Sony has made many mistakes in this current generation, but its greatest strength has been its substantial support of independent game development, especially for their digital platform. Drinkbox Studios has been one of the dark horses of the PlayStation Network, getting better with each release, but the hype being contained only to the inner sanctum of PlayStation gamers. Guacamelee! is not simply just the studio’s next best game, but it is one of the best action platformers in any generation, on any platform.
Guacamelee!, under its pastel-colored shell, is a 4 to 8 hour experiment in synergy and ubiquity. The game’s many pillars (art, gameplay, music, level design, etc.) all intertwine with one another often, and this sort of solidarity in vision wraps itself around every inch of your adventure. Games in every genre, on any platform, be they AAA or art house, struggle in varying degrees to create such a solid and focused experience that Guacamelee! embodies.
The gameplay is the best example of the beautiful gestalt of it all. Shortly after introducing you to Juan, the game’s leading man, you lace up your boots as a super heroic luchador and get to put the large, open platforming world to task. With its roots firmly planted in Metroid/Castlevania ideals, the world provides plenty of routes of exploration and discovery. Like its mentors, the backtracking can become somewhat tedious, but you are usually well rewarded for your efforts.
Combat is fast and furious, allowing for an inconspicuously deep pool to experiment with. Creatures can be bashed with your standard strikes, or thrown into each other with the grapple button, allowing for more crowd control, and combo opportunities. You will come across additional special moves that allow for more explosive combat routines, and the monster mixes do a great job at demanding you use a healthy mix of all of them.
Where the real brilliance of the whole package rises is the duality of purpose in these special maneuvers. You will find that moves like the Rooster Uppercut (think Dragon Punch) are as useful at breaking enemies, as they are solving jump puzzles. Besides they’re more obvious uses – certain moves break certain color coded obstacles – it’s the ones not so evident that really make most of the puzzle navigation as engrossing at it is. The game’s subtle ability to make you employ all of your options, which in turn encourages you to explore its mechanics deeper, makes this game truly special. When combat and platforming mix, the picture is truly whole.
The sound and art design are simple, yet robust and colorful. True to its source, it makes great use of basic palettes and musical arrangements to really help establish a fun aesthetic identity that is really one-of-a-kind. Mexican culture and dia de los muertos is the basis for the many towns and dungeons that are to be explored. Like Grim Fandango, this proves that mall goths’ favorite non-American holiday can be interesting without being gaudy. Another big inspiration: pop culture. From old video game shout outs, to Grumpy Cat animations, every couple of minutes meme savvy players get something to grin at. The writing is equally as funny and quippy, and loaded with its own set of modern humor.
If I had a gripe with the game, it would be that the Vita version makes for a poor substitute mechanically. The buttons are the same, of course, but they’re smaller, and the sticks aren’t as well placed. Performing some of the game’s more demanding feats of skill and precision can be tricky on that controller. The cross save features are pretty convenient, and the whole package is definitely fit for portability, but be prepared to use the Rooster Uppercut when you meant to use the Dashing Derp Derp (yes, that’s the name of a move) multiple times.
All in all, this game is a work of entertaining art. Like a masterful chef, valuing fresh and simple ingredients as the bricks to build a masterful recipe. Yes, it takes many cues from almost every platformer ever made, but it soars masked head and tattooed shoulders over the genre’s competition. Ignore this beautiful adventure game at your misguided loss.