‘Guacamelee!’: it’s a bloody great title for a game isn’t it? It wrestles your attention (pun absolutely intended), captures in a single word the game’s Mexicana-theme and penchant for ass-kickery, and makes you want to play it before you’ve seen a single frame of actual gameplay. It may also make you hungry, but this is something of an aside. But of course, a witty moniker alone does not a great game make, so does Guacamelee! the game live up to Guacamelee! the name?
With two games under its belt, Drinkbox Studios has already proven itself to be a developer of some ability; About A Blob and sequel, Mutant Blob’s Attack, were beautifully crafted and frequently inspired platformers embued with a wonderfully authentic 1950’s sci-fi charm. Though the blob has been put on the back burner, with Guacamelee! the studio hasn’t strayed too far from what it is good at, even if it has striven to create a bold new universe with slightly less focus on linear progression. At its core, Guacamelee! fits snugly into the ‘Metroidvania’ mould of platformers, whereby you are free to explore a 2D game world to the extent that your abilities allow; as you acquire new skills, so the world opens up to reveal more of its secrets. As with About A Blob, though Guacamelee! takes a well-worn template it manages to avoid feeling stale through the implementation of strong production values and sharp design.
Without question the most striking aspect of the game (after that title, of course) are its visuals. In a move that may well be a quiet protest at the blob’s gelatinous curves, the world of Guacamelee! is rendered almost entirely in straight lines, with characters and scenery seemingly created by a team of artists denied the freedom of drawing without a ruler. Though this may sound like a recipe for a horribly blocky mess, this is far from the case; Guacamelee!’s world is not only a riot of colour, it’s elegantly constructed, finding a visual style all of its own while paying loving tribute to Mexican culture and folklore that inspire its narrative.
Similarly characterful are the game’s cast. In fledgling luchadore Juan Aguacate – the hero of the piece – Drinkbox have gone for the strong, silent type, crafting a muscle-bound gent who communicates not through words but through his movements, be it his charming, lolloping running animation, his ability to strike dramatic poses to mark significant achievements and, most importantly, his ever increasing mastery of the lucha libre school of fisticuffs. And as a player, mastering this latter skill is important within a game that throws some considerable challenges your way as you attempt to foil the plans of the evil Charro skeleton, Carlos Calaca – who kidnaps the Presidents and threatens to drag the land of the dead into the world of the living.
With a strong sense of identity, charming characterisation and entertaining if somewhat hackneyed plot, Guacamelee! has some strong assets to play with, and as a game it largely delivers. There is a heavy focus on combat throughout, with Juan’s skillset coming complete with juggles, throws and good old fashion punches to the chops. He’s also a nimble platformer and he needs to be – dexterous thumbs are required to negotiate the game’s more tricky platforming sections that require you to utilise not only the usual jumps and double jumps, but also to mix combat moves (flying uppercuts, for example), wall running and an ability to switch between dimensions on the fly. In this – as in About A Blob – Guacamelee! showcases the Drinkbox Studio’s strong eye for game design, with very few ideas being recycled too heavily throughout the game’s running time.
New skills and abilities are drip fed throughout the game in typical Metroidvania-style, and though all are a pleasure to use, their implementation is something of a weak-point, on a macro level at least. The problem is, that there is a degree of linearity in the way that skills are delivered just before areas in which they are required, meaning that there is little of the map searching and head-scratching that Metroidvania fans know and love. In the game’s favour, this helps it whip along at a fast pace (buoyed by the bouncy, energetic soundtrack), but overall, we can’t help but feel that the experience might have benefited from a little more difficulty in this respect. That being said, the latter stages of the game require such a mastery of all your skills, that it’s hard to argue that there is anything tokenistic about any of Juan’s abilities; they all serve a purpose and earn the right of inclusion.
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