Guacamelee — a game in which a Mexican wrestler can transform into a chicken to reach hidden areas, where he might learn from his mystical goat master how to suplex skeletons in sombreros.
Sure, it may sound like someone drank too much tequila out in the hot sun, but it’s also one of the best indie experiences on your Playstation 3 or PS Vita. The creation of Toronto-based developer DrinkBox Studios, Guacamelee is a 2-D beat-’em-up platformer, in which new abilities give you access to new parts of a vivid, mazelike world. The genre is commonly known as “Metroidvania,” and the game’s influences become obvious after you break your first “Choozo” statue or run into the mosaic of Simon Belmont.
The game stars Juan Aguacate, a simple agave farmer whose life is turned upside-down when El Presidente’s daughter is kidnapped by the skeletal Carlos Calaca, who wants to unite the land of the living and the land of the dead. With the help of a magical mask, Juan becomes a mighty luchador and sets out to save the world and get the girl.
While the plot may seem like total schlock — and to be fair, it is — that description doesn’t do justice to the game’s witty dialogue and anarchic sense of humour, akin to a grown-up Paper Mario. Most of the laughs come from timely references to popular culture, video games or Internet memes. One poster in the city advertises a match between La Máscara (donning Majora’s Mask) and Mega Hombre (that is, Mega Man). Another urges you to buy “Me Gusta Guavas.” When teleporting to a different location, you’re told, “No liquids over 3 oz.”
But comedy leaks into the gameplay as well: running down one hallway causes the camera to dramatically zoom in on Juan, only to pull back after you blindly stumble into a mass of enemies. When you’re first transformed into a feeble chicken, the game forces you into a mad flight from a mob you couldn’t hope to beat. Guacamelee is full of these clever moments, making it more than the wacky brawler it could have been.
Juan relies on strikes, throws and grappling moves for the most part, but gradually unlocks several colour-coded power attacks. These are required to break otherwise impenetrable obstacles and enemy shields; for example, the uppercut gives off a red flourish and breaks red shield and blocks. And as the land of the living and land of the dead overlap, he’ll need to shift between them in order to hit enemies that attack from beyond the veil. The same mechanics are required for much of the platforming, which can actually be rather difficult and puzzling. Shifting will instantly change lava into water or make walls appear and disappear; at times Guacamelee feels like an extreme version of Portal.
However, you may find yourself swapping dimensions just to admire the work DrinkBox Studios put into the world. The visuals throughout the game are crisp and stylized, characterized by a bold and sometimes garish use of colour. But switching to the land of dead brings out dark reprises of catchy tunes, changes atmospheric effects (like sending snow skyward) and brings a whole new cast of cadavers to talk to. The world isn’t just fleshed out; it’s fleshed out twice.
In a thematically appropriate move, there’s no punishment for dying — which is a godsend because of the stiff and consistent difficulty. While the challenge never crosses over into insurmountable for an experienced gamer, both platforming and combat become complicated and cluttered in the later parts of the game. Crossing a room can require a precise chain of wall-jumps, double-jumps and power moves while simultaneously changing dimensions and dodging obstacles. A single group of enemies can possess multiple shield types in both dimensions, meaning your attacks will usually strike only one at a time while they collectively pummel you. It’s challenging, yes, but it can also become confusing and frustrating.
The difficulty can be greatly reduced by bringing in a friend, with Juan gaining a female counterpart in co-op mode. Multiplayer is a seamless drop in, drop out experience that never disrupts gameplay; it’s impossible to become separated, even during some of the complex platforming, because you can teleport to the other player at any time.
Even if you go it alone, you can expect to complete normal mode in about five hours, with plenty of collectables and a smattering of lacklustre side-quests as additional diversions. The game is short — but that’s a good thing, the result of quick pacing and a lack of monotonous padding. Clever, challenging and stylish, Guacamelee is pure bone-crunching satisfaction.