Developer: Drinkbox Studios / Publisher: Drinkbox Studios / Played On: PlayStation 3 / Price: $15 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Fantasy Violence, Use of Alcohol]
If you’ve been patiently waiting for the day you can simultaneously morph into a Mexican wrestler and a chicken, DrinkBox Studios is happy to cater to your unique taste. Guacamelee! is a charming adventure that feasibly could have stumbled into the realms of the distasteful, but its lighthearted and respectful approach to Mexican culture makes this game a noteworthy downloadable purchase. The journey, while short, is a memorable experience riddled with allusions to other games and memes, demonstrating the developer’s love for their colleagues’ accomplishments and appreciation of the culture in which it belongs.
A poor agave farmer named Juan is preparing for El Dia de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) when he is called to action upon the kidnapping of the intelligent and beautiful woman known (ironically) only as the President’s daughter, a childhood friend for whom Juan secretly yearns. The culprit is Carlos Calaca, ruler of the dead, who thinks it’s about time to merge Earth with the underworld, with the President’s daughter a centerpiece of his ritual. Juan bravely stands in opposition to the skull king in a pitiful attempt that costs him his life. He’s given a second a chance at life upon finding the legendary luchador mask, granting him the capabilities of a great wrestler; he sets off on his quest to save the nameless damsel and defeat the evils of the afterlife.
A simplistic goal rests at the core of Guacamelee!, but that in no means dictates the experience the game bestows. Guacamelee! is an action platformer glossed with a vibrant yet gentle coat of Mexican folk art. The game is stunning in both character design and environments, achieving that warm Latin flare even when the world is dark and gloomy.
A collection of trumpets, acoustic guitars and string instruments—minus any voice work—accompany the captivating scenery of deserts, forests, and pueblos (towns) full of rainbow streamers and traditional stonewall houses. The world’s inhabitants are exaggerated versions of a few Mexican tropes that manage to entertain rather than insult, especially when the NPCs are talking Spanglish (English and Spanish colloquialism). The careful execution of the Mexican theme is no accident, given how the primary concept for the game was brought up by one of the animators, Augusto, as homage to his native land.
As a luchador your available attack moves include uppercuts, suplexes and piledrivers. However, special moves like uppercuts use up your limited supply of stamina, so combat involves the execution of regular punches and jump combos. With each KO’d opponent you absorb orbs that grant health and money to be used at altars littered throughout levels that also work as checkpoints. The in-game store has a small selection of available upgrades like chunks that increase Juan’s health or stamina, however, the quantity of available moves is quite minimal; the game depends more on the skills acquired through its adventure in order to advance. With each new area you gain a new ability, which is only earned after Juan destroys precious statues that belong to an old man with an affinity of transforming into a goat (don’t we all?). The acquired moves definitely assist in combat, but it’s their use in level progression where these skills truly matter.
Guacamelee! does a wonderful job of combining new attack upgrades with platform progression to stay true to its metroidvania inspiration; you use newly acquired moves to jump to ledges once beyond your reach or to break colored blocks that can only be destroyed by a specific ability. The moves themselves aren’t unique or impressive; they boil down to stronger punches tailored to different directions (uppercuts punch up and frog slams direct elbow force downward), but they’re integrated well with the platforming aspect of the game.
The range of enemies Juan has the liberty to knock out are adequate for a game as small as Guacamelee!, with dragons shooting projectiles while armadillos roll into you, and swift skeletons slice and dice. Even when the game begins spawning the same enemies, it amps the action by having these enemies protected by shields only breakable with your special moves. At any given time you can have three enemies with three different colored shields attacking from all sides, so timing and execution is key.
That said, while the combat was indeed fun and responsive, it would have benefitted from being more reactive after a combo. Often I found myself smashing a string of buttons three times, having Juan pause for a second or two to then continue his onslaught, which then stalled combat when facing four enemies or more at once. It was especially difficult given the animation when Juan is knocked out. The few seconds it would take Juan to get back up could have him knocked back down and lose precious life. Yet the game is gracious with its checkpoints should you fall in battle, and immediately respawns you to a platform if you failed to reach the next one.
Of course, if you do find yourself stuck on a particular platform, it may be time to turn into a chicken and find an alternative route. Yes, in Guacamelee! you can transform into poultry, and I’m convinced this is a feature all games should start incorporating into their design. As a chicken you traverse pathways too small for a bulky luchador, and you can even peck an enemy to death if you feel brave enough.
Not soon after receiving your chicken morphing powers, you earn the ability to switch between Calaca’s skeleton world and the living realm. This upgrade brings new challenges, as you constantly switch between dimensions to jump on the proper platforms to make it over a row of spikes or buzzsaws. Having just played Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a game that incorporates a similar idea, I was enthralled with the concept but not so impressed with its execution. There were quite a few incidents where the game demanded a certain level of dexterity I couldn’t keep up with, making for some rather frustrating times. Those events were few and far between, but there’s enough backtracking in the game to make them noticeable. Nevertheless, the dimension switching is quite enjoyable when certain enemies can only be attacked when in specific worlds, making combat a fast-paced and thrilling occurrence.
The legendary mask bestowed to Juan wouldn’t be legendary without a guardian, and she goes by the name of Tostada. This is a character to accompany Juan on his adventure, playable as a co-op partner, though this actually doesn’t add much to the overall experience. In particular, the platforming segments require a certain amount of precision tough for two players cannot to coordinate. The second player has the option to hover around as a ball of light if the platforming is best done by a single person, but then it’s just best to avoid co-op altogether. If you want to play the game alone on the go, you can do that, because once you purchase the PlayStation 3 version, you receive a free Vita copy with the option to cross save and cross play.
Guacamelee! has its fair share of piñatas, chickens and goat wizards, but an extra touch that Drinkbox includes in the game’s decor truly deserves a mention. It won’t take you long to notice something oddly familiar about a wrestling promo in Juan’s hometown, even if you have no idea what ‘Super Hermanos’ means in English (hint: the promo has men in red and green tights). These callouts are sprawled throughout the game, and they’re sure to make you smile every time you spot one.
Not only does Guacamelee! make shoutouts to great retro and indie games before it, the team has managed to cleverly incorporate memes into the game’s settings almost as a long-form inside joke. We all frequent reddit and share memes enough to know that it’s embedded in our gaming culture, and to see these developers are just as enthralled in those customs gives Guacamelee! a personal connection to the player.
Guacamelee! is an eccentric adventure in the world of skull candy decor and ‘pollo’ power, spanning between five and eight hours depending on your commitment to achievements. The heart that went into developing Guacamelee! is evident in its execution and reverence to other works. Serving as a suitable take on the metroidvania subgenre, Guacamelee! is a game that manages to hold a player’s attention to the very end. If anything, remember this: you can transform into a chicken.
+ Good execution in combat and platforming using the same mechanics
+ Wonderful ambience honoring Mexican and gamer heritage
— Dimension switching mechanics don’t work well when platforming
8 / 10