There aren’t many downsides to working in the gaming press. Oh sure, if you focus on the total lack of respect and the fact that, if anything, it actually costs money to get involved, then seems a little bleak, but at the end of the day we’re allowed to play video games and pretend it’s business. But one can get a bit jaded, especially when yet another small developer comes along with one more 2D platformer. It was with this cold, cynical, heartless soul I began playing Guacamelee, and I have been reborn.
Effortlessly charming and infectiously enthusiastic. That’s how I would summarise Drinkbox’s latest offering, were I forced to curb my enthusiasm and verbosity. From the moment you turn on the game and are bombarded with the bright colours and happy music of cartoon Mexico, Guacamelee is a good time. Even simple explanations of the premise seem disingenuously positive. You play as Juan, an unfortunate fellow who must rescue a beautiful woman from an evil skeleton by punching and kicking hundreds of other skeletons. You die, and then you come back to life with the power of a luchador mask, then you take fighting lessons from a giant chicken and a man who lives as a goat. One of the bad guys tries to defeat you with her sexy hips.
Sorry if this all sounds a bit like I’m gushing, these are just the dry facts. Guacamelee is an open-world action RPG in a similar vein to Super Metroid or the thousands of games that came after. As Juan, you will negotiate platforms, explore the world, gain a bunch of cool powers and kill the bad people. You travel the countryside and quickly amass the necessary luchador wherewithal to beat Calaca and save the girl. As with the Metroid games, the vast world is appropriately closed off until you acquire the necessary powers, meaning exploration never becomes a desperate wandering exercise. Different combat skills double as keys to your progress, such as a headbutt that can destroy yellow blocks.
This smart use of fighting as exploration has the added benefit of subtly teaching you how to pull off your new moves — before it becomes life and death. It will soon enough, with swarms of enemies itching to send you back to hell. Skeletons dodge, swipe and hurl bottles at your bonce. Tiny hyperactive creatures bounce around the screen with deadly intent. Gigantic animals fly towards you in Sonic-like buzzsaw spins. Thankfully, amid all this chaos you have control of a very tight fighting system. Basic kicks and punches start you off, but are quickly joined by throws, pounds and uppercuts. All of your moves can (and must) be strung together into dazzling combos that will simultaneously bestow a sense of achievement and amazement at being able to pull them off. When I started I was blundering about trying to just roll out of the way and slap something in the face, but after some wrestling (oh you) with the controls I could punt an enemy into the air, leap up after him to land a few extra blows, grab him, toss him into a crowd and crash forcefully to the ground ready to pull something else radical out of my tights.
The other important string in Guacamelee‘s bow lies in Juan’s fortunate demise. Not too far into the journey you start to grasp the ability to switch between the land of the living and the land of the dead. This changes the entire environment, turning a lush, tree-filled area into a spooky forest, or a temple into a frightening display of underworld influences. It also alters physical aspects of levels, prompting walls to appear where none existed and changing the locations of platforms. Some of the jumping puzzles this creates are fiendishly difficult but incredibly rewarding once conquered. Later on in the game this switching mechanic comes into its own, with certain enemies only revealing themselves on one plane, requiring constant flipping of dimensions on top of all that combat.
There’s just not enough of it, however — which can be said for the whole game. The world switching mechanics feel like they could have been a larger part of the game, but Guacamelee feels like it could have been much larger itself. The main story can be comfortably completed in less than six hours, and the addictive nature of play means you’ll likely see it done in a single day. Optional challenges and treasures are scattered organically around the world, adding a few hours to your playthrough if you’re the completionist type. Finishing the game also unlocks a harder difficulty for the challenge-inclined.
A co-op mode is also included, such as it is. Buying the game will net you both a PS3 and Vita copy, and a second player can join the fun on the other screen. Co-op works, but it feels almost intrusive to have another person horning in on your heroic adventure and wide-eyed exploration.
Obviously I’m only complaining about the length because what is there manages to impress so thoroughly. Guacamelee is a beautiful game in every sense. The artwork and soundtrack are instantly recognisable, dynamic and entertaining in their own rights. The game manages to be crammed full of references and sly winks to video game and popular culture without ever losing its own identity. If this was a mediocre game with all the same wit, wonder, colour and humour it would still get a recommendation. Similarly, if it was only a passable game world attached to such tight, rewarding and enjoyable mechanics it would get a tick of approval. To have all these elements crammed into one package is a welcome reminder of how unashamedly fun our hobby can be. Go. Learn from the wise chicken.