Saturday, April 13, 2013

REVIEW - Guacamelee!

Metroidvania  
A style of 2D action gameplay revolving around exploring a labyrinth with the necessity of locating new items and equipment to progress beyond otherwise impassible obstacles. The concept is named for its common usage in the Metroid and Castlevania franchises.
-Giant Bomb-


Drinkbox Studios have, within the span of a year, set themselves up as the next Klei Entertainment.  In 2011, the developer released Tales from Space: About a Blob and Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!!! - two pleasant and inoffensive puzzle-platformers that showed promise, but provided few genuine thrills.

But one got a whiff of it, even then.  The sultry smell of success, on the horizon.
"If they keep this up, one can expect them to start making flat-out great games..."
-the Mutant Blobs Attack!!! review-
Well, now, they have.  Guacamelee is the most fun I've had with my Vita since Gravity Rush.

It's not perfection, but neither is it bothersome or offensive in any capacity.  Like their Tales from Space titles, Guacamelee is comfortably designed and pleasant executed, but Guacamelee goes several steps beyond anything the studio has done in the past with entertaining dialogue, excellent music, deep combat and platforming mechanics and a video game that looks like concept art in motion.

Journey's end.

Much has been made lately of how gleefully Guacamelee makes reference to other games and Internet memes in general - and while it can sometimes come off as a bit too eager-to-please with its repeated nods to properties Drinkbox hopes you love - it ends up settling somewhere in the proximity of endearing.   It's cheeky and cheerful about it, and one ends up feeling less like being subjected to someone trying to convince you of their nerd cred than meeting a friend who just happens to love all the same stuff you do.

Which may be wise for a game that cribs mechanics so freely.  Prior to release, Guacamelee sold itself as a 'Metroidvania brawler' - but the only game it pays repeat homage to is Metroid, to which it owes its basic structure of exploring a bit and discovering a new combat ability that will open up further exploration.

It even has you breaking Chozo statues to unlock your new abilities.

Gosh, I wonder if that means you'll have to find 15 more statues to unlock all your awesome powers!

What Drinkbox never told anyone is that they basically pulled a Darksiders on the combat.  As their last two games featured oozy blobs, the intricacies of melee were hardly their forte - but Guacamelee's brawling is delicious.  How did this happen?

As Vigil games did with Darksiders, Drinkbox simply took the combat mechanics of another successful game and ripped them off wholesale before paring it back, simplifying it a bit and adding their own twists. In this case, that game was Shank 2 - the best 2D brawler in years - and the results of that gentle thievery are wonderful.

Training with Combo Chicken gets pretty crazy when the combo instructions start filling the room.

Square is your standard three-punch combo.  Up and square is an uppercut, down and square is a downward slam while jumping, with a dodge mapped to the right thumb stick (or left trigger).  As in Shank, mastering the dodge is essential, and the game is balanced for split-second timing as you emerge from a roll into an attack combo.  As in Shank, throwing your enemies in to each other is of paramount importance (here, enemies can be thrown once weakened a bit), and absolutely central to your survival as you efficiently crowd control your foes by whacking them with other foes.

It's a lot of fun.


In classic Metroidvania fashion, your repertoire of abilities quickly expands.  It begins by providing a flying uppercut that plays a dual role as your first double-jump, allowing access to previously impassable passages.

Fifteen "Choozo" statues later, and you soar around the game world like a superhero, dashing your way through a gorgeous pastel world and trying your hand against some of the craziest platforming this side of Super Meat Boy.

Guacamelee rarely suffers the frustrating difficulty spikes of the Shank series, though, and while boss encounters seem impassable and ludicrously hard at first, they merely require a good dose of practice.  The final boss, for example, is a teleporting nightmare with an un-dodgeable attack, but - once mastered - his initially terrifying challenge makes one feel all the more badass when laying a smackdown on him.


The story is fine - little to write home about, but comfortable and easy-going.  Juan is a humble agave farmer, living in a community obsessed with the awesomeness of luchadores.  When an evil skeleton shows up on the eve of dia de los muertos (the Day of the Dead) and kidnaps el Presidente's daughter, Juan attempts to save her and gets killed for his trouble.

Waking up in the land of the dead, he discovers a mysterious mask which not only returns him to the land of the living, but makes him...


...a luchador! Which, naturally, is the only power in the universe capable of standing up to a crazed skeleton from beyond the grave.  The narrative serves its purpose and generally doesn't get in the way.  Plus, it occasionally has delightful bits of abject craziness like this:

Admit it.  You want to know where this is going.

Guacamelee has no weakness or major error to point out.  Its tech is rock-solid, its load times are lightning-fast, and being able to bounce my save file back and forth from the PS3 to the Vita is - as always - a boon.  The game is so accomplished, as a general rule, that my only problem with it is the lack of amenities one would enjoy, were it a larger and more ambitious title.

I almost want to think of it as a Vanillaware or Nintendo 2D title - a full-sale release with all the bells and whistles.  I want multiple save slots.  I want an instruction manual that actually explains anything about the way the game plays, what the deal is with those mysterious doors to another universe (hint: want to see the true ending? Find the doors), and how the hell can I take advantage of the Vita-as-a-controller-for-PS3 thing I keep hearing about?

I want more towns to explore, more side-stories, and perhaps a menu that keeps track of side quests?

So, there are a few little extras that a full-release title would provide which Guacamelee does not.  But Guacamelee is not a full-release title.  It's a little fourteen dollar game made by ten talented folks in Toronto - and for a fourteen dollar game, it's flat-out spectacular.


The Vita and PS3 versions are identical (I'd suggest colors pop a bit more on the Vita), and like any good Metroidvania, Guacamelee boasts a lot to see and do as you master its most maddening platforming challenges and combat arenas, find all the power-ups and perhaps even see the true ending.

It offers a humble wealth of content for its meager price, and - as with everything Drinkbox makes, it seems - everything is well-polished, thoughtfully-designed and mercilessly playtested until it's as smooth as butter.

Guacamelee is a delightful game in all facets.  A classic genre piece with modern sensibilities.  A capable, comfortable 2D brawler on your handheld.  A celebration of Mexican art and culture.  Visually beautiful, musically wonderous (flipping back and forth from the world of the living to the land of the dead, the music will change from a lively tune to the same song - but distant and mournful), and mechanically rock-solid.

This is the best action game to drop on the Vita since Gravity Rush, and easily the best thing the platform has seen all year.

Buy it.

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