I like a good Metroidvania just as much as the next person, but it needs to contain the right mix of visual and gameplay activity to keep me moving, searching for that next item that will unlock all those previously blocked paths I encountered earlier on in the journey. If that doesn’t happen quick enough, I kind of just lose interest and never go back, like in Celestial Mechanica and Lyle in Cube Sector. Thankfully, Guacamelee! is really hitting that sweet spot, and if I worked harder than I do at this amateurish swing at videogames journalism, I’d come up with some witty piñata metaphor here. Oh well, moving on.
Story stuff. Juan Aguacate is but a humble agave farmer living in a small village in Mexico. Oh, and he happens to be in love with El Presidente’s daughter, and no, I don’t recall if they ever said her name or not. An evil charro skeleton named Carlos Calaca attacks the village and kidnaps her, forcing Juan to go after them. Alas, he is killed–not a spoiler–and finds himself in the land of the dead. There, a mysterious luchador named Tostada grants him the power of luchador-ism via a glowing mask, as well as brings him back to the world of sunshine and rainbows. If you don’t know what happens next, well…it should be pretty obvious. Juan Aguacate goes on to film Nacho Libre II: Hay Mucho Diversión. No, no. He’s off to stop Carlos Calaca from sacrificing El Presidente’s daughter in a ritual that could potentially combine both the living and dead worlds.
It’s a pretty stereotypical “damsel in distress” story that we really need to get away from, but the world just oozes with flavor and fun that I have to ignore the game’s shortcomings. From the music to the cartoony, somewhat cel-shaded-like graphics, Guacamelee! makes up for its trite story and story progression–don’t be surprised when you have to take on all of the main villain’s sub-bosses one after the other before getting to the main event–with stunning visuals, Disney-of-yesteryear-like animation, and a sense of place and time. I’ve never been to Mexico. I think, at one time, I was in New Mexico while visiting my sister in Arizona, but that’s not the same. Still, this all feels right. Sounds right as well, given that the soundtrack is deeply rooted in Latin music and mariachi.
Gameplay is the standard mix of exploration and combat, except instead of blasting away undead critters with fancy guns, Juan puts his newfound wrestling powers to use, punching and grappling and doing pile-drivers from upon high. If you’re quick and careful enough, you can string together some length combos from one enemy to another. Perhaps my favorite part of combat is that, after landing a good number of punches on an enemy, you can then grab them and doing a special finishing move or throw them into other enemies. When there’s a bunch of enemies to deal with at once, tossing them into one other is the best tactic. Also, extremely gratifying, like bowling a strike and watching the pins fly off the ground.
For exploration purposes, well, it’s pretty linear in the beginning. Only so many places Juan can get to, but all those blocked paths are color-coded, with each color related to a specific ability to open then. Thankfully, the map also highlights the color coding, which will make it very easy to revisit some areas and finish up that map-clearing business. There’s a good amount of platforming to be done, too, with many jumps relying on quickly using your abilities to reach that platform just a centimeter too high or off to the right to get to normally. Some of these jumping puzzles are quite difficult, almost to the point of Super Meat Boy levels of frustration. It’s a good thing the game is constantly auto-saving your progress.
Evidently, Guacamelee! is littered with Internet memes and other kinds of meta jokes. Thankfully, I’m blind to most of them, though the really obvious references to Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise and Super Metroid with the ability-giving stone statues are…really obvious. Oh, and instead of rolling into a ball to reach hidden areas, Juan gains the power to morph into a teeny chicken that can peck enemies slowly to death. It’s amusing, if not very effective.
According to the map screen, I’ve completed about 25% of Guacamelee!, just finishing up the boss fight with…well, maybe I shouldn’t ixnay on the boss-say. Psst: that’s a clue. Anyways, I still have plenty of new abilities to earn for Juan and more sub-bosses to deal with before Carlos Calaca gets his just desserts, and I’m really looking forward to popping back into Drinkbox Studios’ colorfully cartoony world–both of them–to see what happens next. Until then.