It’s probably not entirely fair that Guacamelee! will be deemed one of the ‘Surprises of 2013’ by games publications come December. After all, DrinkBox Studios are the talented individuals behind the ‘Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack’, one of the best PlayStation Vita titles available – and they also achieved reasonable critical acclaim with their debut release ‘About A Blob’.
Even with the Toronto-based studios reputation in mind, however, I was still surprised to experience such a mechanically impressive, deep, well-written game in Guacamelee!. A Metroid-inspired platforming brawler, DrinkBox’s latest title is right up there with the very best PlayStation Network releases. In fact, if it wasn’t for the two artistic delights Journey and The Unfinished Swan coming out last year I’d probably say it’s the best game to grace the PlayStation Store in about two years.
Guacamelee! tells the story of Juan, a luchador who has to save his kingdom’s princess after she is captured by dark forces at the start of the game. It’s a simple premise unashamedly borrowed from Super Mario and it leads the game’s protagonist on a thrilling adventure that’s an absolute delight to experience.
The first thing you’ll notice as you begin Guacamelee! is the game’s distinctive Mexican theme which is presented by exceptional art direction. The game’s cartoonish graphics create a rich, interesting world that you feel compelled to explore. Characters, which are generally Mexican charactertures and stereotypical ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are often highly amusing as well, taking on a non-serious approach.
The core of this side-scrolling beat-em-up’s narrative comes from written in-game dialogue (Juan is mute and there are no voice actors for the characters he meets). This may seem old-fashioned or even ‘cheap’, but the story is actually very well written and irresistible humour is constantly being injected into dialogue. The game universe itself isn’t taken remotely seriously and there are a lot of references to classic games-gone-by for the avid gamer to seek out – making Guacamelee! a title you’ll want to experience for the story alone.
With that said, this game’s real strength is in its deep, rewarding, satisfying gameplay. Combo-based 2D fighting is at the core of the experience and unlike most platformers the mechanics are not only rock-solid but remarkably deep, with Juan starting the game with only a few moves and combos but finishing with a wealth of different attacks and abilities. Combat is far from a button-mashing exercise and requires real skill in the games later, difficult sections which often require multiple attempts.
Platforming is made complex by the addition of a rather innovative mechanic. About halfway through the main story you’re given the ability to ‘change-dimension’ whilst jumping, with certain platforms and walls only appearing in one of two ‘worlds’. The opportunity for some interesting, challenging platforming sections using this innovative idea is really well utilised – even if it is the cause of some frustration during later levels. Often using the R2 trigger to change dimension feels unnatural during the flow of normal platforming, and although some relentless dedication got me through the hardest levels the experience got a bit infuriating at times.
DrinkBox have really come up with something special with Guacamelee!
Taking a cue from Super Metroid, you gain new powers throughout Guacamelee! which allows you to access certain areas which you wouldn’t have been able to reach beforehand. I constantly found myself encountering blocks I couldn’t smash through or jumps I couldn’t quite make, which makes the game instantly re-playable as you unlock abilities which allow you to access new areas as you progress.
Combine that with the addition of hidden loot, side-missions and collectibles and you have a hell of a lot of content on offer with Guacamelee!. This value only increases when you consider that you’re getting the full game on both PlayStation 3 and Vita, with local co-op also available between the two devices. For the standard ‘digital download’ price buying DrinkBox’s latest creation should be a no-brainer.
It’s a testament to how good Guacamelee! is that I’d struggle to find a single thing wrong with it other than a few frustrating difficulties with some of the more innovative mechanics DrinkBox introduce. The lack of voice acting may appear to be something of a mis-step but I actually found it to be quite a positive design choice. Not only does it allow you to experience the narrative at your own pace, but it also adds to the nostalgic feeling the game so lovingly portrays.
Boasting a stunning, coherent art style and gameplay which is a lot deeper than most downloadable titles, DrinkBox have really come up with something special with Guacamelee!. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re mentioning our experience of Juan’s story in our annual game of the year talks; 2012 was the year that proved smaller scale games could hold their own with the big boys of our industry and on this evidence this trend is only going to continue.