I got my first taste of DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee! (no pun intended) on the expo floor at last year’s NYC Comic-Con and it instantly rose to the top my list of games to look forward to in 2013. While their underrated Tales from Space series was enjoyable, Guacamelee!‘s unique fusion of Mexican culture and beat-’em-up brawler mechanics makes it a challenging and terrific experience from start to finish.
Utilizing a Metroidvania style of gameplay, you play as Juan Aquacave, a modest agave farmer who is infatuated with Lucha Libre. His world is forever changed when a skeletal fiend named Carlos Calaca strikes during the Dia de los Muertos festival and kidnaps Juan’s love interest, the nameless daughter of El Presidente. In an attempt to save her, he is banished to the Land of the Dead, where he meets the Guardian of the Mask, who entrust a mythical luchador mask upon him. Resurrected into the Land of the Living, you will navigate a rich and colorful world occupied with exotic enemies. Although the tried and true damsel-in-distress scenario may seem stale, Guacamelee!‘s great sense of humor and quirky cast of characters freshens it up.
You’ll follow a semi-linear path laden with inaccessible areas that can be unlocked with a specific move. Each blocked path is associated with a different colors (red, blue, yellow, etc.) to indicate which specific ability needs to be used. A detailed map helps you keep track of where you’re going and various secret areas. Aside from backtracking to uncover new areas, you’ll spend a majority of time knocking enemies around like pinatas. With attacks ranging between tactical and offensive maneuvers, performing combos and juggling enemies in midair is encouraged. You’ll be punching, jump-kicking, slamming and grappling an assortment of foes from skeletal hombres to vibrant dragons. The enemy variety isn’t huge, but the game later introduces enemies enshrined with different colored force fields that must be defeated similar to blocked paths. The result is a deeper combat system that alleviates the simple button-mashing gameplay.
As you venture onward, you’ll discover Choozo statues (Metroid anyone?), which you destroy to earn new stamina-driven abilities. By the end of the game, Juan’s repertoire of moves is fairly sizable, from being able to turn into a chicken and access small spaces, to being able to slam, uppercut or head-butt. As long as Juan doesn’t get hit, a combo multiplier will increase, and the higher the multiplier the more money you’ll earn. You can then use the currency to buy new moves and health or stamina upgrades. About halfway through the short campaign, the action gets more devious when Juan gains the ability to switch between the celestial plane of the living and the dead. Each world evokes a different mood, defined by their respective soundtracks and color palettes. The ability to alter your surroundings adds an extra layer of depth since you will face certain enemies and uncover objects hidden between dimensions.
Juan will travel through jungles, deserts, urban towns and many other areas that are littered with platforming sections based around elements like wall jumping and tricky triple jumps. Traversing these locales is easy in the beginning, but when these sections infuse the previously mentioned dimension shifting ability, you may be left at wits end. Jumping between them is often a matter of timing, where you have to quickly switch between realms in mid-jump. Thankfully, the controls are responsive and checkpoints are forgiving. Boss battles are plentiful and entertaining. Setup like a traditional wrestling feud, you will fight well-designed characters like a flame-headed cowboy or a jaguar man. Each boss follows a particular pattern, so these battles quickly transition into a trial and error process until you’ve memorized their moves to obtain a quick victory.
Much of Guacamelee‘s charm stems from the immense amount of detail that went into its Mexican themed art direction. The well-crafted locations are beautiful, its color usage is impeccable, and the character animations are fluid. The authentic Mexican influenced soundtrack is exceptionally well-produced and lines up beautifully with the visuals. The world is also littered with all sorts of references to internet memes, alongside other video game references. In addition to smashing up evil skeletons and leaping between platforms, you’ll also be able to undertake quests from various townspeople. Unfortunately, the side quests end up being fairly unimaginative fetch quests.
Completing Guacamelee! unlocks a hard difficulty, but the appeal of locating forgotten collectibles and placing at the top of the leaderboards with the fastest completion time, may compel you to revisit earlier sections. Aside from being a cross-play title, Guacamelee! incorporates local co-op. Only available while playing on PlayStation 3, a second player can join in at anytime as Tostada, the Guardian of the Mask. Similar to New Super Mario Bros Wii U, players who die respawn in a bubble. The addition of a second player during combat is welcomed, but battling for camera control and traversing platforming segments dampens the fun. I preferred playing solo, but allowing the option to have a friend join in at anytime is a nice touch.
Despite being brief, this is one of the best cross-play video games available on the PlayStation Network. The beautiful art-style, great sense of humor and delightful combat make Guacamelee! a terrific title for gamers looking for a title that pays great homage to the retro titles of yesteryear.