Indie games are on an absolute roll. Small developers worldwide are getting their chance at the spotlight through digital download forums like PSN and Steam. Among them is Canadian developer DrinkBox Studios, who have made a name for themselves via the acclaimed Tales from Space series. With Guacamelee!, they’re muscling their way into the ‘Metroid-vania’ genre. With a unique concept and setting, should prospective Luchadors gear up to Guac and Roll?
Guacamelee tells the story of simple Agave farmer Juan. When evil strikes, the village of Pueblucho, Juan’s sweetheart (who is also El Presidente’s daughter) is captured and thus begins his quest to liberate the land and save the princess. Upon snatching El Presidente’s daughter, the demonic villain quickly dispatches Juan. He then enters the world of the dead and becomes a powerful Luchador. He’s sent back to the land of the living and embarks on a quest to rid the land of evil and of course save the princess. Along the way there are plenty of memorable characters, and an adventure filled with charm and whimsy.
Speaking of the story, the writing is playful and funny, and kept me entertained throughout the campaign. The witty dialogue is rife with clever lines and nods to popular culture, all wrapped up a whole pile of Mexican flair. The visual puns are in your face too, with posters advertising Angry Rooster Awesomesauce and a shop entitled Viva Pinatas; I’d often stand around for a moment just to drink in all the wit.
All the wit in the world is totally meaningless if the gameplay doesn’t hold up. Guacamelee holds up, and holds up very well. At its core, Guacamelee is a Metroid style game in the truest sense. Juan navigates an open world at his leisure, with various areas inaccessible without a certain move or upgrade. This necessitates some backtracking, but the game does a nice job of making return trips unique, regardless of the fact that the world is absolutely stunning and a real treat to explore. For example, Juan learns to transform into a chicken, gaining access to new sections of previously traversed areas. Things are most interesting when the world of the dead is in play. Portals strewn around the world allow Juan to jump from the living world to the dead – and although the worlds are largely the same there are some subtle differences. Platforms may be moved, different characters appear, and the aesthetic is topsy turvy.
The real meat of the burrito however, is the combat. It’s deceptively simple, using only a few buttons, but more advanced techniques become available and necessary over time. Punches, kicks, uppercuts, ground pounds and throws are all on tap, and combos are the name of the game. It plays a like brawler, but with some fighting mechanics like juggles tossed in. Light and dark also plays a role in combat, as certain enemies can only be attacked from the correct world. With a good variety of enemy types things don’t get stale, and the game offers a solid challenge without being frustrating. Much of that challenge comes from increasingly complex platforming puzzles. In lots of cases, you’ll have to manage precise jumping, perfect timing, and the living/dead mechanic at the same time. Although the challenge can be massive, there isn’t really a penalty for failing and success brings a serious feeling of satisfaction.
Like a nice salsa, there’s a side dish of RPG components in Guacamelee too. Upgrades to health and stamina are hidden throughout the world, along with treasure chests, side quests and shopping. The side quests provide ample motivation to explore the world, which is stunningly rendered.
In short, Guacamelee! is absurdly stylish. The cartoon style looks great, and the animation is top notch. The characters ooze feeling during dialogue, and the world itself is both dazzling and diverse. The soundtrack perfectly fits the setting too. It’s mariachi with sky high production values, but frequently pumps up the tempo for more intense sections. Art wise, Guacamelee is one of the best looking games I’ve seen in a long time.
Luchadors can expect to spend 6-8 hours conquering Guacamelee and at that length, it definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome. I would have embraced additional content, but for $15 it’s pretty hard to complain when many $60 games are shorter. The game also includes local co-op and leads to some fun one screen beat-em-up action, but is somewhat game breaking in that the same number of enemies appear, evaporating a lot of that challenge. Platforming can become a chore too as the puzzles can be nigh impossible to navigate with an extra body on screen.
Guacamelee! is a fantastic game. It has style in spades, charming writing, deceptively deep gameplay, and is wholly satisfying to play. DrinkBox studios has made an action game of extremely high caliber, and revives a genre that many gamers grew up with. While it has some challenging moments, and could be longer, it can be unequivocally recommended for anyone that owns a PS3 or PS Vita. I can’t wait to see what DrinkBox comes up with next.