Guacamelee! is exactly what it sounds like – a Luchador-fuelled action-platformer which is quite a laugh.
You are Juan, a simple farmer from the Agave fields who is in love with El Presidente’s unnamed daughter. There is a festival in your small town of Pueblucho, celebrating Día de Muertos, and you go to the town to help set up for the events. After a quick tutorial in the town church, El Presidente’s mansion is set ablaze, and you dash in to save your unnamed love.
Your love is very quickly spirited away by the evil charro skeleton, Carlos Calaca. Being the man of honor that Juan is, he tries to save her, cutscene style, but is swiftly and easily killed in the process – as Calaca derides, Juan isn’t even a luchador yet, which is apparently a big thing in the Guacamelee! universe. You wake up in the Land of the Dead, and start running to the right – which is either a clever trick by the developers, Drinkbox Studios, or a nice coincidence that this is where the game really starts; a great and powerful luchador mask is bestowed upon you by a magical statue outside El Presidente’s mansion. You are now a luchador, capable of great feats of epicness, such as breaking bones and grappling skeletons. You embark on an epic quest to save the unnamed love of your life and stop the evil undead from merging the Land of the Living with the Land of the Dead.
Guacamelee! is pretty much as wacky as it sounds, and it makes no bones about terrible jokes either. There are a handful of throwaway lines which are actually quite good, and will tease out a wry smile, if not a chuckle. Interspersed throughout the game are adverts for luchador-themed games and pop-references which will amuse the discerning player. A particularly good example would be the Casa Crashers poster which is so very obviously emulating the popular 2D beat-em-up, Castle Crashers. The problem is that it’s all very nearly lost when the humor is so very hit and miss. For every quirky poster and offer to date your mom, there is a line which makes you stop, put Guacamelee! down, and put your head in your hands as you groan in mental anguish.
The line “your princess is in another castle” was irritating enough in Mario; since Braid effectively built its entire story around the concept, it’s become cliche. Throwing in iconic lines because you think they are droll is not funny, it’s just trite. Nobody likes trite. Sadly, moments like these detract from the game, shattering the fourth wall entirely. At least Guacamelee! doesn’t say anything about taking a projectile weapon to the knee; if it had, it would have gone straight out the window.
Terrible jokes aside, Guacamelee! is a lot of fun to play. The colors are bright and vibrant, making the game incredibly appealing on the eye. You spend the entire game swapping between the Lands of the Living and the Dead, and while the Land of the Dead is obviously painted with a darker pallate, it still looks like a vibrant, fun place to live. The soundtrack is equally appealing with its upbeat and stereotypically Mexican vibe. You can easily play the game end-to-end with headphones on and not get bored of the upbeat tunes.
In terms of gameplay, it plays pretty much like every other metroidvania out there for the most part. You run and jump from platform to platform, clearing out enemies with your signature moves. As a luchador, your moves start out as a simple punch to the face, followed by a grapple, throwing your enemies around like ragdolls. Fun though these brawls are, you soon pick up the really impressive moves such as the Rooster Uppercut, Olmec’s Headbutt, the Frog Slam and yes, even the Dashing Derpderp – the shape-shifting goat-man (who wants to date your mom) bestowing these powers on you admits at this point that he has run out of ideas.
These moves are not only useful when chained together for epic combos, but are even more useful in terms of traversing the map. Juan can only jump so high and so far, but adding a Rooster Uppercut to the peak of your jump will just get you that little bit higher; if you then add a Dashing Derpderp to the end of your uppercut, you will punch to the side, Captain Falcon style, allowing you to just shift yourself onto the platform you are trying to reach. The platforms are all placed perfectly to make simply jumping from A to B a fool’s errand. On top of all this, these special moves also break specific color-coded walls, allowing access to secret and previously unavailable areas.
This attention to combos and attacks as a means of transport make for some really impressive puzzles as you explore the world of Guacamelee! You can follow the linear path which the story sets out if you want to, or you can explore the areas you visit, backtracking when you unlock certain powers like the Pollo Power which turns you into a chicken to fit through small gaps which our muscle-bound luchador simply cannot fit through. Finding these areas generally nets you cash for upgrades or a collectable, with three of the same collectable unlocking upgrades to your stamina or health bar. As awesome as it is to get a health boost, these puzzle rooms are rewarding enough with the cash to be perfectly frank; some of them are really quite tricky, and punching that chest open at the end and claiming your reward is immensely and instantly gratifying, no matter what’s inside. It’s rare to see a puzzle platformer laying out puzzles with this much grace.
The only thing about Guacamele! which leaves a bad taste in the mouth – other than the trite references – is the boss fights. Boss fights should exist to test the player’s skills, not their patience. While these boss fights certainly test your abilities with Juan, the difficulty spikes to horrendous levels just when you don’t need it to. It’s incredibly frustrating when you’ve almost killed the boss, they have a sliver of heath left, and instead of making contact with that final blow, the demon hits you with a cheap shot, making you redo the entire battle; the last boss in Guacamelee! was very nearly a Vita-out-the-window moment. Two of the boss fights have checkpoints at 50% health which really were appreciated, but if you’re going to make your bosses that much of a cheap shot, Drinkbox should really give checkpoints for all of them.
Guacamelee! really is a fun little game, which is worth your time if you can spare the 4-5 hours it takes to play through the game. The campaign is a little short, and you could probably blast through it in 2-3 hours at a push, but you will be missing out on all of the fun puzzles if you do. When you play Guacamelee!, play it slowly – take the time to appreciate just how pretty is. If you haven’t played it yet, it may be worth waiting for summer 2014 for Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition. Guacamelee! STCE will come with previously unreleased missions, abilities, enemies and areas, with all the fun of the DLC for the existing versions of the game.