Posted on Saturday, April 13th, 2013 at 3:00 PM by Joseph Butler-Hartley
So, what do you get if you combine a masked luchador, a vast amount of Mexican paraphernalia and a disgruntled goat? You get Guacamelee!, an incredibly fun Metroidvania style puzzle, action, platformer, brawler indie game developed by Drinkbox Studios and released exclusively for the Playstation 3 and the Playstation Vita.
Guacamelee! tells the story of a Mexican labourer named Juan who takes a break from his normal toiling of the fields to save a small hub of Mexican villages and his love interest from an undead antagonist named Carlos Calaca, which is curiously also the sound I imagine a walking skeleton would make. In terms of plot, Guacamelee! takes inspiration from Mario of all things, and the story boils down to the male hero saving his girlfriend from a villain who wants to marry her. However, instead of bouncing up and down and occasionally swinging a hammer like his tubby Italian counterpart, Juan commands the power to shift between dimensions, the power to fling his enemies round like they’re participating in a vicious, Latino barn dance and last but not least, the power to transform at will into a chicken.
The combat in Guacamelee! is smooth, visceral and satisfying. The game breaks up the larger fights into bite-size ‘arena’ sections where the routes are blocked off until Juan has smashed the required amount of skulls, and there is a huge amount of pleasure to be gained in flailing around an arena, dispatching enemy after enemy with a combination of punches, throws and special attacks, whilst they blunder towards you swinging clumsily. Although the brawling combat is very enjoyable, it does have a certain ‘easy to learn, impossible to master’ quality about it. I completed the game without evolving my tactics further than rolling and bouncing around like a Mexican jumping bean and using special attacks whenever the opportunity arose. The game tries to encourage the player to put together more complex combos that are incredibly awkward to implement, exemplified by a side-quest in which Juan is forced to complete a series of combos at the behest of a demanding chicken which was by far the most frustrating and tedious part of the game. The stupidly unintuitive combos are pointless when exactly the same results can be gained by charging into a fight and improvising your attacks.
Juan gains powers by smashing statues and consequently gaining the opportunity to learn at the hooves of a reluctant goat/man who has nothing but contempt for Juan’s wanton destruction. The special powers Juan gains are well-balanced in the sense that I used all of the skills taught to me by the wise, old goat master in equal measure. After gaining a new power, the following section of puzzles or platforms forces Juan to implement the new skills as much as possible, which acclimatises the player to their use. Guacamelee! also has a competently implemented difficulty curve, and the special powers are unlocked in accordance with the rising challenge, which means just as the enemies are getting tougher, Juan has one more weapon in his arsenal to fight them with.
Although the difficulty curve does ramp up, it never becomes so difficult that it starts being frustrating. It’s true that on occasion I felt like throwing my controller out of the window, hoping it would land on an unsuspecting passer-by, but that was never the games fault. Normally, it was because I was trying to solve the puzzles incorrectly. When the solution to said puzzle became apparent, the frustration would wash away and I’d be grinning like a moron once again. The platform-based puzzles are all intuitive, and normally the solution can be identified early on. The struggle is trying to complete the solution, which usually involve fast, intricate platforming with several mechanics making it more complex, such as Juan’s ability to flit between the world of the living and the world of the dead. When in a village, this ability shifts the inhabitants and the décor of the town, but when out and about in the platform based world, the ability usually means nothing more than shifting where the platforms are. It does give added depth to the platforming though, and it means that when Juan does glide skilfully through a platforming section, flicking between worlds on his way, the player is rewarded with smug satisfaction.
The key reason the platforming stays fun through-out the game and normally avoids frustration, and this point can be generalised to the rest of the game also, is that death is not punished. In a game like this where the platforming and puzzling often involves trial and error and may take dozens of attempts before the solution becomes apparent, if a life-system had been used, or if Juan took a hit to his wallet every time he landed in the mysterious, fatal green liquid, the game would have ceased being fun and started being annoying. By not punishing death, the game keeps up its frenetic pace and emphasis is put on the pleasure of success rather than the anguish of failure.
As you have probably gathered, the game does have a sense of humour. On many occasion through-out the fairly brief but none the less highly enjoyable playthrough, the game genuinely made me laugh, which is a definite achievement. I particularly found myself chuckling at the grouchy goat man and his overt desire to have sex with Juan’s mum. That said, on occasion the humour made me sigh rather than giggle. Have you ever looked at internet memes such as the ‘me gusta’ man or the grumpy cat? The developers of Guacamelee! certainly have! Are you sick of internet memes such as the ‘me gusta’ man or the grumpy cat? I certainly am! Trying to achieve cheap laughs by plastering a bland, overused meme on a billboard in the background insulted me more than it humoured me, but maybe I’m just miserable.
Visually, Guacamelee! is very pleasant to look at. Its cartoonish graphics and charming character design are all pleasing to the eye and impressively, even though Juan can occasionally find himself in a tight, claustrophobic battle with over twenty enemies at once, it never seems to get too clustered and I never lost sight of Juan in the fray. However, a word of warning to epileptics: the game has RPG elements in the form of collectables which increase Juan’s health and stamina, and when Juan stumbles across one of these said collectables, the most garish, flashing animation which employs the most garish colours assaults your retinas. I’d recommend playing this game whilst wearing a pair of sunglasses, because I’d rather look cool than be forced into a seizure every time I make some progress.
Guacamelee! is a short, fun experience that will satisfy you and make you giggle. What more do you want from an indie game? I’d recommend this heartily to any Playstation owner. In other words, I give Guacamelee! a sombrero wearing, enchilada eating, skeleton flinging, chicken morphing thumbs up!
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