Guacamelee

As far as indie titles go, the side-scrolling, metroidvania brawler is pretty standard fare. Reiterating on this design time and time again can get boring.  However, Drinkbox’s latest game Guacamelee artfully dodges any possible complaints of dullness with a lively art style, well crafted controls, and unmercifully challenging platforming.  Guacamelee is not simply regurgitating a formula for success, it is a risky game with clear direction and creative execution.  If you haven’t already, add Drinkbox to the ever-expanding list of talented independent game makers looking to deliver a truly refreshing experience to your local console.

The game tells the story of Juan, a poor agave farmer in the village of Pueblucho who dreamed of being a luchador.  When he is killed by the game’s villain, Carlos Calaca, Juan is resurrected and given a luchador mask with special powers.  He then battles through legions of skeletons, evil cacti, dragons, and other devious creatures to rescue El Presidente’s daughter, his childhood crush.

The game’s story is simple and concise, yet the writing isn’t always as endearing as the art style.  The crux of the game is so simple–go here, kill this guy, move on–that the writing doesn’t have much work to do, but it is still the weakest part of Guacamelee.  The game walks the incredibly fine line of parodying Mexican culture and paying tribute to it, but aside from the rare misstep–for instance, a character named “Tostada”–Drinkbox walks the line with incredible care and reverence.  The writing and story are really at their best when they are unexpected, like naming one of the abilities the “Dashing Derp Derp” when the mentor character runs out of ideas.  There is also a witty blend of spanish and english spoken by the characters in the game, which is one of the writing’s true strengths.

Where Guacamelee really pulls you in, is its gorgeous art style.  The game is available on Vita and PlayStation 3 (with the cross-buy, you get both when you buy it on the PlayStation Store), but playing the game on the Vita almost feels like a crime as the game’s vibrant colors, stylish animations, and beautiful art design are something you will want to see on your TV.  The authenticity of the each level and each location is a love letter to Mexican culture, executed with clear direction.  There are so many visual cues that Guacamelee has in its design that it would be really easy to clutter the screen, but everything is communicated in such a simple, yet eloquent fashion, you will rarely miss a beat.  Every frame you guide Juan through is gorgeously constructed but sensibly laid out.  This same craftmanship is applied to the characters. who are so distinctly designed that they instantly adhere themselves to your memory. From the pistol wielding, appropriately named Flame Face to the caped feline Javair Jaguar, it is a cast easy to love.

While the story is simple and the art design is breathtaking, it is the gameplay that makes this title a success.  The game is well paced, starting you with smaller encounters featuring weaker enemies, then slowly ramping up the difficulty until the end.  The telltale sign of great pacing is how well the player grows with the game’s difficulty.  By the end of Guacamelee, Juan is dodging, jumping, smashing, and throwing all in such quick succession, a sign at how well the game communicates its controls over time.  While the controller layout can be a tad bit cumbersome from time to time, for the most part Guacamelee handles like a dream.

As Juan journey through temples, he finds “Choozo” statues.  Upon breaking the statues, he is given a new special abilities for combat and platforming.  While Guacamelee has plenty of challenging combat scenarios, it is the cleverly designed platforming sections that really steal the show.  Combining the multiple skills that you’ve acquired, these sections become increasingly complicated in execution and comprehension, but are also the most rewarding aspect of the game.  While the combat abilities are simple variations on ways to hit your opponent, the platforming ones are distinct and unique.  Where combat gets more creative is when all the enemies have been introduced and start getting shields.  These shields can often only be broken by a special attack, forcing the player to use all of the tools at their disposal and avoid relying on one or two specific moves.  The game also features interesting boss fights, which are prefaced with a pro wrestling match-up promotion poster.  While the first couple bosses feel a little generic, the last few are really inventive and challenging.  Make no mistake, Guacamelee is the kind of game that expects you to die often, and learn from your mistakes.

There a few complaints when it comes Guacamelee on the whole.  While the music starts off engaging, with a blend of traditional Mexican mariachi music and rhythmic electronic bass line, it becomes a one-trick pony about halfway through.  A few more tracks would have been nice to add some variety.  Also, while the game doesn’t feel too short, it does feel artificially bloated. with only a couple cities and temples.  While the difficulty can still lead to a 6-8 hour experience, it feels like a couple more locations would have made the world more fleshed our.  Lastly, there were a couple of glitches, which would normally not be a big deal, but as Guacamelee begins to crank up its difficulty, these glitches can be an issue.  There is no bigger buzzkill than finally beating a boss, or navigating a particularly tricky platforming section, only have a glitch send you right back into it.

Despite the few complaints, Guacamelee will keep you coming back for more with its charming art style and characters, rewarding challenge, and involved gameplay.  It is a game that grips you, puts you through the ringer, and leaves you desperately wanting more.  The hiccups barely register while you are masterfully guiding Juan through the gauntlet of enemies and maneuvering through obstacles.  The art and gameplay combine to make Guacamelee a must-play for anyone who is a fan of retro and indie games and puts Drinkbox in the mix with the elite indie developers. Let’s hope their future is as equally wonderful as their latest game.