I had so many puns for Guacamelee! Gold Edition today, when writing a story about its impending launch, and I tried to include as few as possible so that I could splash them out across this review. And now I can’t remember any of them.
But that’s okay! I’m sure that my general exuberance for Drinkbox’s Mexican-themed Metroidvania brawler will shine through – and frankly, it’s more than witty enough to cover for my failings. I mean, it’s called Guacamelee. That’s better than anything I could’ve come up with by itself.
It’s a game with humble beginnings. You are Juan, a simple agave farmer helping people out in advance of the Dia de los Muertos festival. But alas! Things go tits up when the beautiful El Presidente’s Daughter (yes, that is how she is referred to throughout the entire game) is kidnapped by Calaca, an evil Charro skeleton with goals both lofty and evil. Juan tries to stop the kidnapping… and is killed for his trouble, sent straight to the World of the Dead.
Fortunately for all concerned, it’s here that he finds a mystical Luchadore mask which gives him the power to fight back against Calaca and his skeletal armies. So begins Juan’s quest to roam around a surreal Mexico-alike area while bashing skeletons, solving subquests, finding power-ups, and trying to rescue El Presidente’s Daughter.
Or, to put it another way: beat the crap out of nasties in a side-on manner while endulging in a spot of platforming, and finding upgrades that open up side paths and new areas. Guacameletroidvania, really.
What is probably immediately apparent is that it looks marvellous. Guacamelee has a wonderful aesthetic; it’s colourful without being camp, and the hyper-exaggerated, caricature-ish characters look like they could’ve dropped out of pretty much any recent cartoon – and it looks fantastic at PC resolutions. Juan, in Luchadore mode, stands with his chest thrust out and his hands on his hips. Fiery bandito Flame Face leans back, his head a fireball with cartoony eyes and a gaping mouth drawn on, and fires his pistols at the ground while cackling wildly. Calaca stands tall, thin, composed, and menacing, with plenty of dramatic cape-sweeping.
The art and animation is wonderful and evocative, and even the camera gets in on the cartoon-y action, zooming in or out for dramatic/comedic purposes. There are even plenty of subtle touches and changes to each area (and its ear-worm music) depending on whether you’re in the World of the Living or the World of the Dead. The world building, ambience, and visuals are all spot-on.
Equally, the writing is sharp and clever. There are touches of the venerable Monkey Island in a few characters and strings of dialogue – particularly anything to do with the goat sage, who gradually gets more and more annoyed as you shatter more of his precious statues in search of upgrades – and the game wears its inspirations on its sleeve while cheering on other titles. There are references to Fez, Mario, Castle Crashers, Grim Fandango, and about a dozen other games dotted around, either in dialogue, as jokes, or simply as incidental background detail. Those statues I mentioned before, which give you powers? They’re called Choozo statues. It’s that sort of game.
Everything else – the combat and Metroidvania bits and bobs – are… good. I think that’s a fair word to use.
The combat isn’t exactly what I’d call deep, but it’s certainly not shallow. You’ve got your standard basic attacks (with the third sending the enemy flying) as well as a variety of power-ups like uppercuts or charging punches, and when an enemy’s been duffed up enough you can grab onto it and either hurl it away or use a more powerful drop on it, like a suplex or a piledriver. Defensively, you’ve got a dodge that gives you a brief second of invulnerability against almost all attacks.
Which means that combat looks like a chaotic mess, but has quite a lot going on. Four skeletons and a giant rolling armadillo leap at you. You punch the nearest skeleton a few times, then grab onto it and hurl it at the armadillo. While the armadillo’s flying through the air from this, you do a dash punch followed by an uppercut, then leap into the air and pummel it a few times, before grabbing onto it and smashing it into the ground with a piledriver, which conveniently sends the rest of the skeletons flying and makes them easy to smash out. And then a piñata appears which gives you loads of coins when you bash it. SATISFACTION.
Larger battles can get a bit too chaotic for their own good, mind you. Near the end of the game, enemies appear in combinations that have a chance of stunlocking you if you get unlucky, and one or two battles resemble bullet hell shooters simply because of the amount of shit that’s flying around – which makes it rather hard to keep track of Juan. Fortunately, death is never more than a slap on the wrist: at most, you’re sent back a few screens, and the checkpoints never felt unfair. It’s hard to get overly frustrated throughout the game’s critical path, although if you go hunting for 100% completion, expect anger. One or two side areas made me bite my controller in frustration. (Really.)
The Metroidvania stuff is also good, if a tad uninspired, in that you get exactly the abilities you’d expect. Here’s the double-jump. Here’s the dash-punch that lets you smash one type of barrier. Here’s the wall-jump. Now you can hop between the living and dead worlds at will. Now you can… and so on. There’s a power that is rather novel, but it would’ve been nice if the majority of these powers weren’t quite so generic. On the plus side, some of the ways you have to use the powers to solve puzzles will require a mix of creative thinking and careful platforming, so they’re at least used rather well.
These are ramped up to full in the freely-included DLC (as this is the Gold Edition). The Devil’s Playground pack offers a lot more humour and another wonderful-looking area to explore – El Infierno – as well as a swathe of devious challenge rooms that will test your skills to the utmost, asking you to get through difficult platforming sections within a tight time-limit or to get a certain combo going in a fight without access to throws.
Guacamelee itself isn’t the longest game (I was at the gigantic final dungeon after around five hours) but the Devil’s Playground adds on another hour or two, and an unlockable Hard difficulty, a bunch of hidden extras necessary for 100% completion, and Speedrun leaderboards all offer a fair amount of incentive to spend a bit longer in its world.
As a word of warning: if you don’t have a controller, you may not want to bother. The keyboard controls aren’t bad, but the throw direction is done via analogue sticks. If you’re not using a controller, you’re stuck with eight directions to hurl skeletons, and throwing is a pretty big part of the combat.
Guacamelee is a game with heart, humour, and sheer style buoying up its fun-but-slightly-uninspired gameplay. You’ll certainly have a blast with it for as long as it lasts, and any fans of Metroidvania titles shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to wrestle with this, but the tang of disappointment when the credits roll isn’t just because one of the more amusing games of the year is over – it’s also because of the nagging sense that it could’ve done a bit more with this gameplay style, considering the freedom it offers.