- Dungeon Design
- Pop. Culture References
Aside from the surface-skimming curriculum of Central American culture absorbed in High School Spanish classes, my knowledge of Mexican traditions and history is decidedly moot. With the slight help of popular culture and Breaking Bad, I’m aware of day of the dead celebrations, luchadors and traditional Mexican cuisine. Luckily, a degree in cultural study isn’t required to enjoy Guacamelee, a fun exploration into Mesoamerican stereotypes.
Developed by DrinkBox Studios, developer of Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack (another great Vita platformer), Guacamelee is a new beast entirely. It aims squarely at retro action platformers like Castlevania, with a deeply rooted focus on exploration. It’s a call-back, a love-letter, and homage. It succeeds in that classic flavor while bringing along a spicy helping of modern cultural references, and cute humor, all wrapped in a soft tortilla shell.
You play as Juan, a farm hand who hears a distress signal from the local priest, when the game’s love interest, simply named El Presidente’s Daughter, is kidnapped by Calaco, the king of the Land of the Dead. Juan attempts to save her, but is immediately struck down and killed by the villain. Juan awakens in the Land of the Dead, where he stumbles upon an enchanted lucha mask that transforms the silent protagonist into the wrestler he’d always dreamed of being. Juan must travel across the worlds of both the dead and the living to gain enough strength to take on Calaco and put an end to his evil plot.
And that is it. Guacamelee’s story is bare bones. Very little characterization occurs amongst the game’s handful of characters. Some exposition is given that is meant to give context to Juan’s desire to be a luchadors, and a backstory for some of the events, but those looking for an engaging story with a Mexican cultural theme need not apply. The game’s handful of villains are the liveliest of the bunch, each likable, but only marginally deeper characters than Juan himself.
That aside, Guacamelee takes you through a collection of locals, each designated as either a town or a dungeon. Each is rendered beautifully by the game’s outstanding hand-drawn art style. Deep and rich colors are in high volume. Each locale has an entirely different look depending on which in game world you inhabit, which is an excellent touch. Fluid character animations bring Juan and the enemies to life through their unique movements.
The dungeons are, of course, where a game of this style needs to be strongest. Over the game’s measly 4 hour length (maybe more if you explore more), Dungeons will take up most of that time. Within each dungeon, Juan encounters a goat wizard who grants him additional powers (for destroying his collection of Chozo statues) that aid with platforming, combat, and exploration. Without a doubt, Guacamelee does not disappoint. Dungeons are rather linear, but frequently break off into extra rooms with challenging platforming puzzles. Going back and reaching locations you previously couldn’t using recently acquired powers is a satisfying treat, and is the best thing Guacamelee takes from the book of Metroidvania style.
Combat sets itself apart from other games in the action platforming genre. Juan possesses a collection of moves that can be strung together endlessly. Much like a fighting game, using timing and execution you can juggle enemies into oblivion. Acquired powers, such as the uppercut, is as much a combat viable option as it is useful for reaching high places.
Dealing enough damage will cause a triangle to appear above the enemy’s head which signifies that the enemy has been weakened to the point of being thrown. Throwing enemies deals massive damage, and can be used to stun other enemies in the room. Alternatively, you can piledrive, supplex and more. The throw mechanic is fun in adding to combo chains, and bring out a level of flow that I don’t even see in many fighting games, let alone beat-em ups.
Combat isn’t perfect, however. Most enemy encounters are kept in small “arenas”, which are extremely frequent. Arenas cannot be left until all of the enemies are defeated. Some arena designs are unreasonably difficult, as there are too many enemies on screen at once. This becomes sort of an issue when occasional unresponsive buttons come into play. Dodging is Juan’s only line of defense, but leaves him vulnerable shortly after. In a room with countless enemies, some enemy attack patterns simply become unavoidable, resulting in cheap hits.
The complexity of Guacamelee only increases when the dimensional swap mechanic is introduced. In combat, some enemies will only exist in one dimension or the other, so careful swapping between the two and enemy prioritization adds an exciting element to its fast paced nature. In contrast, in platforming, some terrain only appears in one dimension. Utilizing well timed swaps allows for challenging and creative platforming sequences that really put your hand-eye coordination to the test. The results are immensely satisfying when you conquer a platforming challenge and collect the bonus at the end.
The game prides itself in its sense of humor and wit. It does a great job in giving you that “hey look at that” feeling, when you catch a reference you might have missed. From billboards advertising “los casa crashers” to a statue of Donkey Kong to the dropping of Super Mario quotes by boss villain X’tabay, there is a lot of eye candy to be sought here. The humor level of the game is pretty limited to how much you enjoy that style of comedy. It’s a game that is ecstatic about being that, and wants to make everyone aware of it – and that is perfectly alright. It knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do.
Local co-op puts the second player in the shoes of the mysterious female luchador. The gameplay changes little, other than having a second player on screen. I would have loved to see co-op specific dungeons, or more dynamic ways that a second player can add to the experience.
The game’s art style is pushed to the next level by a catchy Latin inspired score. Sound design is never obnoxious, and adds to the game’s atmosphere. It is really one of the strongest things Guacamelee offers.
Guacamelee is an excellent sentiment to game design. It succeeds in taking exactly what makes the exploration of a game like Castlevania so worthwhile. For those looking for a game that is filled to the brim with secrets and challenges, this might be exactly what you are looking for. What it lacks in an interesting story, it brings back with spot on desirability and an understanding of what it needs to do. It’s run time makes its price point a bit hard to recommend, but based on the idea that it’s a game worth playing more than once, and a game worth exploring every nook and cranny of, it’s worth it just enough.