Most people are sold on a game the moment the phrase “Metroidvania” graces their ears. A tried and true formula, 2D open world games are still fully in demand, as it’s incredibly easy to screw them up, and they’re just as difficult to create.
But to simply call Guacamelee a Metroidvania and be done with it would be a disservice.
It’s a whole lot more than that .
You’ll begin your adventure as the unassuming Juan, a quiet yet likeable resident of the town he resides in. After a very short intro involving the capture of El Presidente’s daughter (Bad Dudes, anyone?), Juan gains supernatural powers and becomes a bona fide luchador, capable of pounding in the faces of the captors, the evil undead.
But at first, simply pounding faces in is basically all you can do, as your upgrades are slowly facilitated to you over the course of the narrative. While the general story isn’t something I would say transcends the medium, it manages to maintain a laughable, likeable demeanor throughout, with extremely memorable characters sprinkled in. I remember nearly every character I encountered, to the point where I feel like a few of them could easily be worthy of PlayStation All-Stars DLC. A lot of thought went into the process of creating Gaucamelee‘s world, as each foe has unique animations that really bring them to life.
Which brings us to the crux of the gameplay — Juan will have to straddle both the living world and the land of the dead throughout his journey — both of which feature different visuals and often times, different platforms and layouts. At first, you’ll be at the mercy of portals to utilize the plane switching mechanic, but a few hours in, switching planes on the fly with the press of a button becomes a core facet of the game. You’ll constantly use this to switch between worlds mid-jump to solve platforming puzzles, and dance between planes to hit enemies that reside in either universe. Truly, it reminds me of a 2D Soul Reaver in that sense– and I can’t think of a better compliment.
Exploration is key, and towards the end of the game, you’re given free reign to explore to your heart’s content. Through your luchadorian upgrades (most of which add to your mobility) and the ability to morph into a chicken to slip into cracks in the wall (basically, DrinkBox’s take on Samus Aran’s morph ball), you’ll be able to explore every facet of Gaucamelee, no matter how high or low.
Upgrades are gained cleverly through “Choozo” statues, a clever reference to Metroid‘s upgrade giving Chozo statues. But the statues aren’t the only reference in the game, as you’ll see various nods to characters like Mega Man, the Castle Crasher gang, and many more. The team’s love for old school games is not only palpable, but it’s also displayed proudly for all to see throughout the entire experience.
Guacamelee somehow manages to be an enthralling journey throughout, with hardly any dull moments. Pacing is extremely quick, as falling off a ledge will simply result in you respawning back to your latest stable spot. This doesn’t make the game’s platforming puzzles any easier mind you, as you will have to complete the entire puzzle flawlessly to earn a reward (or progress further) — this is basically just an incarnation of a more convenient checkpoint system that always keeps you in the action.
Speaking of checkpoints, they’re all extremely fair, and ramp up in difficulty as you progress through the game’s bosses. An apt comparison would be VVVVVV, one of my personal favorites, that manages to liberally sprinkle checkpoints but still pose a challenge to the player. It’s a great compromise for new and veteran Metroidvania players alike.
For instance, the first boss has two checkpoints, the next, one, and the following, none. It’s a solid way to approach a learning curve, and still maintain some sense of challenge throughout. There was one boss in particular where you have to use all of your powers to best him, and since you have to start all over if you die, it took me quite a while and gave me quite the rush. Guacamelee doesn’t really screw around in that sense: you will have to learn all of Juan’s intricacies by the end of the game, or suffer. As a gamer looking for a challenge, I respect that entirely.
To compliment the kickass gameplay, Guacamelee‘s visuals are vibrant, and the style is unmistakably unique. I love the level of enemy variety even if a lot of the earlier foes are skeletal based, as the game never really stops throwing new concepts at you throughout. Although this is a PS3 review, I was able to test both versions, and the colors really pop even more on the Vita — nothing was comprised.
What makes Guacamelee a really rare specimen is that the combat is actually technical. Very rarely do we get Metroidvanias, or even platformers for that matter, where combat comes down to more than the most simplistic of executions, but the combo system here goes above and beyond the call of duty.
For instance, after I had obtained most of my powers, in one brawl I comboed an enemy into the air, threw an uppercut to juggle him more, grabbed him, shifted planes in half a second to make another shadow enemy vulnerable, threw him into that enemy, shifted back, and kept my combo going with a dash punch.
On the PlayStation 3 version (but sadly, not the Vita), Guac fully supports co-op couch play. The cool thing is the second player takes the reigns of Juan’s mentor Tostada, which is part of the core story, and it’ s drop-in, drop-out at any time. Tostada will emulate the first player’s progress up to that point, so you don’t have to worry about leveling her up. Although they share the same moveset, her own animations really serve in separating her from her male cohort.
The aforementioned combat system also works even more organically here with another player, as you can throw enemies into your partner for extra combo effectiveness. No online co-op is a bummer, but the game fully stands on its own as a solo experience, so local co-op feels more like an extra in that regard.
After you’re done, you can walk the Earth and go for a 100% rating (your progress is conveniently shown on the map, as are the pickups in the area ), tackle Hard Mode, find all six secret orbs, or just play around with a friend in co-op. I enjoyed my time with it so much that I opted to go for a 100% run, and I’m planning a speedrun in the future. Cross-save and cross-buy (one price nets you both the Vita and PS3 copy, cross-save compatible) only sweeten the deal even further.
Oh, and you can use the Vita as a controller for the PS3 game (which conveniently displays the map), just like the Wii U’s GamePad. It’s a really nice set of features, and I wish more indie developers would support them — with DrinkBox paving the way though, that could be a possibility.
As a whole, Guacamelee is a much better effort than their prior Tales from Space, and really sets the bar high for their next game. In my mind, DrinkBox Studios basically transformed into one of my favorite developers overnight, and they did an excellent job with Guacamelee. As a solid mix of combat, exploration, and heart, it’s a shining example for Metroidvanias everywhere.