Guacamelee! is the new PS3 and Vita game from Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack developer Drinkbox Studios. Going from puzzle-platformers to a 2D Metroidvania style game, Drinkbox seems to be using this game as a way to show that they can make more than one kind of great game.
Well, they tried.
Guacamelee follows a character named Juan Aguacate who is down on his luck and is unsuccessful at becoming a Luchador. When love interest El Presidente’s Daughter is kidnapped by an evil skeleton named Carlos Calaca who controls Hell and wants to combine the land of the dead with that of the living, Juan Aguacate sets out to save the world. He dies fighting Calaca at first, but ultimately gains supernatural wrestler powers and is brought back to life to defeat Calaca and save the world.
In Juan’s journey to save the world, the game sends you around a few Mexican towns and several dungeon-like areas, all taking place throughout one main map. And I don’t mean the game is like Metroid; Guacamelee! is Metroid. Although the game’s Mexican landscape is more open and almost always outdoors, you traverse the game in the exact same way as Metroid. The game is segmented into areas like Metroid where exiting the left, right, and upper parts of the screen take you to another area. As you explore the world and dungeon-like areas (which include Desert, Forest, and other such standards), you unlock Metroid style powers that allow you to explore more of the world (even including a silly nod to the Chozo statues from Metroid and different colored powers that allow you to unlock different colored “doors”). Though Guacamelee! toes the line between aped and inspired, the game is designed with so much love for the original that I could never call it a rip-off of some kind.
However, sometimes the game tries so hard to be Metroid that one can’t help but compare it to the series Guacamelee! attempts to emulate. The exploration is okay, but the game carries the same issue as Castlevania 3DS in that this “non-linear” game is actually quite linear despite having an open world, and outside of some minimal side quests, there isn’t really much of anything interesting to find when you do backtrack. While this should be a minor complaint, having an exploration-filled game where the exploration isn’t very fun just makes for a very flawed, tedious platformer, and raises the question of why they chose to have an open world to begin with.
On a more positive note, as opposed to the shooter combat of 2D Metroid games, the combat in Guacamelee is built like a fun beat-em-up. While using basic punch combos, dodges, and powers (like a ground pound, uppercut, and a couple of cool aerial moves), you are tasked with beating on enemies until a triangle prompt goes above their heads. When this happens, you can grapple them and throw them into various directions or into other enemies, which causes more damage. And as you beat enemies, you build combos and gain currency that you can spend on incremental health and stamina power-ups. It’s basic yet well designed, and the combat shines through varied enemy types and a few great challenging bosses over the roughly five-hour game.
Another aspect I enjoyed can be found in the puzzles spread throughout the game. Like Mutant Blobs Attack, they’re quite clever and are filled with plenty of “A-ha!” moments. Many of the puzzles are a lot like Wayforward’s Mighty Switch Force in that the game takes place between the land of the living and the land of the dead (that Juan can eventually change at any time). The differences are mostly aesthetic (and the world is practically unchanged), but the architecture of the world is slightly different depending on which dimension you are in. Some enemies can only be fought in one dimension, and some platforms that you climb are only available in one dimension. What this can make for are very fun platforming segments that require you to constantly change the world to spawn (and avoid) the correct platforms.
Two large disappointments I have with the game are in the writing and the difficulty. The game, which is trying to be funny and silly like a Saturday morning cartoon, mostly comes across flat. Some of the video game references are cute, but there is a bizarre abundance of unfunny humor that amounts to little more than “look at this reference!” and “look, it’s a silly meme!”. The story comes across fine enough, but there is nothing that bothers me more about in-game writing than someone who lazily attempts to use meme references as humor.
The difficulty curve is also problematic. While the first two-thirds of the game are really easy, the game more than doubles its difficulty in the final two areas. I have nothing against a hard game (it was still beatable), but having a difficulty that dramatically increases out of nowhere feels more annoying than fun.
The music and sound are one area that I thankfully have no problems with. The style is appropriately vibrant and colorful and the music is catchy and feels at home in a game about a luchador. If anything, it makes me wonder why more developers don’t try making games featuring Mexican wrestlers as the protagonist.
Outside of Cross Play saving and a basic co-op mode, there isn’t much else to say. Guacamelee! isn’t bad by any means and stands as a valiant effort by Drinkbox Studios, but it has numerous flaws that are impossible to overlook and make it impossible to fully recommend. Exercise caution before purchasing.