Guacamelee! is a colorful 2D action platformer by Canadian developer DrinkBox set in a vibrant and thoroughly unique world inspired by Mexican folklore. The players take over the role of an agave farmer Juan who becomes a luchador after El Presidente’s Daughter is kidnapped by a charro skeleton Carlos Calaca. It’s as zaney as it sounds, but it just works. The story is basic and presented only in text, the writing isn’t great, but you’ll get a few chuckles out of it here and there.
The first thing you’ll notice are the fantastic audiovisuals that set the tone beautifully. The game world is a wonderful fusion of vibrant colors and cheerful music. The soundtrack is simply awesome, it sounds as if a house DJ remixed a mariachi band. Both of these elements come together to create a game world that is simply a joy to explore.
Considering that Juan is a luchador, the combat is melee-based – as the game title itself suggests. It starts off very basic with only a few moves, but you will unlock a healthy amount of varied and satisfying special moves during the course of the game. These are mostly wrestling moves such as the body slam or the headbutt. Different enemies will require different tactics and moves and they will sometimes be color-coded which means that only a specific attack can hurt them. Also, the game will at one point introduce a dimension-shifting mechanic which will alternate between the living and the dead worlds. Certain enemies can only be beaten in a specific dimension. Once the game starts throwing enemies in different colors and dimensions, the combat gets incredibly frenetic and intense due to the amount of stuff you need to consider. The fast-paced combat feels good thanks to sharp controls and the variety of moves at your disposal. Guacamelee! is a really tough game and you have to be vigilant at all times as you will often get beaten to a pulp. But it just feels so good that I always felt compelled to keep trying and get it right.
Outside of combat, there’s a fairly nice-sized world to explore full of secrets to find. But it will be incredibly hard getting to those goodies. This is where the platforming and dimension swapping come into its own. Certain platforms, walls or columns will only be visible in a certain dimension and the game will often make you switch dimensions mid-jump. It can get pretty nerve-wracking as the game demands pinpoint precision. Once again, the stellar controls make it worthwhile to persevere even though the fiendish difficulty will try its best to break your spirit.
Guacamelee’s retro design is both its strength and weakness. There’s no question that the design is strong, but it will at times give in to needless trial and error drowning the player in frustrating repetition. It will also feel cheap at times with enemies that will strike in moments when you really can’t do anything. But the sense of accomplishment is great indeed. I would say that a game like this is more enjoyable on the second run. Once you’ve unlocked all your powers and moves, the level of frustration drops down significantly.
In the end, Guacamelee! does what it sets out to do masterfully. Despite the overly punishing difficulty and a few design quibbles, it’s a great game worth playing for its fantastic world, frenetic combat and satisfying platforming.
8 OUT OF 10 (GREAT)
Posted: February 28th, 2014