Posted by Robert Ramsey
Viva la lucha
Besides being a brilliant pun, Guacamelee! is a potent mix of platforming and brawling, wrapped-up in a cartoon-styled Mexico. The delightful Metroidvania-inspired adventure takes plenty of props from the greats that solidified the genre, but gracefully manages to maintain its own charm and personality, resulting in a digital download with plenty of bite.
You play as Juan, a silent protagonist who is struck down and killed just minutes into the campaign. Resurrected with a super powered luchador mask, it's up to the bulky protagonist to rescue the president's daughter from an undead musical maestro. In essence, it's a simple plot that never really strives for anything deeper, but its comical nature provides an undeniably playful backdrop to the gameplay.
Plot points are typically highlighted by the appearance of numerous colourful characters, all of which are memorable despite their fleeting screen time. Comedy forms the basis of these personalities, with humorous dialogue and quirky back stories adding identity to the loveable cast. To top it all off, each character is brilliantly animated – Juan himself being the highlight, as he jumps, rolls, and punches his way to victory.
So smooth are the animations that even the gameplay benefits. Actions as simple as sprinting across the screen are a real joy to watch, and the controls feel perfect because of it. Indeed, once you’ve adapted to Juan’s pace, it’s difficult to think of a comparative 2D sidescroller where the movement feels quite so slick.
This fluidity allows for some extremely enjoyable platforming, which unsurprisingly becomes more difficult and complex as the game progresses. Like the kings of the genre that the title draws inspiration from, you’ll be making use of power-ups such as height-boosting upper-cuts and block-breaking head butts to overcome obstacles that previously obscured your path. This means that backtracking is a necessity if you want to find every secret and collectible that’s tucked away, but doing so helps to familiarise yourself with your new combative toys.
And it certainly pays to be familiar with each aspect of Juan’s abilities: the game can be devilishly tricky at times, serving up some particularly challenging segments that are bound to frustrate. Fortunately, many of these puzzling platforming sections appear far trickier than they actually are, leading to moments of elation as you happen upon their deviously simple solutions.
The gameplay feels at its most satisfying when the title maintains its blistering pace. Sadly, there are a few instances where this is hindered by finicky level design that demands the use of multiple powers to overcome. While some of these acrobatic obstacles are cleverly implemented, the execution seems needlessly complex, and only serves to artificially lengthen some sequences.
The versatile powers that you unlock can also be used in combat, the second central aspect of the game. Things start off simple enough, with Juan having access to a basic attack combo and a very useful dodge mechanic. After adding each new power to your arsenal, however, Juan quickly becomes a combo-heavy killing machine, capable of taking on increasingly complex enemies which require much more strategy.
It’s safe to say that combat is the game’s greatest achievement. Every encounter feels unique thanks to different combinations of skull-faced opponents, and your ever-growing catalogue of moves means that you’ll always have something to play around with. Linking attacks together soon becomes second nature – again thanks to the silky smooth controls – and putting down an entire room of undead baddies without once getting hit is wonderfully empowering.
In many ways, the title’s fighting mechanics are closer to those found in brawlers such as Super Smash Bros. or PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, rather than traditional action adventure games. Launching enemies into the air is relatively easy, while keeping them there with strings of viscous punches and kicks is a simple matter of mashing square – in fact, aerial attacks play a pivotal role in keeping opponents out of the action.
The quality of the combat makes its sparing use a little disappointing. Most fights happen when you enter a room that’s closed off until you’ve defeated a wave of enemies. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, we found ourselves wanting more dynamic scraps with opponents outside of the scripted arenas. As it stands, most locations are relatively devoid of opposition. Overall, it feels like a missed opportunity when the system itself is so incredibly strong.
Outside of the standard encounters, you'll also face several bosses, all of which conform to the same disappointing design. Each boss boasts a pool of moves that they’ll use in a random sequence – the problem is that avoiding these attacks leads to a game of trial and error. The only way to fully understand their weaknesses is to die repeatedly, and this feels out of place in a game that’s otherwise extremely well balanced. However, when you do land the finishing blow in one of these exciting battles, it’s always a satisfying achievement – regardless of prior annoyances.
In addition to smashing up evil skeletons and leaping from platform-to-platform, you'll also be able to undertake quests and power-up your own abilities. The quest system is basic at best, with some tasks being more appealing than others. Sadly, most boil down to tedious item fetching. Elsewhere, you can upgrade Juan's various attributes by investing any cash that you earn from defeating monsters, augmenting some welcome – if very light – RPG mechanics. These secondary aspects do help to lengthen the otherwise concise experience. However, even after fully developing the protagonist's abilities, the game will only last you around six hours. We're not entirely convinced that this is a bad thing, though, because the title's short length means that it maintains a brisk pace that will help to keep you hooked.
On the visual side of things, the game's eye-catching due to its likeable art style. It’s fantastically colourful and cheerfully atmospheric. The backdrops to the various stages are simplistic yet suitably pretty, and the differences between the worlds of the living and the dead – a dimension hopping mechanic that plays a part in the platforming – are equally smart and strangely striking. There are even a bunch of Easter eggs and visual nods towards other titles embedded in the environments, some far less subtle than others. Internet memes also make an appearance, although their unnecessary presence may trigger a cringe-inducing response, rather than a humoured one.
Keeping in line with the game’s overall visual quality, the audio is mostly a pleasure to listen to. While there isn’t a massive variety of music on offer, there are some standout tunes that really jive with the game’s overall flavour, helping to tie the experience together.
And if all of that wasn't enough, you can choose to play the adventure on Sony's portable console if you find yourself away from your home display. The game looks lively on the big screen, but its crisp, vibrant visuals really pop on the PlayStation Vita's beautiful OLED panel. Our only gripe with the minimised version stems from the system’s sensitive analogue sticks, which makes some of the platforming elements harder to get to grips with.
Guacamelee! is a fiery adventure for fans of platformers with a bit of a kick. While the level design can be a bit finicky, it's the combat that's the real star of the show, making us wish that there was a little more of it. Still, the title may not be flawless, but it's entirely deserving of its place upon the great gaming menu, alongside the classics that so clearly inspired it.