rather large chasm.
Throw in an ability that lets Juan switch between the realm of the living and the dead, which turns certain obstacles visible or invisible depending on the realm, and you can see how things might get a little hairy. Again, there's still the sense that each platforming sequence is possible, it's just the execution that takes some work. Guacamelee! is not on the level of, say, Super Meat Boy in terms of its platforming, but at times it feels like it. Take it from me; a nice deep breath can sometimes work wonders.
Unfortunately, that challenge makes the game's co-op offering more headache than fun. Because the game is so challenging in parts, most duos would rather go it alone then wait for the other to complete a task they just barely managed. Co-op was a good idea, it just doesn't fit based on the gameplay.
Amidst the solid combat and the challenging platforming is a world that brings a smile and a chuckle at nearly every turn. The game's hand drawn art style and character design are fantastic, and the little details peppered throughout the game make it a joy to stop and stare. A game like Guacamelee! clearly knows not to take itself seriously, and it never does. Character interactions can be humorous in an absurd or dry fashion — the game runs the gamut. And make sure to keep an eye out for some clever nods to game franchise's past and present.
And so, for a $15 downloadable title, Guacamelee! is exactly what fans of the Metroidvania genre crave. It's a well-designed product that doesn't put style over substance, even though its style is whimsical and inventive. The gameplay as a whole is solid, as Drinkbox constantly feeds players new abilities at just the right moment, pushing them from level to level.
There are so many little touches strewn about that even the title's odes to gaming's past are enough to make it worth recommending. That being said, the game still carves its own path, making the Metroidvania genre more accessible than ever. Players that like a little comedy in their games, or who love the games within the Metroid or Castlevania lineage will adore Guacamelee!.
Have you had a chance to check out Guacamelee!? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.
Guacamelee! is available now for the PS3 and Vita; Game Rant played the PS3 version for its review. Drinkbox is offering cross buy with the game, which means you get both versions for the price of one.
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