What’s for Lunchadore? – Guacamelee! Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
It isn’t very often that Mexican culture is presented in a positive light in videogames. In fact, the last game that I can remember playing that didn’t focus on gangs, drug-running and/or widespread poverty was Grim Fandago, and that game was released in 1998. Funnily enough, Toronto’s Drinkbox Studios brings us Guacamelee! – taking on a similar Day of the Dead theme, with a heavy dose of Mexican Wrestling thrown in for good measure. In Guacamelee!, players take on the role of Juan, an agave farmer from Pueblucho, a town whose residents frequently treat him with disdain for failing to become a famous Luchador, or Mexican wrestler.
Juan’s quest doesn’t exactly get off to a good start, seeing as how he is killed by Carlos Calaca within the first five minutes of the game. Luckily for Juan, though, soon after arriving in the mystical Land of the Dead, he finds an enchanted wrestling mask, which allows him to return to the Land of the Living and seek to rescue the daughter of El Presidente, whom Calaca kidnapped at the same time as offing Juan. This mask is the source of Juan’s powers throughout Guacamelee!, allowing him to learn a variety of wrestling moves, useful in both combat and navigation, and eventually granting him the power of travelling between the Lands of the Dead and the Living at will.
Guacamelee! takes on the guise of a 2D platformer, but clearly draws a great deal of inspiration from games such as Castlevania and Metroid. For the first couple of hours whilst playing the game, you’ll find that there are plenty of blocked off passages and routes that can’t be accessed until Juan’s powers are upgraded. This can be done by finding and smashing Choozo statues, which often come accompanied by Great Uay Chivo, Lord of the Man-Goats. Uay Chivo serves as a guide for Juan throughout his journey, introducing him to the new moves as Juan unlocks them in the game. Uay Chivo is also one of many outlets of comic relief for players, by frequently asking if he could take Juan’s mother out for a date. By the end of the game, Juan’s repertoire of moves is fairly sizeable, from being able to turn into a chicken and access small spaces, to being able to slam (green), uppercut (red) or head-butt (yellow) his way through the various colours of rock that serve as artificial barriers to certain areas. One particular favourite move of mine (not so much for what it does, but what it’s called), is the ‘Dashing Derpderp’, which allows Juan to bust through blue rocks at quite some speed.
While these extra abilities are often based on wrestling moves, you’ll find yourself using them for navigation as much as you will for taking down enemies. A great deal of Guacamelee! is based around platforming, and though if you stick to the story and the main route of the game, the platforming doesn’t get too difficult, venturing off the beaten path into optional areas presents players with some fiendishly designed puzzles, which require all the precision jumping skills in your repertoire, as well as some split-second timing. These optional areas are well worth the brief moments of frustration though, as they grant Juan with pieces of Hearts and Skulls, which upgrade his Health and Stamina respectively. While the Health bar at the top of the screen is fairly self-explanatory, the Stamina pips that Juan is able to use determine how frequently he is able to use his super-powered wrestling moves. These pips recharge fairly quickly, meaning that the moves can be used with some frequency, but the fact that they do deplete ensures that Juan (and the player) doesn’t come too reliant on spamming enemies with them.
Combat in Guacamelee! is incredibly simple, but the difficulty curve is well-measured, meaning that you never feel as if you can relax whilst in a battle and just go through the motions. The Square button is Juan’s basic attack, throwing punches if he’s on the ground and kicks if in the air. Once a certain amount of damage is dished out to an enemy, a Triangle button prompt appears above their head, allowing Juan to initiate a throw, or a grappling move if they have been unlocked. Throws prove incredibly useful when faced with a large number of enemies at once, as they can be aimed with the left analogue stick, and, if placed correctly, can knock a whole swathe of enemies to the ground, providing Juan with a little breathing room.
The enemies in Guacamelee! are fairly varied, starting off with basic skeletons, which come in three different colours (green being basic melee fighters, red being able to throw bones at Juan, and yellow, which are adept at dodging attacks), to cacti, chupacabras and undead knights. Each type of enemy often requires a different tactic to defeat, and although initially simple, the game does a good job of keeping you on your toes. Later in the game, some enemies come shielded, which can be broken only by performing one of Juan’s moves of the corresponding colour. What’s more, enemies are able to appear in both the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead (you can tell if they’re outside of your current plane by the fact that they appear only as silhouettes), with the ability to hurt Juan regardless of which plane he is on. As he is only able to damage enemies in whichever Land he is currently in, this forces Juan to jump from one dimension to the other, creating an interesting juggling mechanic as combat priorities change on the fly, depending on which enemy and which plane of reality is most likely to cause Juan harm.
Jumping between dimensions is just one way in which the game shows off its visual flair. The Land of the Living takes on an orange, almost sunburnt hue, whilst the Land of the Dead is more of a blue-green, making it immediately obvious which plane of reality Juan is currently occupying. At some points, particularly in towns, you’ll find yourself switching backwards and forwards from one dimension to the other, just to see the differences in visual design, which can include trees appearing and disappearing, and houses appearing a lot more run down. In one particularly poignant moment, Juan is tasked with collecting a doll from a grieving mother in the Land of the Living to give it to her deceased daughter in the Land of the Dead. On the whole, happier moments abound throughout Guacamelee!’s visuals, not least in the flashing screens that appear whenever Juan is bestowed with a new ability. Some warning is required for those who suffer ill effects from flashing lights and colours, though, as the sequences can be quite intense.
Perhaps the best use of Guacamelee!’s visuals is in the way that it conveys its pervading sense of humour. Most of the gags come in the form of visual references to popular culture, with internet memes such as Tard the Cat and the Me Gusta rage comic appearing on billboards in the game. There are plenty of other references to other videogames as well, including Castle Crashers, Viva Piñata, and a subtle but hilarious reference to Journey. There are even a couple of jokes in here that will apply only to Torontonians, such as a ‘Missing’ poster featuring the Ikea monkey, and even a trophy that references TSN’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole. Guacamelee! is one of those games that it’s difficult not to play with a smile on your face, as despite its sombre subject matter, it revels in poking fun at both the videogame industry and player expectations.
Guacamelee! isn’t a particularly lengthy experience, but it never once seems to overstay its welcome. I completed the story in just over seven hours, with a completion rate (which takes into account the Chests you’ve opened in the various areas of the game) of 85%. That last 15% has been bugging me for the whole duration of writing this review, and there’s also the Hard difficulty to overcome, which unlocks once you’ve completed the game on its default difficulty. Finding the optional Chests is a worthwhile exercise, as they gift Juan with money or power-up segments, which makes combat a heck of a lot easier. Money can be spent at checkpoints to purchase upgrades to already earned powers, and can also buy a limited number health or stamina segments. The map makes it quite easy to find your way around Guacamelee!’s world, as various obstacles are colour-coded to indicate which powers are required to bypass them, and you are able to zoom in or out to your heart’s content, looking for secret passages that you may have missed first time around.
Living in Toronto, I’m always interested in seeing Canadian-produced content, and it’s an extra bonus when a game is made practically on my doorstep, as opposed to the usual powerhouse locations of Montreal or Vancouver. Guacamelee! is an extra special case as it’s surely one of the most technically adept videogames I’ve had the pleasure to play in recent years, and is fully deserving of its perfect score. Guacamelee! comes recommended wholeheartedly to any gamer, regardless of their genre preferences, as it is a wonderful example of just how a downloadable game can be done right. Considering that Drinkbox Studios’ previous title, Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!!! was one of my best-received PSN games from last year, and that Guacamelee! will surely place highly on many downloadable GOTY lists for 2013, I personally cannot wait to see where Drinkbox go next.
Guacamelee! scores a perfect 5 out of 5.
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