Are you a Chick-Can or a Chick-can’t?
Every now and then a game like Guacamelee! comes along to remind us of the simple pleasures in life. I’m talking about the satisfaction that comes from platforming to every corner of a large world to see all that it has to offer. I’m talking about the pride one would feel when he dons the mask of a luchador and proceeds to piledrive a single skeleton onto more skeletons and some dinosaur-looking things, creating an explosion of pain and greatness! I’m talking about the joy we all feel when a game came along and recognized that the only thing better than being a superhero wrestler was being one that could turn into a chicken any damn time he/she wanted to!
Alright, well, maybe these pleasures aren’t exactly universal, but if that sounds good to you, then you should definitely play Guacamelee!.
Taking place in a small Mexican village, the player takes the role of Juan, a mostly ordinary villager who happens to be a childhood friend and (of course) crush to the daughter of El Presidente. When she gets kidnapped by a sinister Skeletal Charro named Carlos Calaca, Juan finds himself taken to the world of dead where the powers of a mysterious Luchador mask and the help of a undead (I think) luchadora named Tostada are his only allies in his quest to stop Calaca’s plot and rescue his love.
So, yeah, it’s the basic damsel in distress plot, and Guacamelee! comes dangerously close to being almost forgettable in this respect. Luckily, the game has a very solid sense of humor and overall lightheartedness that makes up for the story’s shortcomings. Despite the actual happenings of the story not leaving much of an impression, the game somehow finds a way to be charming. I wasn’t a big fan of all the referential humor in the game (and I mean there is a crapload of references), but interacting with characters like the crazy, old goat-man who grants you new abilities or the big chicken who allows you to learn new combos by means of beating the hell out of his undead friend really adds a lot to what could have easily been a relatively unremarkable journey.
Of course, you may want more out of your story than just humor, but I feel that the charm Guacamelee! has puts in the same league as other download-only platformers I’ve enjoyed, like Super Meat Boy or Trials Evolution. These were games that only took one thing seriously; and that was making the game fun to play. Guacamelee! happens to follow that same formula, but manages to bring it to an exploration-based setup.
The “metroidvania” direction of Guacamelee! is pretty straightforward and, honestly, as enjoyable as this sub-genre has ever been. Finding all the treasure and secrets in each area will require progressing for new abilities and bringing those abilities back so you can break into blocked off rooms (color-coordinated to the specific move, no less) and platforming your way to the prize.
Maybe backtracking isn’t your thing, but Guacamelee! is pretty persuasive about getting you to do it. Not because you really need to 100% the game, but just because it’s so fun to get around. Some platforming bits will get incredibly tricky, and it’s a definite rush to use all your available powers (wall-running, uppercutting, air-dashing, to name a few) to just barely get the height and distance needed to stick the landing. You’ll also manipulate the dead world and light world mechanic (eventually you get the power to switch between the two on the fly) to get through some pretty clever sections that require equal parts wit and reaction.
With that being said, the art style and animation sometimes don’t seem like the best fit for the level of precision some of the well-hidden areas will demand. You’ll often screw up because Juan or Tostada feel just a bit too stiff at times, and when certain sections of the game go full-blown Meat Boy on you, it can get obnoxiously frustrating in a way that doesn’t feel quite as fair as SMB did. Still, I found that if you can get a friend on board to take advantage of the game’s local co-op (Juan and Tostada play mostly same, but with different animations), not only can you tag-team your way through everything the game has to offer, but you can also relieve some of the stress of having to do all the really masochistic stuff on your own.
As for the combat, when Guacamelee! isn’t about exploring, it spends a good chunk of time being a 2D brawler, and a pretty damn satisfying one at that. Many of your moves are just as important to beating up rooms of enemies as they are to getting around. You can chain your moves together for combos or, like any good luchador/luchadora, you can take advantage of the throw ability after you’ve done enough damage. This allows you to throw enemies into other enemies (way more satisfying than it probably sounds) or perform different, over-the-top wrestling manuevers.
There’s a not huge variety of enemies in the game, but the combat also implements the Dead World/Light World mechanic as well as a shield mechanic where certain enemies need to get hit by a particular move. This means the fights stay satisfying to dominate, but the different arrangements of enemies means they aren’t locked in the player’s favor either. Unfortunately, none of the boss fights really add anything interesting to the combat, but fighting is still a treat in Guacamelee!, and feels very natural when tied to the game’s platforming elements.
So, at this point, it would seem like I love Guacamelee!, right? Well, I definitely do, but I have to make something clear: The game is busted. I can’t be sure if playing a 100% co-op run triggered more bugs (I played a little bit on my own afterwards, and didn’t experience anything so it’s possible) or if the problem was just specific to my system, but the game would definitely flip out more than once.
Sometimes it was just small things like the music hiccuping briefly (a bit of a shame seeing as how the music is fantastic otherwise), but a reoccurring issue was when the game just stopped recognizing any input I made for the character. The game never outright crashed, but I had to open the pause menu and restart quite a few times. Another time, a mandatory path needed to progress in the game simply failed to load. These problems weren’t quite widespread during my playthrough, but there were enough moments that I was constantly wondering when the game would break again. Nothing got broke that didn’t get fixed with a restart, fortunately, but it’s not good to have that black cloud of technical problems hang over your head throughout an entire game.
That annoying problem aside, though, Guacamelee! is a title I would absolutely recommend. The game has a combat system that is consistently engaging and satisfying, platforming that is solidly-executed, and its overall design serves as a fantastic tribute to the pleasures that can come from 2D exploration in games, as well as a demonstration to just how versatile games of that nature can be. It’s got some rough edges, for sure, but what luchador doesn’t?
Guacamelee! is available on the PSN via PS3 or Vita. Our review was completed playing on the PS3.