Given that Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are two of my all-time favorite games, it’s safe to say I enjoy the sub-genre that derives its name from them. Guacamelee! certainly carries on the tradition of progression through new abilities, but it also stands on its own as a terrific 2D platformer. It’s a very well made experience, and one of the best I’ve played this year.
The main character in Guacalemee! is Juan, a simple agave farmer. While attempting to rescue El Presidente’s daughter from Carlos Calaca, ruler of the dead world, Juan is killed, only to be resurrected by a mystical mask that transforms him into a powerful luchador. Using his new found powers and more discovered along the way, Juan sets out to rescue her.
The basics of the game are standard 2D platforming fare. Juan punches and kicks enemies until they are weak enough that he can grapple them, either throwing them or executing one of a few special moves that can be purchased throughout the game. As the game progresses Juan will gain extra abilities that will grant him both new combat powers, and the ability to reach previously restricted areas.
Defeating enemies earns money, which can be spent at the shops littered around the world (these shops also serve as save points). Juan can use the shop to purchase combat techniques like a pile driver, new costumes that have different attributes, or buy pieces of heart or stamina to add to those gauges.
Right away the game showcases its terrific sense of humor. Juan finds new powers in Choozo statues, which are a dead ringer for Super Metroid’s Chozo statues. There are also numerous references to the Mario series, and watching the background reveals nods to everything from Homestar Runner to Wreck-It-Ralph. The character dialog is great as well, especially from the old man who owns the Choozo statues.
As the game progresses Juan will come across different colored blocks that will need to be broken using certain abilities. These are always marked on the map, so it was easy for me to see where there were extra areas for me to open up. During later parts of the game, enemies will also begin to have shields in the same color as the blocks, which must be broken using those same abilities.
In his pursuit of Calaca and his minions, Juan will have to travel back and forth between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Certain enemies only exist in one world or the other, and so Juan must be in the correct world to attack an enemy, although enemy attacks from the other world will still strike. As the game goes on it becomes a real challenge to juggle enemies with different types of shields, in two different worlds. The combat in Guacamelee! certainly becomes very challenging, but it never feels unfair, which is an impressive feat.
For as difficult as the combat can be, the platforming is equally tough. Although Juan will gain standard abilities like the double jump, many of the attacks he learns are also required to navigate sections of the world. For example, a double jump paired with a dodge and followed by an uppercut may be required to make it from one platform to the next. Fortunately the controls in the game are smooth throughout, and executing the correct move is never difficult. In addition, failure during a platforming sequence simply warps Juan back to where he jumped from, with no loss of life or other penalty. It’s a great mechanic that keeps the tough sections from becoming frustrating.
In general, Guacamelee! is just a very well-designed game. Objectives are clearly marked on the map, making it easy to know where I was heading at all times. Likewise, NPC’s who had side quests to give were marked with an exclamation point, making them easy to spot. Dying in combat rarely pushed me backwards at all, and I usually picked up in the same room I died in. So, if I died during a boss fight, rather than repeating the entire conversation that preceded it, I just jumped right back into the action. Small touches like this kept the game flowing smoothly at all times.
Simply put, Guacalemee! looks fantastic. I loved the art style, and the graphics were equally impressive both up close and zoomed out. The enemy design is terrific as well, and I really enjoyed the style. The music is similarly impressive, and the mariachi tunes throughout kept getting stuck in my head.
As impressive as the game is, it’s not perfect. Some of the grapple special moves can occasionally be hard to execute, and I would wind up doing a standard throw instead. Also, I had one major glitch that left me stuck at one point. When I encountered a character who should have told me about a new technique, they instead commented on my new outfit. It wasn’t until I finally relented and watched a YouTube video that I saw what the NPC should have said. It didn’t wind up being game breaking, but without external help I would have been totally stuck.
Guacamelee! is a fantastic game. It’s funny and well-paced, and even when difficult the combat and platforming never felt unfair, just challenging. Everything is nicely presented, and the game looks, plays and sounds terrific. Although I did encounter one large stumbling block it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this gem. Anyone who likes a good 2D platformer should check this one out.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.