It is hard not to love what developer DrinkBox Studios is bringing to the table. Their quirky Tales from Space series has dominated the indie scene, and it just so happens to be one of my favorite PS Vita games to date. Their latest effort, once again for PS3 and Vita respectively, continues the trend of excellence I have come to expect from the team. This cross-buy, cross-save action adventure game brings a flavor of Metroidvania mixed with enough of its own creative juices to create one of the finest experiences I have had on a PlayStation platform in 2013.
The story of Guacamelee is in line with other DrinkBox joints as much as to say it is off-the-wall. The story revolves around Juan, a simple farmer whose life never seems to go right. One day he is murdered by the evil skeleton named Carlos Calaca while defending the honor of his childhood sweetheart. Juan is quickly revived and given a special luchador mask that grants him special powers, thus beginning the journey to rescue his beloved.
The story is comical and well-written almost throughout. I laughed out loud when the goat/mentor who delivers Juan’s powers tells him he ran out of names, so this one is simply called “Derp, Derp”. It is moments like this that excel Guacamelee past the usual action/adventure narratives. While the story may not be in-depth or overly exciting, it still packs a comedic wallop. It is also remarkable considering there is no spoken dialogue. All characters use text bubbles to convey conversations, thus making the fact that it comes across hilarious, all the more impressive. DrinkBox is quickly establishing itself as one of the great, truly funny developers.
As I mentioned, Guacamelee takes a lot of its cues from traditional Metroidvania-style games. Powers are earned by destroying chozo statues throughout the game, with each one opening access to more areas. The Head butt opens up yellow barriers, while the Dash Punch tears through blue walls. It is this mentality that drove me forward constantly unlocking new areas. The powers also make traversing the world easier. One of the earlier abilities obtained lets players switch between the living and dead world. This becomes crucial not only for platforming segments, but also when fighting certain enemies.
Speaking of combat, Guacamelee is actually pretty deep when it comes to fisticuffs. At first, things felt a little stiff, and I died a good amount. After I grasped how the system worked, I could easily pull off 30-hit aerial combos without ever letting enemies touch the ground. The system uses minimal buttons, but directions play a large role. Learning when to hold up to launch characters, and when to use the right stick to dodge roll/block incoming attacks is crucial. The difficulty is never punishing, and checkpoints are forgiving, but the satisfaction obtained from juggling multiple enemies in the air, is unprecedented in most games of this type.
Collection feels rewarding thanks to the upgrade system. Juan has a series of unlocks that can be purchased with coins collected from defeated foes. There are also treasure chests to discover in the world. These contain pieces of life and stamina. Collect three of each and Juan’s life and stamina bars increase. Stamina is imperative when pulling off special moves such as Slam and Head butt, while the life meter is pretty self-explanatory. Most of these chests are behind barriers that require powers acquired later, giving reason to go back and explore the entire world.
The disappointing aspect of Guacamelee is its length. If I dedicated myself to it, it could be finished in a day. This is of course the main portion, and unlocking all the chests and collectibles might stretch a weekend, but this is still a brief experience. It also stands out mostly because of how enjoyable that day was. I loved jumping back into the world over and over again, perfecting the combat and seeing what new powers were just around the corner. Sure the platforming segments are downright punishing at times, but the forgiving checkpoints and polished gameplay really kept me coming back for more.
There is a co-op option for players wanting to get their local butt-kicking on. The second player can join shortly after the initial intro, but the core experience remains mostly the same. In fact I enjoyed it more solo simply because adding a second player seemed to just make the encounters more confusing, and simpler.
Being able to swap between the Vita and PS3 versions continues to be one of my favorite features of that combo. Grabbing saves back and forth is straightforward, and the game looks just as sharp on the Vita. Being able to continue my luchador adventures on-the-go was a definite bonus for me. It also helps that the game is only $15 for both versions, so indulge if you have both machines.
Visually, the game looks fantastic. The art style is sharp, and definitely feels like a DrinkBox title. The colors are extremely bright, and the poster-style versus screens for boss encounters and earning new powers are incredibly awesome. I also loved the music throughout the experience. Hearing the familiar Mariachi-themed guitar when earning a power, or simply indulging in a cut scene really drove home the theme of the title. This is definitely one slick experience across the board.
Guacamelee is a fantastic, albeit slightly short experience for PS3 and Vita owners. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who has either system. If you have both, the cross-save/buy mechanic makes it an even greater value being able to take the experience wherever you go. I only wish it would have lasted longer, but for the price there is more than enough here to love.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on PlayStation 3.