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Saying the Metroidvania genre is anything but stale can be difficult when Nintendo has all but shelved Metroid and Konami is putting the weight of their company behind reinventing Castlevania. Then indie studio DrinkBox steps forward with a little title named Guacamelee and knocks everyone on their asses. I'll be the first to admit I expected more of the same, stale gameplay with a mix of awkward cultural stereotypes. Instead, over the course of the game I became a new believer. Guacamelee's not only outstanding, but breathes new life into an entire genre.
To hear then that Guacamelee doesn't go out of its way to change the Metroidvania formula might be surprising. Instead, it focuses in on what makes the genre fun and exciting to play, and then accentuates those aspects of gameplay. On top of that Guacamelee has style and personality in grand quantity, punctuated with referential humor specifically designed to tickle ners' funny bones. While the scale of the experience isn't particularly grandiose, the game’s elegance more than makes up for this.
What Guacamelee offers is an impeccably designed and polished experience the whole game through. It's easy to pick up, difficult to master, and impossible to put down. Simply put, this game is unadulterated fun that left me both hungry for more and hungry in general.
Everyone should understand the Metroidvania structure by now, but here's a quick recap. Players start with only the simplest of movement skills and attacks – typically a jump, an attack and maybe a dodge or roll. But as they progress through the two-dimensional open-world labyrinth, they'll discover new abilities and power-ups. Said abilities then allow players to explore further into the depths of the labyrinth, unlocking even greater powers.
The primary goal of the game is to conquer the labyrinth and complete the story, but the true nature of a Metroidvania's design is to encourage exploration and experimentation in combat -- it's about the journey rather than the destination. If players are diving through a game, rushing to the finish line, there's probably something wrong with the game.
Guacamelee challenges the notion that “more is better” and moves in the opposite direction from Castlevania, by refocusing on the basic aspects of exploration and combat while encouraging (and occasionally forcing) players to use all of the tools at hand in order to succeed. As such, the mechanics of Guacamelee may seem fairly rudimentary to fans of the genre, but gamers unfamiliar could still find their fingers tied in knots.
Luckily, progression tied to introduction of gameplay mechanics comes at a gentle slope in Guacamelee. A normal jump will turn into a double jump early in the game. Then an uppercut and an in-air forward dash are added, and by the end of the game, climbing any vertical wall is a simple button push. Combat powers like “headbutt” are introduced at a similar pace, allowing players to access new areas and chain skills more effectively, sometimes to gain access to secret treasures. It's alarming how useful every single skill and ability in Guacamelee can be.
Sins of the Past
My typical complaint with Metroidvania titles is that the mechanics are unfairly restricting early in the game, before stronger skills are unlocked. Then, later in the game, despite having full access to the range of skills and abilities previously kept from you, the game feels overwhelming, either your new skills and abilities are only useful in specific situations or the difficulty is scaled so enemies do extra damage or require very specific strategies. A good example of this is Zelda. Unlocking the boomerang is great initially as certain levels are designed specifically to showcase its powers. Then you unlock the hookshot, which can essentially do everything the boomerang does, but faster and simpler. Then late in the game there are no posts to hookshot to, the boomerang bounces off of enemies -- the game purposefully denies those abilities to you.
DrinkBox seemed to take this style of design well into account when developing Guacamelee. Not only are almost all skills useful at the end of the game, they're required, since certain enemies have shields that require a specific ability to shatter before laying on a beat-down. Even complex mechanics like dodging, turning into a chicken (yes, you can turn into a chicken) and phasing between the land of the living and the land of the dead are used often and never feel unnecessary. In fact, using them effectively only makes the game play that much better.
Pillars of Design
DrinkBox designed an outstanding system in Guacamelee where every single ability remains just as useful at the end of the game as it was initially. Late-game enemies will require a certain skill for initiating combat (red for uppercut, yellow for headbutt, etc.), but after that initial step, how you finish them is entirely up to you. Not only that, but with the required initiating skill, Guacamelee challenges you to try out different combinations. Start with an uppercut? How will you kill this enemy in the air? Headbutt? Belly smash? Dash? Defeating an enemy is never as simple as falling into the same combination you feel is simplest or fastest – but the freedom that encourages is simply exhilarating. Refreshing and brilliant.
Exploration and map traversal are similarly designed. Fast travel points across the world make backtracking easier, along with skills that make long distances go by in an instant. Despite that, a majority of the game's puzzles and hidden treasures require the same level of attention and skill, whether or not you can fly through the air like Superman.
It is because of this design that, near the end of Guacamelee, I felt strong – I had been encouraged to experiment and was confident in my abilities. I felt adventurous, because exploration was challenging yet not punishing, and as a result I was having ridiculous fun, fun that lasted the whole game through.
My only complaint, if it can even be considered one, is that the game ended just as I felt I'd come to grips with everything it had provided. One last big area where all of my skills and abilities could be used to their fullest, as opposed to the small puzzles where they were used prior, would have been the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. It was like climbing to the top of a rollercoaster ramp, but without the drop at the end. What a ride it was up that point though.
Carlos Calaca vs. Agave Farmer Juan
Guacamelee's gameplay is only so casually enjoyable because its story, style and humor are delivered in such a propitious manner. Carlos Calaca returns from the land of the dead, kidnapping Juan's love interest and thrusting the poor agave farmer into an adventure the likes of which, well, is pretty formulaic for heroes these days. Juan dies, becomes a luchador, and starts on his quest to rescue the princess, err, El Presidente's daughter from the clutches of Calaca and his evil lieutenants.
Overall the story is rather hackneyed, but it's the setting that really makes Guacamelee shine. Juan will bounce between the world of the living and the world of the dead throughout his adventure, crossing desert, climbing tree, and exploring temple and tomb along the way. It's a vibrant (maybe that's not the best way to describe the land of the dead) world that's brilliantly realized through the game's outstanding art style.
Along the way Juan meets a variety of interesting characters; goat men, dead mariachi bands, ghost wrestlers, Flame Face, and the humble friar in the town of Pueblucho who has stained glass windows of luchador wrestlers in between his statues of a crucified Jesus. DrinkBox's stamp of humor deliciously mixed with Mexican culture is pervasive, clever, and delightful.
After 100% completion of Guacamelee, I revisited each area just to recall what each offered. Layered backgrounds, lively foregrounds, eccentric and referential jokes (from Nintendo classics Mario and Zelda, to indie darlings VVVVVV and Journey, and back to memes like business cat and the FFFFF-…face), Guacamelee offers a wondrous and beautiful world to explore.
Guacamelee, simply put, is a testament to the abilities of small developers. It's a small experience that exudes an air of quality games with ten times development team size and a hundred times the budget can only aspire to.
While DrinkBox undoubtedly spent many a sleepless nights working on the level of polish Guacamelee has, the quality is really due to something much more translatable: simple, effective design. The developers broke down what makes an action platformer like Guacamelee fun and then focused on accentuating those things.
- Intuitive combat that doesn't require extra menus or FAQs, with skills and abilities that flow into each other and feel as strong at the start of the game as at the end.
- Exploration that feels rewarding, without being punishing or forced. I explored because exploring was fun. It only stopped being fun when I ran out of areas to explore.
- A brilliantly realized world (or worlds) full of a variety of wonderful and beautiful characters and scenes, yet despite the variety manages to connect everything with a surprisingly respectful Mexican cultural theme
Don't get me wrong, I still have some criticisms for the game. Tracking sidequests given from NPCs would have been great, area completion as a percentage didn't convey made picking up some of those last rewards frustrating, NPCs felt too static after talking to them a single time, and there were far too many skeletons in this world! I get it, the land of the dead is crossing over, but enough with the skeletons already.
My main gripe is a big one, that being that there's never a particular moment in the game that will slap you in the face and persuade you that Guacamelee is great – persuade you that Guacamelee is memorable. Perhaps that's due to the hackneyed and formulaic story, or the inherent scope and scale of small development, or just a flaw that goes hand-in-hand with the game's flowing, open-world nature.
That flowing, open-world nature is also why I don't have any problem highly recommending Guacamelee as one of the best games of 2013. I only wish it could have been a $60 game just so I could have four times more of it. Do yourself a favor and check out Guacamelee on the PlayStation 3 or Vita (it has cross-play) as soon as you get the chance. You won't regret it.
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