With Guacamelee!, Drinkbox Studios is stepping away from its characterful Tales from Space series and into the world of dusty Mexican villages, agave fields, afterlife myths and luchadors. They’ve never been afraid of playing around with different mechanics and approaches so the jump from relatively simple platformer to a mechanically, systematically complex brawler shouldn’t pose a problem for them, should it?
The colourful, angular art style is still there, slightly more crisp and augmented with a healthy dollop of Mexicana. It’s accompanied by a soundtrack that is equal parts a kind of modern tribute to videogame music, mariachi band and gently bubbling electronica. But this brawler is more than just a quirky marriage of the curious relationships between Mexican Dia de Los Muertos myths, luchadors, tequila and music.
The story starts with Juan, a humble farmer, in an agave field. He’s called to help the local friar in the church and there he is reacquainted with a childhood friend who rapidly becomes the love interest and damsel in distress. Juan’s immediate defeat at the hands of Carlos Calaca, the skeletal antagonist, sends him to the realm of the dead where he almost immediately finds a magic luchador mask that transforms him and transports him back to the land of the living, ready to avenge the attack on his village and rescue his damsel.
Not exactly the most original or deeply constructed motivational narrative but then, it doesn’t have to be. The purpose is to get our unlikely protagonist into the role of developing hero and rush into that all important combat.
The combat system is, initially, a little bit fiddly. It’s not a simple button-masher, although it certainly feels like it should be during early confrontations. Playing it like that will quickly see it descend into a frustrating series of repeated deaths and incredibly slow progress.
You’ll need to combat different foes in different ways and although the controls are initially simple – Square to punch, L2 to dodge, Triangle to grab and throw once and enemy is dazed – you’ll need a good understanding of the timing and range of attacks to be most effective. From those basic beginnings, things get quite complex.
There are special moves, unlocked via interactions with legendary fighters (or chickens) and chained combos that the game does a great job of teaching to you. You get coins for each enemy you defeat and spending those coins at the retailer’s carts on his “stuffs” allows you to level up your health and stamina (used for special moves) or buy access to new moves and shorter ability cooldowns.
Those special moves are important for navigating the maps too, they allow you to break through different kinds of blocks and wring an extra few pixels of height or distance out of your jumps. They can even be strung together to sequence your way through areas that are otherwise inaccessible.
What really sets this game apart from the relatively few similar games on the PSN is the two-world mechanic. Essentially, because of your untimely demise and subsequent rebirth thanks to that magic mask, you can flit between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Initially, you’ll need the portals to do this – something which displays Drinkbox’s exceptionally clever and imaginative level design talents that we’ve seen in their previous games.
Eventually, you’ll attain the ability to switch between worlds at will. Rather than completely alter the scenery and geometry of the levels, this mechanic introduces slightly more subtle changes, highlighted with a sparkle on-screen, that offer new paths or platforms through areas or give access to the enemies who can hit you from across the plains but cannot be hit by you until you switch. It has the potential to be bafflingly complicated but the design and implementation generally keeps it intuitive to use and simple to understand, if something of a dexterity test at times.
In the classic “Metroid-vania” style, you could theoretically access almost every area from the start if you had all the abilities. So the game’s progression feels quite natural, even with the occasional (incredibly swift) loading screens. You’ll also be able to use your new abilities to find hidden rooms and passages that often reward you with one of three types of chest to break open and plunder. These chests will enable you to level up your health, stamina or simply shower you in coins. Similarly, you can take part in fairly lightweight side missions for villagers, who will reward you.
It’s very “RPG-lite” but it is a nice extra system that definitely helps as the combat gets much more difficult in the latter half of the game.
It’s perhaps testament to how enjoyable the game is that the biggest issue to be found is the feeling that it’s a little too short. Around six hours will see you through the story, with another couple of hours to mop up the extra stuff. Once finished, there’s a hard mode unlocked so you might want to keep challenging yourself that way but it’s telling that it still would have remained perfectly enjoyable if it had been another few hours longer.
Guacamelee! is cross-buy, cross-play and cross-save. So, for the price, you’ll get the PS3 and Vita versions. The PS3 has 2 player co-op and a Vita player can use their handheld to join in that way but it’s probably best played on your own, and it fits the Vita perfectly.
- Art style, music and character are all amusing, charming and endearing.
- Level design is genius at times and always enjoyable.
- There’s so much to soak up, references, quirky posters, it’s a rich world.
- Feels a little too short.
Guacamelee! is not entering a particularly overcrowded pool of similar games on the PSN but lack of competition hasn’t stifled creativity. It’s Drinkbox’s best game so far (and I was a big fan of Mutant Blobs Attack on Vita) and it’s the best combo-brawler on PSN. It’s also one of the best platform puzzlers and one of the best Metroid-vania style games. Not content with that list of “bests”, Guacamelee! is also one of the best games for your Vita.
It’s cheap, mechanically smart, designed with aplomb and packed full of charm and character that will appeal directly to the videogame geek in all of us. So, it’s pretty much essential.