What starts as a basic platformer button masher grows into a strategic, combo-dependent fighting game full of strategy and culture. DrinkBox Studio’s new platformer, Guacamelee! is a charming nod to the Mexican culture that is worth well more than it’s $15 price tag.
The journey begins with Juan, a tequila-loving farmer who dreams of joining the ranks of the famed luchadors of his land. Like the rest of his quaint town of Pueblucho, Juan is helping to prepare for Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, a celebration in Mexico to honor one’s deceased relatives. Juan’s world is flipped when the special guest of the celebration, El Presidente’s daughter, who also happens to be Juan’s childhood friend, is kidnapped by a band of undead villains led by the vengeful Calaca. As with all “rescue the damsel in distress” games, the player must venture through various temples to try and rescue the girl. Though Guacamelee! sticks to this formula, the game gives the player a unique experience through its Mexican theme and gameplay.
Side characters such as Fray Ayayay and Tostada are just a few examples of Guacamelee!’s comedic yet stereotypical take on Mexican culture. Every now and then a character will use an understandable Spanish word such as ‘excelente,’ drop ‘el’ before random words and there is even a mariachi band for the player’s listening pleasure. Of course, they play “El Jarabe Tapatio,” more commonly known as the “Mexican Hat Dance.” But DrinkBox Studios manages to surpass the basic conventions of the culture by showing the Aztec roots of the Day of the Dead through the temple design. Each of the three temples is filled with beautifully designed Aztec-styled stonework and as the player progresses through the temples, new enemies that appear take on more Aztec garb.
Guacamelee! is not an easy game. DrinkBox gives the player only the slightest tutorial before throwing them into the fire. The first temple has a steady pace, but the difficulty of both the puzzles and combat challenges continues to increase right up until the end of the game. The only way to dilute the difficulty is by finding or purchasing the health and power upgrades or by becoming a combo master. Without either of these, expect to die a lot. As if the increased difficulty wasn’t hard enough, DrinkBox incorporates flipping between the world of the living and the dead into combat and puzzles – a distinct aspect of the game that adds a welcome challenge.
The controls are not any excuse for failure. There wasn’t a time when the controls felt unresponsive or inaccurate. Aside from the infrequent enemy somehow refusing to be affected by an attack, the combat system is nearly flawless. The player’s repertoire of attacks grow throughout the game, which DrinkBox leaves up to you to master. If the player truly needs help, combo training is available in the city of Santa Luchita.
As perfect as Guacamelee! appears to be, it could not escape its fair share of problems. One would expect the co-op to be a highlight of the game, considering the ‘2p Press “Start”’ text is always looming on the top right corner of the screen. That isn’t the case. Enter Tostada. When Juan’s otherworldly companion joins the game, both characters must stay within the same boundaries of the screen or one player must forfeit the right to play. Upon the forfeit, the player becomes a bubble and must float around the screen until popped by the other player. This forces the players to choose who gets to solve puzzles in temples – unless both players can perfectly follow each other’s actions. The only benefit of the co-op is being able to have a friend jump in to help defeat a difficult boss or gang of skeleton baddies.
Though an infrequent problem, the speech boxes can be annoying. If the speech box is to long or too wide for the area of the screen, it will move to a different side of the character. This also happens if a non-playable character is moving while talking. This breaks the connection between the player and the game. As minute as this problem may seem, it shouldn’t be something that is present in a game of this caliber.
Despite the speech box flaw, Guacamelee! is visually and audibly appealing. For being a platformer, the game has a surprising amount of depth. The characteristic bright colors of the Mexican culture shine through in both the world of the living and the dead. An added bonus is the appearances of other video game characters and references to Internet memes like Grumpy Cat, Link from the Legend of Zelda, the Castle Crashers and many more on the billboards, posters and in the stonework. The catchy trumpets and traditional acoustic guitar mixed with hints of techno make the music addictive and add to the player’s epic journey. When the player changes to either the world of the living or the dead, the art and music change accordingly – a fantastic detail that helps immerse the player.
DrinkBox Studios utilize stereotypical aspects of the Mexican culture in a playful manner that works, and even adds some depth through the design. Though the co-op isn’t very enjoyable, the creative puzzles and fun combat make up for it. The multitude of side quests, challenge tower and secret content are a welcome surprise for a $15 game that could have easily become a full-blown $40 PlayStation Vita title. Guacamelee! is a PlayStation Store must-buy game for anyone who is ready to step up to the challenge of being a supernatural luchador.
This review is based on a retail copy of Guacamelee! for the PS3 provided by Drinkbox Studios. It is also available on the PS Vita.