Review: Guacamelee (**** stars)


Intended Audience: Guacamelee fits into the “cartoonish violence” category, with all manner of skeletons and other baddies getting driven into the ground in myriad unrealistic ways. Some questionable jokes about your mom also come up once and a while, but the humor’s mostly harmless good fun. Also, Mexicans drink tequila, so expect a reference or two.

Hey, it’s that Metroidvania game with the striking art style based on Mexican culture and folklore! That’s a rather cursory summary of the whole game, but honestly I found many of the reviews lacking in their description. Just because a game uses side-scrolling action platforming in a single gigantic world does not, by its nature, make it a “Metroidvania”.

To be more specific, Guacamelee is a platformer in the vein of Super Mario Bros., first and foremost. Yes, its combat tries for a little more depth than most of its contemporaries, but the focus seems to draw on a variety of different ways to jump, move, and fly in the air along increasingly more difficult terrain. Each of your combat abilities also doubles as a way to continue with forward or upward momentum, meaning that you will need to use them in concert to obtain the game’s secrets and even solve most of the jumping puzzles in-game.

Rather than take the physics/based approach of Super Mario Bros., Drinkbox Studios designed each jump sequence like a giant puzzle that your brain needs to unravel. They’re helpfully separated by our traditional map layout, so you know that one particular puzzle ends at a particular point. Of course, since that would make things too easy, Guacamelee also adds “dimension switching” to the platforming mix. Basically, you jump into portals (or later, gain an ability to swap at will) to switch between The Land of the Living and the Dead at will. This opens up new doorways and passages (lending itself to the “Metroidvania” label), but also allows platforms to appear in one dimension that don’t exist. Expect frequent using of jumping and swapping at the same time in perilous sets. In fact, there’s so many abilities for jumping and switching that your brain might fart at the complexity, but rest assured it’s all doable with good reflexes and proper timing.

Unfortunately, the design means the game barely punishes you for failure. In the vein of Super Meat Boy and more recent indie platformer fare, falling to your death or into a pit of something or other does not even spell defeat; it merely respawns you at the beginning of the room again. In no way does this engender platforming consistency at all, so I would place Guacamelee purely in the anemic “puzzle platformer” genre. You just repeat the puzzle over and over again until you succeed. Considering I finished the game in five hours – and trust me, I was taking my time finding as many secrets as possible – none of them posed too great a challenge, all said. In effect, it turns the game into a series of miniature challenges, each more interesting and complex than the last. Drinkbox Studios displays a great handle on pacing and difficulty, and you’ll find the order and timing of unlocks and giant challenges works incredibly well.

What escalates Guacamelee in my view comes from the way it shoehorns a combat system, an actually interesting one, into the mix. Your main character is a luchador, and luchadors fight in this universe. You get a basic combat system with canned combos, but there’s a freedom in the juggles that hasn’t yet appeared in this realm of two dimensional sidescroller. Most times, you can lift an enemy off the ground rather easily, continue the combo in the air, and perform a variety of attacks until you belly flop onto the ground. You’ll need to do this frequently, as getting surrounded happens quite easily as the game progresses. Moves tied to the special attack button use stamina, so the game prevents you from using your special moves too often in the same time period. As well, each one’s color coded and will break the guard of enemies glowing the same color; this becomes a rather intense game of Simon Says once multiple enemies emerge with different colors. In a way, the “color coded” reminded me of Ninja Theory games where using specific weapons will break an enemies guard, helpfully noted by color. As any good wrestler does, Juan also grapples and throws enemies when they’re stunned enough (noted by a helpful button prompt over their head). You can use this in a variety of ways, from knocking over other enemies to pile driving them into the ground.

As for defensive moves, the jump will do you much good. The dodge, as well, works well in most situation. Unlike God of War, the developers thought showing you the invincibility frames by changing Juan’s color would make it easier to learn the timing. Although it certainly doesn’t remove my Bayonetta reflexes (which assume the dodge keeps you invincible throughout, and I cannot seem to break this habit), I appreciate the developers easing the learning curve. Some moves you cannot dodge, however, and you’ll need to avoid them by jumping or just running away. I found that particular mechanic rather annoying, and it seems to exist just to switch up the combat. The one defensive option turns into two, removing a bit of the elegance from the systems on hand. I also found myself rolling through an attack only to find the enemy’s hit frames lasting longer than the dodge. This makes little sense to me, but I suppose it removes your reliance on dodging. You also can’t dodge straight out of attacks, similarly to God of War, so prepare in advance to dodge rather than by reflex. There’s a tiny bit of buffering that threw me off, but it’s certainly functional.

All of these moves play into the combo system, which rewards you for keeping a combo without getting hit with additional funds for buying upgrades from the store. Mostly, you can buy a few special throws and health/stamina upgrades, and after that costumes which affect your character in various ways. I almost bought every upgrade by the end of the game, so it’s almost bizarre why this is here at all when you find so many of said upgrades in the world.

Unfortunately, much as this combat feels great and make you feel powerful, it never amounts to anything but a pleasant diversion from the exploration. After a few item upgrades, anyone with basic competence can breeze by challenges with a HUGE life meter and little consequence for getting hit. The combo meter does add a bit of flair, but after a point there’s no incentive to doing stylish combos at all; just avoid getting hit and the numbers will go up. The colored enemy shields, on that note, seems like an arbitrary way to avoid making multiple enemy types – an understandable compromise given Guacamelee’s indie status, but unfortunate nonetheless. Even so, each individual combat challenge, if you die, will put you back to start the encounter over, so you do need to perform within those constraints.

The less said about the bosses, the better. Honestly, I had zero trouble with any of them in any great respect. Although the dialogue and the humor hit home for me, the character’s patterns in their hyped-up boss fights didn’t bother to put up a fight. This may or may not apply for you, but even the final boss posed little challenge except for learning the pattern (took about ten minutes, from my count).

As for the aforementioned “Metroidvania” exploration elements, the map will actually show you the colored blocks (same as the enemy colors) on the map that you’ve passed, making the process of discovering secret items a little too easy. Part of the fun of a Metroid-style game comes from remembering areas as a sort of mental note. Over time and backtracking (which doesn’t happen too often in Guacamelee), you’ll grow to know an area like the back of your hand without even thinking and then discover a secret with a new ability. Guacamelee truncates this process – or cuts it off at the kneecap, whatever you’d like as an effective metaphor – by putting everything on full display. It certainly doesn’t inspire much inquisitiveness! I mostly backtracked just to see what platforming challenge lay in wait rather than the actual rewards. The same repetitiveness in the combat also comes through in the exploration, especially when there’s three (THREE!) identical looking temples in the game. Again, corners were cut and this is an indie game.

And yet, given all this, the combined weight of all these elements turns Guacamelee into a well-crafted, surprisingly great 2D platformer. In an age where difficult continually decreases and the satisfaction of a challenge well met disappears, Guacamelee tries to recapture that same spirit through a modern lens. Examined by themselves, all these elements demonstrate minor flaws, but they’re mostly nitpicking on top of a wonderful experience. The combat remains fun and satisfying in and of itself through the short length, and the platforming continues to provide pleasure for your brain all the way until the end.

In that way, it shows that sometimes the individual parts of a video game really don’t add to much. You might give the player the great combat system in the world, but without an attractive aesthetic layers and good pacing, it’s brilliance in the midst of crap. This is why reviewers finish games: to take the holistic experience of a game, and not just each separated section of the whole.  In the same way, our lives consist of individual little challenges; we can choose to nitpick on the tiny minor things, failing to serve and enjoy God forever, or we can run the good race until the end, not ending our efforts when we stumble but getting back up when we fall.  Paul in Acts 20 knows a little something about bringing something to completion even as he faced possible death in Jerusalem:

“You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house,21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.

So it is that we must sometimes put aside all the little annoyances and get into the nitty-gritty of things. Guacamelee does not reach the upper echelons in its genre (and seriously, few games will ever remain as interesting as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night a decade later), but it takes a simple set of ideas and makes some great fun out of it.


Second Opinion – M. Joshua Cauller

If you have major moral hangups about magically-resurrected tequila farmers who use sweaty wrestling moves on legendary Mexican witches, this game is not for you. Also, if you don’t like it when goat-wizards make passes at your mom, maybe go play something else.

Don’t listen to Zach when he says Guacamelee’s combat is too easy. Dude’s a monster and eats Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s Very Hard difficulty for brunch.

I got snagged on more than a few challenges. On the platforming side, the final treetops challenge took me at least an hour to struggle through (Holy wall jumps, LunchadorMan!). And the combat side made me focus to get past the penultimate boss, Javier Jaguar.

If your feel like the combat needs an extra difficulty, the hard mode does it for me. And you can’t downplay how great this game is with a friend on co-op. When the screen fills up with enemies and you have to juggle foes, dimension-swapping, and communicate so that you don’t swap right when the other guy (or gal) needs to finish a combo? Smash Bros wish it could have a mode this cool.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t withhold that final star from Guac. It’s the best 2D action adventure game I’ve played.

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About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.