This game is freakin’ awesome.
What game, you ask? Why, Guacamelee! of course! Guacamelee is an indie, 2-D platformer from DrinkBox Studios that melds features of Metroid, Outland, Castlevania, the cartoons of our childhood, and a healthy dose of The Emperor’s New Groove into one solid, action-packed game.
Inspired, vaguely, by Mexican culture, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously and hopes you don’t either. Players control Juan, a wannabe luchadore. Or, in my case, they play player number 2: Tostada, a luchadora. But I’ll get to that feminist stuff later.
Lovers of old-school platform gaming will delight in the many, many callbacks to other games, from Mario to Zelda, Megaman to Castle Crashers.
The core gameplay revolves around moves used in both combat and platforming. They’re color-coded and have awesome names, including the words derpderp and goat, so you know I was a fan. Enemies include all types of skeletons. Big ones, small ones, giant ones, fishy ones: the undead are out in full force.
Moves involve smashing, grabbing, and pile driving enemies into pieces, along with a dimension switch mechanic similar to that of Outland.
The puzzles and boss fights were actually pretty challenging, which is such a refreshing change of pace from the norm of repetitive battles or constant guidance. Guacamelee! features the Metroid-style open-world, which grows even larger as you gain new powers and backtrack to old areas. Sometimes my mind was just blown by what I was doing. These are the kinds of games I love: the ones that are challenging enough to give you a sense of accomplishment when you play well.
The game was probably about five hours long for a normal person, but I’m a loot maniac and a sucker for treasure hunting, so it took me about seven hours to get 80% completion. I felt that this was a good length for a game with such a thin story, but I’d love to see more levels added as DLC in the future.
The game offers boss fights that are actually challenging in the old-school way: learning to read your opponent, memorizing patterns, and learning by dying repeatedly until you figure something out. I missed this! And it is the perfect kind of game for a handheld like the Vita so that was another excellent decision, especially with the ability to cross save and cross play.
As for combat itself, the game has a surprisingly robust combo system! I got to the final level of combos before I finally walked away, but I managed to impress myself with the length and complexity of combos I was able to learn. And they helped! The further you progress into the game, the more combat tactics will come into play, as wave after wave of enemy, some with shields and some in other, untouchable, dimensions, delivereth the smacketh down on you.
“But Sarah, you ALWAYS put plot before gameplay in your reviews! What’s up?”
Well, I’m glad you asked.
You see, I want you to understand that this game is amazing and that I loved it, so I put the happy stuff first. The best part of this game truly is the actual gameplay, followed closely by the art and ambiance.
The plot, on the other hand, is the same tired, boring old trope dressed up in its fiesta best: rescue the princess from the bad man.
This is an indie game, so I could go light on the criticism here. Guacamelee! clearly isn’t out to change the world. It’s fun and challenging. So why did I have such a hangup? Well, along with the plot, there’s the way women in the game are portrayed and talked about. A quick sample:
- El Presidente’s daughter is sought after for her great beauty, not for any real reason. Although it is mentioned that she was studying at the university, the men talk about her beauty, while only the women in the game talk about her intelligence (with another woman just calling her a Trout all the time. Long story). She also has a huge (unrequited?) crush on Juan, for no explicable reason.
- “I’m a simple girl, and I’ll never love a monster like you!” <- wut?
- The bad guy’s girlfriend is not only treated like crap and punished by being sent away, but she is also constantly attempting to seduce the hero. Oooh, how creative.
- The main villain complains about nagging women.
- Tostada, the second player, isn’t given a backstory in the game and is completely ignored in dialogue (but hey, she’s there! Props for that).
- Your trainer talks about your mom. In that way.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I think this game is fantastic, but this was definitely the sour note in the chorus. I’m still pretty stoked that I get to be Tostada at all, so I’m not taking it out on the studio. This is more like the “I’m complaining because I care about this game and want it to go to college and grow up to be a productive citizen” kind of deal. It’s also just odd, because the hilarious dialogue made it clear that these folks know how to write.
The one interesting thing about the plot has to do with the ending of the game. There is no real resolution or discussion of what happened to Juan, who is treated like a second class citizen because, inexplicably, he is not a luchador. But there is no moral at the end, no need to say, “Hey you guys, it’s not fair that you love me now that I’m a luchadore!” That doesn’t happen. He just revels in it until the end, not seeming to care that he had to conform to their standards to be accepted. It seems especially odd because the beginning of the game had lots of foreshadowing that something’s not quite right with Juan, but it is never looked into – we only get a brief flashback that doesn’t explain much. That, along with a few other choices near the end, were pretty bold, so there was some great potential here for intrigue.
Art and Sound
The art is lush and gorgeous. I spent an inexcusable amount of time checking out the backgrounds and moving slowly through the game to let my eyeballs soak in the bright, beautiful glory that is Guacamelee!‘s art. I especially loved the little touches like Aztec shields and swords on ancient warriors and the motif of the hero holding the woman on a mountain top. The color schemes and little signs in the background were also perfect touches. The details were gorgeous, and I loved finding the HUGE amount of Easter eggs in the game.
The music was very Mexican-sounding, though that doesn’t mean it’s authentic. I found it rather repetitive and annoying after the first thirty minutes or so, which is unfortunate and made me feel bad for not appreciating horns more.
Another interesting choice was the lack of voices as well as the lack of voice or written speech for Juan, the protagonist. I probably wouldn’t have noticed that Juan didn’t speak, except that people kept asking him questions, and sometimes pretended that he had answered…but mostly reacted as if Juan kept silent. It was pretty strange.
On the other hand, putting on ridiculous voices and reading the other character’s lines was immensely entertaining. And, as I mentioned, the dialogue was mostly fantastic, with characters making me laugh out loud at some of the things they said. For example: “Like an orphaned cabbage, you rolled straight into my trap.”
Playing with friends is fun and natural. There is something supremely satisfying about brawler style fights with friends along for the ride. I also loved solving puzzles cooperatively: that moment when you figure something out and you get the hi-five going – you can’t get that by yourself…easily.
Sharing the screen was the right way to go, and as I’ve mentioned, I was overjoyed that player two is a female character. The only time it gets difficult are with moves that come later in the game, especially with dimension flipping. Fortunately, only one team member needs to make it to the next section, as it will automatically teleport the other player to the beginning of the next area if one person makes it.
Final Score: A-
My hangups with the plot and trope-d out women are nothing compared to the amount of sheer FUN I was having. Guacamelee! is not only eye candy, it’s challenging in a refreshing way. I can’t wait to dive back in with my friends!
Guacamelee! is out now for the PlayStation 3 and Vita for $14.99.