Juan is just a typical Mexican agave farmer. He spends his days toiling in the fields making an honest living. Thrust into the role of the hero when the evil Carlos Calaca kidnaps “El Presidente’s Daughter”, Juan vows to save his childhood beau. The initial rescue attempt does not go well, with Calaca quickly dispatching the would-be rescuer. Cast into the land of the dead, Juan is bestowed a mystical lucha libre mask, endowing him with profound wrestling abilities. With his new powers, Juan sets off after Calaca and his cohorts, hoping to thwart their diabolical master plan to merge both the living and dead worlds. Thus begins Guacamelee, Drinkbox Studio’s foray into the 2D side scrolling action genre which both iterates and innovates in equal measure.
Guacamelee’s inspirations are clear from the outset. Unashamedly retro, Drinkbox Studio have crafted a title in the same vein as open world action classics Super Metroid and Castlevania. It borrows liberally from numerous other titles as well; the world switching mechanic is eerily similar to XBLA platformer Outland (itself inspired by Ikaruga no doubt). And yet it speaks to the care, attention to detail and solid foundation and mechanics that has been put into Guacamelee that it is so much more than the sum of its individual parts.
The majority of your time will be spent destroying the skeletal enemies standing between you and Calaca. Thankfully then, the combat system is extremely well designed. Juan starts out with a single attack and a jump, but over time earns numerous other abilities such as uppercuts and power slams. All of these abilities are colour coded too, adding further intricacies to each encounter. As you progress, some enemies will initially be impervious to anything but the correctly coloured attack shown by the aura surrounding them. Additionally, switching between the living and dead worlds adds a further level of complexity to the fighting mechanics. Enemies will occasionally appear only as silhouettes, which indicate that attacks in the corresponding world plain are the only way to damage them, though all of their strikes still cause the luchador a world of pain.
These elements all combine into one fluid and fun combat system. There’s pure unadulterated joy to be found in surveying any particular situation and deciding the best course of action to take out enemies in the most efficient way possible. The ebb and flow of the initial skirmishes give way to balletic 100 and 200 plus hit combos, as enemies that caused trouble in the opening scenes become cannon fodder to an ever expanding array of suplexes, piledrivers and powerslams. The combo-centric nature of the fighting system never feels contrived or tacked on – each element has a legitimate purpose and suitable situation, and will benefit Juan from the moment he earns the ability right the way through to the conclusion of the game. The difficulty of the encounters ramp up as the game progresses, but I never felt underpowered or overmatched at any point, there was always a viable strategy available to me. It does become a lot to try and keep track of, and the sheer amount of enemies on screen at any one time very occasionally felt overwhelming, but these are minor niggles in an otherwise perfect combat experience.
When not cracking skulls, Juan will have to navigate his way around the labyrinth-like stages. The success in the design of this world is how the same mechanics which make the combat such a rewarding experience are also used to great effect in the platforming sections. A side effect of the aforementioned uppercut is that it gives Juan’s jump slightly more height, allowing him to then scale previously unreachable platforms. Similarly, each subsequent ability provides a similar side effect and must be used when traversing the world. Eventually, these will need to be chained together, creating a quasi combo-based platformer with a difficulty level and sense of accomplishment reminiscent of XBLA darling Super Meat Boy. In one particular instance, I needed to double jump from a plateau, extend my distance with the power punch until finally reaching my destination with a perfectly timed uppercut. It’s also here that the world switching ability comes into its own. Certain platforms will only exist in one plain or the other – switching between the living and dead worlds mid jump is the only way to reach particular areas. These more complex will test both your mental prowess and finger dexterity to the limit, as well timed plain switches and move combos become paramount to successfully saving El Presidente’s daughter.
Not content with addictive combat and accurate platforming, Drinkbox Studios have also crafted a rich, vibrant tapestry on which these events unfold. Guacamelee takes place on “Dia de los Muertos” – the Day of the Dead – and the traditional colours and decor of that event inform the majority of the game’s art direction. Considering that each locale has both a living and dead variant, which in most cases is not simply a pallet swap, and it’s plain to see that the developers really put time into creating Santa Luchita and its surroundings. Keen eyed players will also spot several pop culture references and playful tributes to some recent and not so recent video games, each with a slight Mexican twist. “Los Super Hermanos” and “El Linko” are just two of the plethora of easter eggs just waiting to be discovered.
The story clocks in a little on the short side, definitely making a case for quality over quantity. The multitude of collectibles, easter eggs, and an unlockable “hard” difficulty will keep completionists coming back for more, but those who play and forget may have a few quibbles with the length. With that being said, Guacamelee takes a tried and tested formula, and puts its own sheen onto it, in the process crafting one of the best titles, downloadable or otherwise, available for Playstation Vita.