Is this Metroid-vania inspired luchador brawler mas cara que espalda? We don’t know, we don’t speak Spanish, but here’s our review of Guacamelee! for the Xbox 360.
It’s strange that one particular gaming style has become so commonplace that it merits its own term, but Metroid-vania games are still remarkably in high demand. Don’t get us wrong, we’re still inexplicably drawn to these games as well battling across a 2d world, unlocking key powerups that finally allow us to access that one part we keep bypassing knowing it’s being saved for later. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve played through Shadow Complex in one sitting before on lazy Saturday mornings more than once (yes, even unlocking the final armor upgrade because if you’re not doing that you’re not a real gamer). For some reason, these games just work provided they’re not bogged down with lackluster design or frustrating combat.
Guacamelee! is the tongue-in-cheek story of lowly agave farmer, Juan Aguacante, who lives in a small village in Mexico. Juan and the El Presidente’s Daughter share a childhood together that’s cultivated a lifelong friendship bordering on romantic (think Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins except with better acting). The story picks up as she’s recently returned to the village eager to see you. Before you can (likely) get friend-zoned, however, the village gets ransacked by an evil skeleton called Carlos Calaca who kidnaps El Presidente’s Daughter and, in a surprising plot twist, kills you. Never fear though, as you traverse the land of the dead you’ll find a mysterious man named Tostada who provides a luchador mask to you and sets you on a quest to restore order to the world and save the girl.
What follows is a fairly conventional modern Metroid-vania style game as you unlock new abilities and attacks to get closer to the final boss. If you’ve played the spiritual predecessors there are not many surprises in store for you. You’ll get Samus’s morph ball ability, here manifested as you turn yourself in to a chicken to access narrow corridors. You’ll pass through towns reminiscent of Castlevania 2’s main village. You’ll traverse light and dark worlds as you did with the magic mirror back in Link to the Past. The game doesn’t pretend that these are original ideas, even going as far as including the Metroid chozo statues to display your soon to be acquired powerup.
No, instead developer Drinkbox Studios incorporates a mashup of the best of these games into its hilarious adventure brawler. Thankfully the game does not take itself seriously. Each boss fight begins with a quick fight card comparing the two competitors. Tostada is both mentors and gets frustrated with you as you repeatedly destroy his previous chozo statues. It really is a funny game. With that said the game doesn’t pull its punches. We found the difficulty curve to be fairly significant late in the game with some of the platforming and confined battle challenges. It was never overwhelming though as the game is generous with automatic save points and brief load times. We were particularly impressed with stunning graphics and music as you climb the final mountain to the conclusion. As you get higher and higher in this mountain requiring precision platforming skills with the giant thunderstorm behind you, the game really comes together. (And we LOVED the hilarious Journey Easter egg that completely surprised us during this sequence.)
There isn’t much to criticize about this game except it’s nothing you haven’t likely played before. Drinkbox Studios is a talented group of developers and they know how to make a powerful yet funny game. They aren’t taking any risks here but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Here's the score:
It’s an indie game so don’t expect nextgen aesthetics but the art style, especially in the land of the dead, is quite impressive. We spent a lot of time comparing the two worlds as the developers took some time trying to make the same maps feel distinct. We were simply blown away though by how intense it all feels as you scale the final mountain.
Taking the best of the Metroid-vania games and adding in a melee combat mechanic proves to work. The action and platforming can get a bit too difficult in later sections (can’t imagine trying to 100% the Hard mode), but thankfully the game doesn’t make you pay too much for your mistakes.
There is a hard mode to unlock and cleverly Drinkbox Studios reserves one of the two endings to those brave enough to take on challenges that are not part of the main quest. Like most games of this style, you’ll likely master a game like this and play it through again when you have a lazy day with nothing else to play.
If you’re looking for a good diversion for a long weekend, try some Guacamelee!