By Dave Haldane
Guacamelee is the latest venture from Drinkbox Studios and, by far, one of the greatest 2D platformers I've ever played. It's a Metroidvania-style action platformer dipped in Mexican culture, wrapped in Easter eggs and splattered with humour. It manages to balance difficulty with skill, humour with story and style with substance to create a perfect experience from start to finish.
You play as Juan, a farmer-come-Luchador who must brave waves of enemies to save his true love and, incidentally, the world. The story isn't fantastic but that's not really important as, in a fashion similar to the Mario Bros. games, it's only there to provide framework. Delivered in short stills and dialogue its fast pace matches the gameplay perfectly. Whilst brusque it gives everything you need for context and provides the base to understand the many references in game.
Gameplay consists of two core elements; platforming and combat. The platforming feels very precise and easy to control meaning that, if you die, it's usually because you haven't mastered the timing or figured out the correct way to navigate an area. In true Metroidvania style, you start out with full access to the map but a limited number of skills. As you progress new moves are learnt enabling you to run faster, jump higher and throw things on the ground... in other words, access more of the map. For example; the very first skill you learn is the Rooster Uppercut (basically an SF2 Tiger Uppercut). In addition to being great for extending combos it allows you to jump a little bit higher, meaning you can reach platforms previously unattainable.
Where Guacamelee's platforming genius truly shines is in the level design. Levels have just the right amount of challenge so that, whilst not always blatantly obvious, they're not "look up a guide" hard either. New skills are unique, useful and granted evenly according to level requirements so it never feels like they are over used or granted too early. I can't emphasize enough how well the levels are designed. They are varied enough to use all skills you learn without feeling boring or "spammy" and the puzzles are perfectly integrated so you're always clear on where to head next.
A common problem with Metroidvania-style games is the inevitable backtracking across levels to find secrets you passed earlier or access newly accessible areas. Guacamelee manages to negate this issue by providing the ability to teleport between key points in each level. It further avoids frustration by colour coding barriers to match the skills you attain. For example; the rooster uppercut leaves a red trail, meaning red tinged barriers can be smashed by it; the frog slam is green, the derpderp move is blue, and so on. The best part is, if you've seen a coloured barrier, it gets marked on your map. So if you're going for 100%, you can scroll through the various maps to find places you haven't been and barriers you've yet to smash.
In addition to exceptional platforming Guacamelee is equipped with a surprisingly deep and rewarding combat system. Fighting is purely melee and features a combo system you'd not normally expect to see outside a versus fighter. You don't have to use it but executing juggles and taking out multiple enemies at once is extremely satisfying and, if you're going for 100%, essential for survival. In a similar vein to the platforming each new skill you learn affects how you play and, before long, you'll find yourself stringing together combos long enough to put Killer Instinct to shame.
Whilst you're not forced to use the combo system you are made to use the skills you acquire. Much like the barriers, some enemies have coloured shields that must be broken with a specific move before you are able to damage the foe. This is a very clever way of making you use various skills and see how they can be utilised in combat. If the intuitive combat system is still proving perplexing you needn't fear; Guacamelee comes equipped with a fully functioning training chicken who can teach you everything from the basic to the most complex of combos.
Continuing the trend of "but wait, there's more," Guacamelee doesn't just diversify battle by forcing you to use various skills. It also throws clever level design and a variety of different enemy types at you to ensure you're always on your toes and not just button-mashing. The diversity in the enemy types is truly amazing and, when combined with everything else, almost guarantees that it continues to feel fresh right up until the end.
It wouldn't be fair to finish without discussing a particular mechanic of Guacamelee that further sets it apart from the competition. The world is broken into two dimensions; the land of the dead and the land of the living. Initially you have no control over which dimension you are in, however part way through the game you learn a skill allowing you to switch at will. Aside from an impressive audio/visual change this feature allows for walls, platforms, monsters and even traps to appear or disappear. Add this mechanic to all I mentioned above and you can see how clever the game becomes. Bad guys are invulnerable if you're not in the right dimension, water changes to lava, and traps, walls or platforms blink in and out of existence meaning mid-jump switching soon becomes the norm.
If the gameplay doesn't suck you in the style surely will. Running at a steady 60fps the game feels like a neon pastel Mexican painting come to life. All visuals are sharp and clear yet everything blends in a way that's not detrimental to gameplay. Accompanied by an electronic/mariachi soundtrack it won't take long before you're caught up in the Mexican folklore and enjoying the tale. Each area of the game has its own look, feel and sound meaning that, once again, everything will still feel fresh by the time you reach the final boss... oops, spoilers... there's a final boss.
Your enjoyment will be further augmented by Drinkbox Studios' ability to blend humour with story perfectly. There are hundreds of Easter eggs to be found including memes, game references, movie references and more. I'm not sure how they do it but they get the mix of stupid just right so it doesn't feel forced or overdone but provides consistent mirth.
Guacamelee won't take you long to finish, but once completed there's a lot for you to go back and see. In fact, some of the game's greatest challenges will probably only be seen by those going for the platinum trophy; a worthy goal considering the trophies are fair, amusing and well designed. In addition to trophies you're offered an alternate ending, a hard mode and a co-op mode to keep you playing... that and it's just so much fun of course. It's the perfect length for a $20 game.
Guacamelee is easy to pick up but hard to put down. People of all skill levels will be able to enjoy it and Drinkbox even threw in cross-play for free. If you're a fan of platformers, Guacamelee is an absolute MUST!