Drinkbox Studios may well have come up with the pun of the year. As irresistibly fun as Guacamelee’s title sounds, it conveys plenty of honest truth about this gorgeous-looking game: its Mexican theme, its heavy focus on hand-to-hand combat, and, yes, its mild, not too-spicy irreverence.
Apart from one very droll jab in the direction of Fez (or more to the point, a trend that Polytron’s game spawned), Guacamelee isn’t so much satirical as silly. There are plenty of references to other games in this Mexican landscape (our favourite: a poster advertising “Casa Crashers”) but they’re part of gently amusing tone befitting a game about a man sent back from the land of the dead as a magical, heroic luchadore. Guacamelee isn’t an especially witty game – but it’s a fun one – and that lighthearted approach blends effortlessly with its stunning visuals.
Drinkbox’s game is a riot of colour, the Mexican inspired art giving life to a game with themes we haven’t seen since Grim Fandango, though this take on Mexican superstition lacks the dash of noir that ran through LucasArts’ classic. Instead it’s deliriously cartoony: the angular gradients of its landscapes recall Aztec carvings, while the mane of brightly coloured tufts on an alebrije makes the giant stomping monster look more like a carnival float. Later, you’ll find that each one of the richly detailed locations protagonist Juan journeys through exists in two realms, meaning Drinkbox has painted the sumptuous details twice. A snowy-mountaintop in the land of the living takes on a sickly hue in the land of the dead (where snow suddenly starts falling upwards), while a proud statue in the centre of town becomes sinister and skeletal. While there’s a dash of macabre to Guacamelee’s afterlife, it’s never bleak or dreary – in fact, the land of the dead’s version of the Guacamelee’s inevitable desert stage is a surreal, purple-skied delight.
But bash open this colourful, cheerful piñata and you’ll a see traditional and surprisingly tough Metroidvania game fall out. Guacamelee pays tribute to its inspiration not only via the names of the “Choozo” statues that hero Juan must crack open in order to gain new abilities, but through the abilities themselves. A thrusting uppercut functions as surrogate for Samus’ screw attack, while a ground pound manoeuvre does the job for bombs. Meanwhile, the ability to transfigure into a chicken that can fit through tighter spaces parallels Samus’ ability to curl up into her morph-ball form. At times, the gating is a little too simplistic: Guacamelee’s compact, detailed map is crammed with coloured blocks that can only be smashed through by the corresponding attack, lending a paint-by-numbers feel to progressing through the environment. Later you gain the ability to switch between the two worlds at will. It’s still too often used to walk by an obstacle that simply isn’t present in the corresponding reality – but the visual reward alone is an incentive to go back to earlier environments and explore.
As the limits of Gucamelee’s map slowly expand outwards in dependable, Metroid-fashion, you’ll bring these new abilities to bear on a series of (mostly skeletal) enemies. The focus on melee combat is Guacamelee’s major departure from standard Metroidvania structure – Juan has a basic three hit combo which can be blended with special attacks and throws, and there’s messy fun to these dense brawls that makes that Mexican-wrestling theme appropriate. While you can button mash through early encounters, throws later become key to survival, as a stunned enemy can be tossed in the direction of other foes to knock them to the ground.
The problem with Gucamelee’s combat is, frankly, there’s too much of it. Or at least there’s too much for the combat system provided. While a combo counter keeps track of the number of hits you’ve landed without fumbling, Juan is by no means Viewtiful Joe, his basic three hit combo is pretty much the extent of his melee repertoire, and as such combat is mainly a case of cycling that with the aforementioned special moves and throws – there’s no reward for imaginative combo strings because there’s not enough to string together in the first place. A dash of Dante would have gone a long way to enlivening some of Guacamelee’s more longwinded brawls (the game has a habit of locking you in a room with spawning enemies) but the major idea that Drinkbox shares with Ninja Theory’s DmC is colour-coded enemies that may only be hit with specific move. And yes, it’s as frustrating, limiting an idea here as it was in that game. Similarly annoying is that way later brawls introduce enemies that can only be attacked in one realm but hurt you in both.
Platforming is also prone to frustration, especially in the latter half of the game where you’re frequently required to blend tricky wall jumps with dimension switching. But while Guacamelee’s systems can feel overexposed in isolation, the game works when it switches between them more freely, particularly in the early areas of the game, with their focus on exploration rather than challenge. Returning to previously explored locales with new abilities recaptures some of that early thrill of adventure. With this in mind, the two town hubs are underutilised: they’re densely packed with jokes and references but offer only a handful of minor sidequests.
Guacamelee possibly sticks too rigidly to its chosen template: Drinkbox’s game is Metroidvania to the core in its reliable dispensing of new skills and the way it sends players ricocheting from one side of the map to next, and as such Guacamelee rarely surprises. It’s a solid formula, of course, and like its wrestler star Drinkbox’s game is dressed up luridly and with flair – but this entertaining romp is more about the costume than what’s beneath it.