Review: Guacamelee! offers a delicious mix of combat, platforming, art, and music
Guacamelee! from indie developer Drinkbox Studios (Tales from Space series) tells a tale of glory, honor, and romance. It also tells a tale about evil skeletons, goat-men, roosters, and a masked lucha libre hero. So if you’re expecting some emotional epic, you’ve got another thing coming. What you can expect, however, is one heck of a ride, rife with incredible art, awesome music, and funny references. Oh, and the gameplay is also really damn sweet, making for a complete package that’s worth playing if you’re a fan of action games, platforming, and humor.
You don the wrestling mask of Juan, an agave farmer who lived a simple life before being killed by the vile Carlos Calaca and returning from the dead as a luchador. Juan sets out to search for El Presidente’s Daughter, a lovely young lady who’s been kidnapped by Calaca so the evil charro can go through with a wicked ritual in an attempt to rule over the worlds of the living and dead. While you could certainly take these themes and build a serious tone around them, Drinkbox decided to go in a completely different direction, starring a cast of hilarious villains who always have plenty of comical quips to throw your way.
As a luchador, Juan has a nice arsenal of moves that can be employed to dispose of Calaca’s beastly and undead minions. In addition to punching your enemies senseless, you can also toss weakened foes across the screen and even knock dudes into each other. As you brawl your way through waves of bad guys, you earn money that can be used to purchase upgrades at Day of the Dead save altars. While you begin with a few basic attacks, it doesn’t take long for you to earn enough cash to buy pulverizing piledrivers, suplexes, and punt kicks. Pulling off these moves drains your stamina meter, but throughout your adventure you’ll come across health and stamina upgrades, a few of which can be purchased.
Along the way you discover breakable Choozo statues (yup). Crushing these structures summons an old goat-man who grants you even more abilities, such as wall jumps, double jumps, headbutts, uppercuts, and many, many more. A lot of the attacks that the goat dude provides are utilized to break through color-coded obstacles. Performing a downward body slam, for example, allows you to break through previously impenetrable green blocks. Meanwhile headbutts break through yellow walls and so on. These particular attacks are also necessary for breaking enemy shields, and depending on the color of your foes’ defenses, it’s up to you to pull off the appropriate offensive maneuver.
While the piledriver was definitely my favorite move in all of Guacamelee!, I was just about equally fond of Juan’s ability to turn into a rooster. In this feathered state, the farmer-turned-wrestler-turned-poultry can enter small openings and discover new areas, each with their own rewards. Oh, and if you think the chicken reference in Guacamelee! is racist, you’re wrong. I grew up in a Mexican household and I fondly remember my family having chickens and roosters in the backyard. So yeah, Guacamelee!’s emphasis on chickens isn’t racist — just hilariously accurate.
One of the more mechanically interesting elements of Guacamelee! is the ability to switch between the living and dead worlds. While not available to you at first, you'll eventually be able to shift between dimensions. A lot of the basic landscape remains the same, but the art and certain aspects between the two worlds differ. For starters, some platforms and walls can only be seen in one dimension, which means you can expect to rapidly switch on the fly as you traverse the land.
The gameplay of Guacamelee! takes somewhat of a "Metroidvania light" approach. That’s not to say it’s lacking a few intricacies, but rather than depending on a lot of the more tedious tropes that said titles suffer from, this 2D action-adventure romp streamlines its mechanics to keep the pacing enjoyable. A lot of the moves you unlock later in the game can be utilized to reach previously inaccessible areas. Revisiting these locations rewards you with money, stamina upgrades, and heart chunks. You don’t need to go back to collect these items, but if you take the time to do so, you certainly get a nice payout for your troubles.
You’ll come across smaller towns in between the bigger levels. The citizens of these areas always have something to say, and many of them offer side quests. These extra objectives can be a bit annoying at times, but they’re not mandatory, so if you want to progress more smoothly through the world of Guacamelee, you’re free to do so. If you’re worried you’ll miss out on anything interesting by skipping side missions, fret not; you won’t.
Aside from all of the challenging brawling and platforming gameplay (bosses are especially tough), Guacamelee! boasts a lovely graphical style that’s clearly inspired by Mexican art. Earthy tones are mixed ever-so-effortlessly with bright hues to create a lively world. References to internet memes and other video games are also seen throughout, with both town posters and wall art offering a spin on various iconic images you’ve likely seen before. The music is equally splendid, mixing up some great Latin-influenced sounds with electronic chiptune goodness.
You can get to the end of Guacamelee! in about five hours or less, which is undeniably a bit short. Beating the game unlocks Hard Mode, and there’s even two-player co-op, so if you really want to invest some serious time into the experience, you most certainly can. Even if all you do is play through Guacamelee! one time, though, you’ll still get a rewarding, worthwhile experience that’s pretty to look at, cool to listen to, and just too much fun to play. If you’re looking for an entertaining title that’s heavy on combat and platforming, you’d do well to check out Drinkbox’s latest endeavor. Extra points if you go out for street tacos immediately following a play session.
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