Juan Aguacate is no simple agave farmer. Okay, that's not quite correct. At the beginning of Guacamelee Juan Aguacate is very much a simple Mexican agave farmer. He lives in his very own tequila distillery on a plot of land where he grows fields of agave piñas. In typical Metroidvania fashion, however, Juan is only but a few screen-regions away from his realizing his destiny as the luchador hero of Pueblucho. El Presidente's daughter has been taken by evil charro skeleton Carlos Calaca and only Juan, with his spiritual guardian Tostada and goat-man warrior-trainer Uay Chivo, can save the day.
For those not aware, Guacamelee is a Metroidvania platformer-brawler from indie devs Drinkbox Studios, set in a world of Mexican culture and folklore. Of course, summarizing it in such a fashion is shamefully nondescript. Such is the foundation, however, for which Designer Chris McQuinn half-heartedly described could be the game's three main pillars. While Chris likely didn't mean it in any official sense, I found it and apt point of view and a great way to pass on my experience hands-on with Guacamelee.
Let me say straight away though that walking away from Guacamelee I was left with a feeling, in addition to a hunger for authentic Mexican cuisine and a shot of tequila. While I only saw and played a small portion of the game, there's an attention to detail and cohesiveness in themes that is only shared in some of my favorite downloadable titles -- Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy, Mark of the Ninja, Shadow Complex just to name a few. I can't vouch for the full game upon release, but the potential is there for something special.
Pillar of Alebrije and the Dia de Muertos
It wouldn't be a game based on Mexican culture and folklore without an extremely creative and stylized look. Not even halfway through the first level, I recalled a wood carving I had acquired on a trip to Mexico at a young age. It was a pegasus, cut with sharp angles and painted in in bright, striking colors. We encountered no pegasi, but the entirety of Guacamelee felt born of this Alebrije style. The game doesn't stop there, however, as it also takes heavy influence from the Dia de Muertos holiday. Smiling skeletons that I recalled from Grim Fandango, altares de los muertos, and tons of other familiar imagery litter the environments -- especially in the World of the Dead, which we'll get into later.
Of course, Drinkbox Studios doesn't just stop and a unique visual style. The demo and an assortment of small portions of gameplay I was shown were chock full of dry humor and nerdy references. Villain Carlos Calaca mentioning the sacrifice of a virgin, only for El Presidente's daughter to say, "Uh... about that," is one joke I could just as easily have missed as split my sides over. Uay Chivo's awkward transitions between man and goat form was also oddly brilliant, as was level boss Flame Face's final tequila send-off. The humor isn't laid on thick, which is to say it's meant to be memorable, but not be the focus of the game. Similarly, there were a number of references to several games, Metroid, Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. being the most noticeable of the bunch, which I found awesome, but they never came across like, "Hey, look at this reference! Isn't it awesome? That's from Mario!" It set perfectly this world of luchadores without making it so foreign as to be off-putting.
That last thought deserves some extrapolation. Guacamelee is certainly foreign in the sense that it lends heavily from Mexican culture. At first I was somewhat worried they'd lose perspective and broach an insensitive topic. After all, Drinkbox is based in Toronto, Canada -- a creative stretch of at least 1500 miles. Yet as culturally insensitive as the game gets is really the title. Sure, the church has stained glass windows portraying luchador saints, but at least in that regard it reflects the universe Guacamelee has created as opposed to mocking the reality. Rather, I was quite inspired by what must have been vast amounts of research that went into creating something Drinkbox could make their own, but at the same time remain respectful of their inspirations.
As I only spent about an hour with Guacamelee, it ended up being the game's style and personality that stuck with me. It's not an entirely unexplored setting, what with Grim Fandango, the Lucha Libre cartoon and films like Nacho Libre, but Drinkbox has made it their own and have obviously dedicated blood, sweat and tears to the uniqueness of the experience.
Pillar of the World's Living and Dead
Metroidvania-style platformers are, by nature, somewhat unaccommodating to new players or casual gamers. It's the dependency on button combinations to get from place to place, exploration and backtracking that anyone but dedicated fans will endeavor to truly enjoy. Drinkbox has gone to certain lengths to make these aspects of play less burdensome, but only to remove tedium as opposed to depth of play. As Drinkbox co-founder Graham Smith says, Guacamelee is, "not for babies." Pulling off radical five-move aerial combinations to access a secret treasure chest is in there. Also, that's nothing.
Guacamelee introduces a dual-worlds system, the World of the Living and the World of the Dead, layered on top of one another and creating a deviously complicated platforming experience. At first Juan will have to jump through portals to access the opposite world, but eventually he can swap worlds with the press of a button. Differences between the two worlds are highlighted by visually apparent sparkles, which means you'll be doing a lot of mid-air world swapping and wall jumping, with no one to blame for failure but yourself. Even the early puzzles utilizing world swapping were challenging, but not in a frustrating design sort of way. I knew exactly what to do, it was simply a matter of timing button presses together correctly -- a difficulty I appreciated and never found overly burdensome.
As I mentioned before, exploration is still important in Guacamelee; it's true to its Metroidvania roots. There's a mini-map that's covered in fog until explored (which, by the way, can be shown on the PlayStation Vita if the player has one at hand) and also plenty of backtracking once players acquire new powers, allowing them to explore once inaccessible areas. Drinkbox took pity on us, though, adding in a good amount of fast travel locations so backtracking isn't so mind-numbing. They've also clearly noted completion percentages in every area and mark hidden locations on the map when you've explored nearby. Again, small concessions to the Metroidvania format that will make a world of difference to players in practice.
While Guacamelee doesn't necessarily innovate many of the features of its platforming or Metroidvania-style of exploration and traversal, all of its systems come together in a rather unique and gratifying manner. After wrapping up Castlevania: Mirror of Fate just recently, I only wish that title has expanded on the genre even remotely as what I experienced with my short time with Guacamelee.
Pillar of Luchador Piledrivers
Finally, we get to the punching! Guacamelee features a combination-focused combat system of low and high power hits, along with a jump and "Power" button. Initially, the power button will be useless, but as the game progresses powers will unlock and Juan will acquire a complete arsenal of combat moves to defeat his foes. There's a dodge roll that works in the air, a chicken power (yup) and also the world-swapping power described earlier. It all comes together in a very highly reactionary combat system that should test gamers. If you're looking for even more challenges, a hard mode is unlocked after completing normal.
In motion, Guacamelee plays out like a 2D Devil May Cry in some regards. While a majority of my combos did sputter into Rock'em Sock'em Robots, there was the rare occasions where chains worked together like a ballet, throwing enemies into others, piledriving fools and rolling through any potential damage as it comes. Any mistakes were my own, and it felt very rewarding when things worked out like planned.
So where does the world-shift come in? Well, you've probably guessed, but enemies can exist in either world and the only way to damage them is to move to their respective world. Of course, they can damage you not matter which world you're in -- jerks. A similar feature that adds an extra layer to combat is that some enemies will have what Chris called "barriers" where they're protected from damage until a very specific power has been used on them. The barrier will be color-coded, so red barriers will require head-butts, and so on. Drinkbox sees this as a good way to encourage dynamic combat, so players don't fall into that one reliable combo and never change things up. The depth of the system wasn't readily apparent in what I saw of the game, but I could see powers being chained together in DDR-fashion to create choreographed fights. That might be beyond the scope of Guacamelee's combat, however.
A majority of the combat I saw came in the form of "Arenas" or sections of a level where groups of enemies will pour out of the woodwork, challenging players to efficiently eradicate several of waves of baddies. I didn't see as much combat mixed with platforming elements as I'd like, but was assured there was lots of it. Still, the combat by itself was nothing to scoff at and should be plenty to challenge gamers of all skill levels.
Two aspects of Guacamelee that really stuck with me. The first of course is just the game's all around art style and personality. Simply put, the game looks gorgeous, as smooth as Mark of the Ninja but starting with a more unique style and a robust and largely untapped source of inspiration. Drinkbox's creative take on Mexican culture and folklore is nothing short of stunning. I can't wait to revisit the Worlds of the Living and Dead once more to see every single detail, every sly reference and joke that's been snuck into every inch of Guacamelee.
The second only really came to fruition during the Flame Face boss fight I was shown. Here, the game's combat, platforming and clever style and scripting came together to create the most exceptional moment of the hands-on. I mentioned I'd prefer to take notes during the fight and both Chris and Graham jumped at the chance to play co-op with each other. They were genuinely excited about fighting the boss together -- or at least about griefing each other by switching between worlds and capturing their partner in lava. Here I got to see the combination system at full blast, plenty of wall jumping and dodging, and a glorious death animation all wrapped up in a single scene. It was great; I wanted more of that.
A majority of what I saw of Guacamelee was either just platforming elements, or just combat, or otherwise cutscenes establishing the plot of the game. I began to worry towards the end of the demo if Guacamelee would end up being one of those outstanding downloadable titles that never found a foothold simply due to not being as memorable as other titles readily available. The Flame Face battle was the hook I wanted to see. Let's hope the rest of Guacamelee delivers on that potential. That said, I'm a believer and I can't wait to get another taste of the Guacamalee Jaun is serving up (damn, I almost made it the whole way without a damn guacamole pun).
Guacamelee will be available for fans to demo at PAX East, starting March 22 and running through March 24. As far as a release date goes, the completed game is in Sony's hands and it's just matter of time before Guacamelee gets approved for released; Drinkbox wants to put it out there and expects to have it out this spring. The game, for the time being is PlayStation 3 and Vita exclusive via download, and features cross-save functionality, Vita-as-controller functionality and full-game cooperative play. Expect more news as it comes available.
Follow Rory on Twitter @bluexy or read his news, reviews and features every day here at Neoseeker.