It would be shorthand to describe Guacamelee as a melee-heavy Metroidvania with platforming puzzles built around dimension switching and your various combat abilities, with a touch of early-Lucasarts-esque humor, but that description isn’t quite adequate.
The ever-silent Juan is an Agave farmer living in a world of luchadors. His village is quickly attacked by skeletons led by the evil Carlos Calaca, his childhood girlfriend (given no name aside from El Presidente’s Daughter) is kidnapped, and he’s killed. Juan is not the kind of man to let that stop him. In the world of the dead, he comes across Tostada, an undead luchadora who gives Juan a blessed mask that turns him into an all-powerful luchador. He then comes back from the dead (with Tostada in tow, if you’re playing co-op on the PS3 version, which unfortunately the Vita version, which I played for this write-up, doesn’t have).
Upon escaping the land of the dead with the help of a portal, Juan sets off on a quest to stop Calaca from using el Presidente’s Daughter from combining the worlds of the living and the dead to make himself the ruler of both (which neither world particularly wants to have happen).
Perhaps it’s just coming off of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, but moving and platforming in Guacamelee feels fast. It’s not just that Juan moves at a decent clip on his own, but the game seems to be built around respecting your time. Run into a room with a number of bottomless pits you can jump into with an assortment of obstacles impeding your progress? Well, if you fall, Juan will be immediately returned to the start of the challenge with a bit less health. I far preferred this mode of checkpointing to Mirror of Fate’s overly helpful (and ultimately difficulty-removing) method and it was nice that each death didn’t lead to a game over screen.
Combat starts pretty simple. You have a three hit combo on the ground, a three hit combo in the air, and the ability to launch enemies with an uppercut, all mapped to square. Beat up on an enemy for a bit, and you can toss them in any direction with triangle (I was typically inclined towards tossing one enemy into a group of enemies). You can also roll through enemy attacks and air dodge to add a couple extra “hits” to your combo counter.
While you don’t have a whole lot of options in the beginning, practically each ability you get doubles as both a new way to attack and a platforming aid. For instance, the Rooster Uppercut (mapped to Circle and Up) is a launcher that brings you skyward alongside your enemy, but it’s also your de facto double jump (until you get the double jump, at least, but even then it still has its uses). Between the abilities you unlock and the special throws that you can purchase (my favorite of which is a back-drop that damages surrounding enemies), combat gradually gets more complex. You’ll fight enemies while switching between the land of the living and the dead, only able to hit enemies in one dimension at a time (although you can grab an enemy, then switch dimensions do damage skeletons across worlds), using specific attacks to break enemy shields before you can combo them.
By the time you’re dealing with all of these battle complications, you’ve got yourself a versatile enough moveset to start chaining together obscenely lengthy combos, using rolls, jumps, and special abilities to keep your combos going even when you would have knocked enemies away. While there aren’t any real bonus to lengthy combos, it’s just fun to do them and be rewarded with a Spanish word or phrase I can’t understand and occasionally the creepily-grinning face of the man who teaches Juan his new luchador techniques and transforms into a goat.
As my last sentence might have implied, Guacamelee is not afraid to have fun. Video game references and modified memes can be found everywhere. Whether it’s a poster announcing a lucha match between Mega Hombre and La Mascara (who wears a mask that bears a distinct resemblance to Majora’s Mask), the femme fatale’s frequent winking use of double entendre, or the fact that you get new luchador skills by destroying “Choozo” statues, there’s a lightness to Guacamelee that is kind of rare in games nowadays. However, despite the consistently lighthearted tone, there are still a couple moments in Guacamelee that I thought were kind of poignant. It’s nice to play a game that’s mostly humorous but isn’t afraid to get serious when it needs to.
In fact, I like that each boss, while generally pretty funny, had their own little backstory that made them somewhat empathetic. Even Flame Face, a man who was cursed to have his head burn eternally by Satan for being too evil, had a moment or two when I kind of liked him. It didn’t hurt that each boss fight felt right for the way the character had been established. My particular favorite was the fight with Jaguar Javier, the most no-nonsense of all Calaca’s underlings. He’s an honorable guy and fights you with attacks that aren’t too far from your own, with the occasional colored shield and dimension switch. It just matches his personality and the fact that I had to learn how to read his attacks to beat him felt like an honorable match between warriors.
I think it’s the little things that I enjoyed the most about Guacamelee. I liked that you have to teach yourself how to get through some of the tougher puzzles, as opposed to having the game tell you exactly what to do before you get there. I like that there are references to games in the very brickwork of Santa Luchita. I like that the game paced in a such a way that respects your time but isn’t afraid to challenge you. Guacamelee feels like it was made by people who just love games.
Food for Thought:
1. Exploration mostly results in combat and platforming challenges, and beating those leads to treasure chests filled with cash, or what are essentially pieces of heart (or equivalent extenders for your special attack meter).
2. I liked that Juan’s trainer/goat-man makes note of the fact that one particularly powerful ability he gives you “seems exploitable.” Speaking of, Juan gains a number of very interesting abilities throughout the course of the game that I didn’t want to spoil during this playtest.