Guacamelee! – PS3/Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: DrinkBox Studios
Release Date: Apr 9, 2013
Genre: Action, Platformer
Reviewed by Charles Boucher

Review Score: 4 of 5

When I first heard of Guacamelee!, I was hooked. I’ve been a fan of Metroidvanias since I first played Super Metroid, and the aesthetic of lucha libre, from the brilliant masks to the amazing El Santo movies always appealed to me. When I finally got my hands on the game, I have to admit that the theme disappointed me, but where lucha libre gives way to internet memes and video game references, the core of the game stays strong, stacking a fun, if simple, combat system on top of the exploration and accumulation of powers that defines the genre.

You play as Juan Aguacate, a Mexican farmer who’s pulled towards adventure when Carlos Calaca, a skeletal charro, kidnaps the president’s daughter. You soon become a luchador, and begin unlocking your hidden potential, tracking Calaca and his henchmen across the map and learning new ways to move and fight.

As you go, you learn fighting moves that can destroy barriers and remove enemies’ protection, but also powers that change the fundamentals of your mobility even further, such as the ability to shapeshift or switch between the lands of the living and dead at will. The game’s platforming is all well done, but the fighting is the highlight of the game.

Fights are incredibly mobile, maybe the single element of the game that’s truest to lucha libre. You roll through blows, fight in the air, and throw enemies when they’re weak, trying to accumulate the largest possible combo for bonuses. The combo system itself is both simple and satisfyingly freeform, giving you the ability to combine launches, slams, special attacks, blocks, and throws in any order, and the power to switch between worlds gives even more options, throwing an enemy in one world at his shade in another, then switching while he’s in the air to follow up the combo with further beatings. While I never got a chance to play the game’s cooperative mode, it seems like fights would only be made more dynamic by adding a second character.

There aren’t a huge number of environments in the game, but they’re all beautiful, and quite distinct from one another. You’ll visit towns, wooded areas, and temples, but Juan’s hometown is far different from the vertically stacked city, and the forest is far and away different from the ancient hollow tree. Each area is lush with color, with clear visual differences between the living and dead world, from the posters and billboards in the cities to the decorations in the temples. My favorite touch was a set of shrines stacked with offerings in the living world that became feast tables in the world of the dead, a neat touch and one of the game’s only references to it taking place around the day of the dead.

The only issues I have with the game come where it breaks from its clearest thematic influences. I love that one of Calaca’s minions is a noble jaguar warrior, and his interactions with Juan reflect the respect between two technicos, but then I get back to town and see posters of Grumpy Cat and Foul Bachelor Frog, or the Castle Crashers, reimagined as luchadores. Sometimes the dialogue hits the heights of ridiculous melodrama that Mexican soap operas are known for, with deception, romance, treachery and deals with the devil, but sometimes a talking skull calls you dude-bro (And that sometimes is every time you use a shop). If they had been more willing to embrace the game’s rich conceptual roots and had shied away from the memes and tired references, it would have been amazing, but it seems to insist on crashing back to banality pretty routinely.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was a cross-platform game, and that when you get it, you get it on the Vita and PS3, and can hook them together to use the Vita as a controller for the game, either single-player or cooperatively. I played on both during my review process, but in the end I preferred the PS3, which may just come down to that being the system I started playing on. Still, the larger screen and more comfortable controls worked much better for the fast-paced fights and platforming sections. If you’re the one person on Earth who only owns a Vita and not a PS3, it’s a little harder to recommend.

Still, though, despite is occasional flaws, Guacamelee! is a solid game, and the only times I was disappointed in it was when it didn’t quite live up to my standards for sincere treatment of lucha libre. If you’re looking for a new metroidvania, or even a new brawler, it’s out now and the price is certainly right for what you get.