The ability to boil down a game's premise to an elevator pitch can easily do it a disservice. Guacamelee has been called Metroid-vania with luchadors, a description Drinkbox hasn't exactly shied away from. But that description, and its pun-y title, make the game seem more like a gag, and gags don't have longevity by definition. They're an object of fleeting fun, and the game is much more inventive and lasting than this glib explanation would suggest.
Guacamelee takes place in a vibrant, stylized version of Mexico, rife with references to pop culture and video games. This is a world in which a luchador named Juan can have superpowers and goat changelings chew him out for destroying a beloved statue, before grudgingly giving away a new power anyway. Plenty of games attempt magical realism, but the setting of Guacamelee is such a radical departure from the norm that it truly feels like anything can happen. The game is also genuinely funny. Its dialogue and nods to other games often surprised me by eliciting actual laughter, a rare feat for games in general.
While the game readily admits it's "Metroid-vania inspired," it leans more on its combat than platforming or exploration. The exploration elements that define the genre are often simply a matter of seeing a large, brightly colored block, and acknowledging that you either have or lack the ability to break that block at the time. You can backtrack to find these later, but they're more clearly sign-posted than the subtle puzzle elements of its inspirations.
When the game does present a puzzle-like scenario, it's often in the form of a complicated obstacle course that requires precisely timed use of your abilities. At one point I backtracked, absolutely sure I was missing some special ability that would allow me to progress. Instead, it was merely a matter of stringing together five abilities in such a perfect line that it didn't even occur to me as possible to pull off. The game can be challenging, if for no other reason than because it's not always immediately apparent how to navigate a room.
The platforming itself feels weighty and the special abilities, which double as combat powers, feel appropriately strong. The game's navigation and abilities are mostly defined by sharp lines and 90-degree angles, to match its aesthetic. Each ability being matched to a directional lunge fits the motif well.
Combat is the standout star of this particular combination, more so than most games of its type manage and well-fitted to the luchador conceit. I never got tired of juggling a room full of enemies, dodging-rolling to the next would-be attacker, and pile-driving or kicking dazed foes at the others. Enemy variety keeps things fresh, by giving you several different types of threats and then iterating on those combinations to constantly create new wrinkles.
Fights and platforming are further complicated by dimension-switching mechanic. Juan often finds himself in the World of the Living or the World of the Dead. At first you're swapped between dimensions by powers beyond your control, but eventually you gain the ability to swap the worlds at will. In platforming, this exercises itself as platforms that are only usable in one world or the other, lending itself to some frantic swapping mid-leap and a few truly clever platforming puzzles. As a combat mechanic, some enemies can hurt you from the other dimension even though you can't touch them, which means you'll need to carefully dodge and prioritize your attacks as you swap back and forth.
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The dimension swapping also impacts the story, which revolves around the rift between the two worlds and Juan’s quest to rescue the girl he loves. This led to an ending that was strangely poetic for a title with such zany sensibilities.
I would be remiss not to praise this game's approach to Sony's touted cross-save mechanic between PS3 and Vita. It works beautifully, allowing you to upload or download your cloud progress in only a few seconds and pick the game up seamlessly from the most recent checkpoint. It's a mark of how this system should be implemented, and truly a standout feature that other hardware combinations can’t boast. Though the PlayStation 3 has a slight visual advantage, the stylized aesthetic has allowed Drinkbox to keep the two almost identical. The Vita version doesn't suffer like some cross-buy games, and only one rarely-used (and non-combat) ability is mapped to the touch screen.
As a premise, Guacamelee sounds like a joke, and I went in afraid that it would run out of steam too quickly. Instead, I found much more under the surface than I expected, and to my pleasant surprise, one of the best action-platformers in recent memory. On the PlayStation 3, Vita, or both, it's a can't miss.
This Guacamelee review was based on a pre-release PlayStation Network (PS3 and Vita) version of the game provided by Sony. The game will be available later today on the PlayStation Store for $14.99.