System: PS Vita (crossbuy with PS3)
Genre: Action/Platforming (Metroidvania)
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Release Date: April 9, 2013
If there’s one video game genre I enjoy most, it’s what is commonly referred to as Metroidvania. These are typically 2D side-scrolling affairs that invite exploration of a large in-game world. As the game progresses, new abilities are unlocked that allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas.
Drinkbox Studios — creators of the brilliant (and criminally overlooked) Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack — have taken the Metroidvania genre and given it a fresh twist with their latest, Guacamelee!. Here is a game steeped in Mexican folklore with a beautiful artstyle. It is also an adventure that does not take itself seriously. At all. (This is not a bad thing)
You play as Juan Aguacate (translation: Juan Avocado), a downtrodden Mexican farmer who is trying to rescue El Presidente’s daughter from the evil Charro skeleton. Juan receives a huge boost to his efforts when he discovers a magical lucha libre mask. This grants Juan an impressive array of wrestling-related powers, as well as the ability to switch back-and-forth between the land of the living and the dead. Now rejuvenated, Juan hits the road to save the princess and restore order to his beloved hometown.
Of course, the world is not safe, and there are plenty of enemies that stand in the way of Juan’s goal. Poncho-wearing skeletons, large armadillos and bomb-throwing cacti are just a handful of those ready to annihilate our hero. Never fear, for Juan is combat-ready with a number of powerful attacks at his disposal. Defeating enemies earns him cash to purchase even more abilities, including options to suplex, slam and otherwise destroy his opponents.
As the game progresses, Juan gains a whole slew of new ways to reach other areas. The genre staple of the “double jump” is soon added, as well as ways to rapidly dash across the screen (both vertically and horizontally) and turn into a completely different object (I won’t spoil it for you, but the secondary character is great). As you move throughout the world, you’ll notice areas that can only be accessed with certain abilities. Thankfully, these are pointed out on a map once you find them, so it’s easy to go back and explore with your newfound powers.
Combat is generally well-done. Certain enemies will be color-coded, meaning you can only damage them by using a specific type of attack. This adds some welcomed strategy to what at first seems to be a pretty basic combo-based system. Every now and then the game forces you to clear out an area of respawning enemies, but these moments are actually quite fun, and I grew to anticipate stumbling into them.
While I love the general combat system, I did run into some issues during boss fights, especially the last two. Boss battles basically amount to remembering their attack patterns and fighting back when applicable, but their attacks often feel cheap. It’s not uncommon to get hit by a boss, fall backward and then get hit again while recovering. This led to some severely frustrating moments where I was just a hit or two away from finishing off a boss, only to lose thanks to these cheap shots.
As such, it should go without saying that Guacamelee! is a pretty challenging game. It takes some of the punishing old-school gameplay that worked so well in the 16-bit days, with the end result being a real sense of accomplishment for clearing out some of the harder areas.
It’s not just combat that presents a challenge, however. Much of the game revolves around general platforming gameplay, and many areas have puzzles that can be tricky to solve. Oftentimes, finding a room with a treasure chest or other powerups will require some slick maneuvering that involves pressing different attacks at just the right time. A little bit of dexterity goes a long way here.
Guacamelee! is a relatively short game, and can be completed in anywhere from 4-8 hours (depending on how much you explore). Beating the game unlocks a hard mode, and the PS3 version offers co-op play, but that’s about it. For me, the overall experience was satisfying enough to justify its short length, but this could be disappointing for those expecting a long Castlevania-esque adventure.
I would be remiss not to mention the game’s unique brand of humor. The constant Easter eggs, tongue-in-cheek billboards and wisecracking dialogue are all incredibly amusing, and discovering hidden secrets is a real treat. During my adventure, I even found an abandoned room with just a QR code inside. I won’t spoil what it said, but it made me laugh. And, of course, all of this is aided by a gorgeous artstyle and an infectious soundtrack.
Guacamelee! is an excellent new addition to the Metroidvania genre, and it represents yet another strong showing from Drinkbox Studios. While I had some issues with cheap boss tactics, and others may be disappointed by the short length, I did greatly enjoy my time playing through the game. These guys are on a roll, and I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves next.
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)