Guacamelee Review: Metroidvania at its Finest
Ever since the release of Super Metroid and key entries in the Castlevania series (I’m looking at you, Symphony of the Night), there’s been a certain reverence held for games that attempt the Metroidvania style of gameplay. But being that it’s one of the more unique and clever styles of platforming games, it can often prove difficult for developers to really capture the true essence of a Metroidvania game in quite as masterful a way as the style’s forefathers did.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find a great exception to this in Guacamelee, the latest release from the Tales From Space developer DrinkBox Studios. So much so, in fact, that I’m willing to say this game has many elements that are just as good as the legendary games from which the portmanteau Metroidvania is derived.
In Guacamelee, you play as Juan, a typical and unsuspecting Mexican man who comes into possession of a mystical luchador mask that allows him to transform his being into a superhuman fighter and travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. Sound a tad eccentric? It is…and that’s part of what makes it so awesome.
The game’s story is pretty typical – save the world from the evil undead overlord Carlos Calaca – but you’re not coming to Guacamelee to jump into a deep and sweeping narrative that will leave you emotionally changed for the better. No, it’s a game through and through. And that’s all for the better.
At its core, Guacamelee is a platformer. But what makes it unique (and gives it the characteristic of being a Metroidvania game) is its heavy emphasis on exploration. In order to progress through the game’s levels, you’ll have to earn new abilities that help you gain access to blocked-off areas. In many places, there are blocks that can only be destroyed by a super uppercut punch, areas that can only be reached by wall jumping, and so on. Those new to the Metroidvania-style of gameplay might find the formula a bit tedious and repetitve as compared to the standard platforming fare of so many other indie 2D sidescrollers. But there’s something incredibly satisfying about gaining access to new areas that more than makes up for the fact that you’ll have to re-trace your steps many times over in order to successfully move on to a new area or environment. If you’re a fan of Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid, you’ll feel right at home with Guacamelee for all the right reasons.
Be warned; even those who have played platforming games since the early days of the NES will find their old school gaming skills put to the test with many of the sequences in Guacamelee’s platforming. While it’s incredibly rewarding to finally pull off a tough platforming sequence with perfection, there’s still something to be said for how punishing it can be. So much so that I felt the scaling between obtaining new abilities and putting them to the test in a tough display such as the ones found in these instances could have been a bit more gradual of a move than the somewhat jarring occurrences they became.
Boss fights are no cake walk either, and require you to study patterns and capitalize on weak spots and interruptions in their actions. It’s tough, but it’s also brilliant, presenting enough challenge to make the encounters feel more like puzzles than actual fights.
Of course, being that Juan is a big and powerful luchador, I would be remiss to not mention Guacamelee’s combat. Coupling the over-the-top fighting moves of modern luchadores with a handful of button combos and abilities to keep things interesting, the game’s combat walks the line between challenge and accessibility beautifully. Sure, you could survive many basic enemy encounters with mere button mashing, but there’s something infinitely more interesting about picking up one undead assailant and launching them into a crowd of baddies, only to kill them all off and collect the spoils. It’s fun and the right amount of challenging, and when coupled with the game’s already incredibly responsive control scheme, it’s sweet icing on the cake. Or, you know, hot sauce on the burrito.
Guacamelee is presented with a gorgeous art style featuring the use of bold color and design elements borrowed from classic Mexican art. It’s a theme that isn’t explored much in gaming, and its execution in Guacamelee is simply fantastic. Animations are smooth, the music is a unique blend of electronic beats with a Latino flair, the writing is genuinely funny, and there are more than a few nods to many internet memes and old school gaming references that will make the most savvy and nostalgic of gamers smile.
Like the homemade tamales made by my friend’s abuela, I simply couldn’t get enough of Guacamelee. It’s fresh, it’s fun, it’s addicting, and it’s one of the best takes on a Metroidvania-style of gameplay I’ve seen since Symphony of the Night. If it serves as any indicator to the studio’s future direction, I’d say that Drink Box has officially hit its stride with Guacamelee, and has only helped to build up the already impressive Indie landscape of the PlayStation 3. If you’re a fan of Metroidvania-style platformers, it’s an absolute must-play. And even if you’re new to the style or feel that you have no interest, I’d still implore you to give it a try. It is muy, muy divertido.
(Note: This review was conducted on the PlayStation 3 after six hours of gameplay using a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on the PlayStation Vita.)