I’ve never wanted to be a luchador so badly.
I grab a calaca (Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” skeleton) before it can slice its blade hands through me, suplex it behind me, where my girlfriend, who is playing co-op with me, kicks straight through his skull and he explodes. We look at each other with enormous grins and realize what we have stepped in to.
Guacamelee! is a bona fide blast from its humble beginning to its thunderous close. From the electrifying combat, the incredibly fetching art palette and Mexican folk-infused setting, to the diverse boss fights and lively soundtrack, this game stands far above the competition.
The 16-bit graphic style complements nicely with the Dia de los Muertos theme. Fairly basic environments and regions are brought to life, and flourish with vibrant color. Distinguished biomes help you feel visually refreshed at a comfortable pace.
The humor of Guacamelee! is clever and helps keep the game at an approachable, lighthearted level. There are tons of references to classic Nintendo games like: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. The winks to other games are all tied into the scenery though, in a very witty way, that seems to naturally work, and you could even run through an area and possibly not catch a Mario joke tucked away. Also, the personalities of some of the side characters are fantastic. Flame Face is one of the bosses that you have to face, and he is literally an alcoholic ball of fire with a face, who is dressed like an outlaw, complete with pistols. He constantly “drinks” alcohol and ignites into an even larger, more intense ball of flame as the game progresses. Juan’s mentor is a major highlight in this game’s sense of humor as well. Uay Chivo is an old hermit who teaches Juan (and Tostada) new moves and abilities, but never without making an inappropriate joke about Juan’s mother or something in that vein.
Guacamelee! shines brightest in the combat. You are given quite the array of moves, most of them being wrestling inspired, and some of them more “supernatural,” (Which makes you think you might be playing as the Undertaker, right? Not quite). There is also a meter that when full, you can activate to become a super-powered lucha “god” of sorts; blasting through enemies and doing far more damage than usual. There are various customary power-ups through the course of the game as well, to enable multiple traversable paths; indubitably the most unique of them being the ability to enter the “spirit world.” This allows for the player to hop into a different, mirrored plane of existence and continue through a sequence, or fight enemies who can only attack through the spirit world. In co-op, the spirit world sequences can get very tricky. Coordination is key, and the ability can either be efficiently utilized or frustrating as all hell if both players cannot stay synchronized in their movements.
Guacamelee!’s soundtrack is great. It permeates Mexican folk music and adds an authenticity to the game. The songs are all commanded by trumpets and acoustic guitar, but with retro stylization and electronic infusion added in, giving a vibe somewhere between ambiency and dance music. My girlfriend and I frequently had some songs from the soundtrack stuck in our heads and would hum it for hours. Either that is a testament to the catchiness of the songs or admission of how long we were in particular areas because we could not get through them.
The story is straightforward, but effective. There are a handful of side quests to add more substance to the overall story progression experience. Spoiler alert for the first five minutes of the game: The protagonist, Juan, is an agave farmer who’s in love with El Presidente’s daughter. When the main antagonist, Calaca, attacks Juan’s village, Juan is killed and El Presidente’s daughter kidnapped. Juan enters the afterlife and is resurrected by an enigmatic luchador named Tostada (player 2 for the co-op people out there). Tostada gives Juan the powers of a luchador and the journey begins.
I particularly liked Juan’s “rogues’ gallery.” Each of Calaca’s crony mini-bosses felt distinct and had their own quirks and personalities. Each villain also had plenty of screentime in the story in order for them to be fleshed out and feel multi-dimensional.
Now for the cons of Guacamelee!, which are few. The biggest issue that I had with the game was occasional difficulty spikes that felt as if they pushed the game up an entire difficulty level. I have come to expect games to begin at an easier pace and get progressively more difficult. But, Guacamelee! would be incredibly easy and take a sharp turn to painfully difficult, relatively suddenly. There were multiple times that I fought the urge to “rage-quit” during these difficulty spikes.
Also, Guacamelee! does not hold much replay value, in my opinion. I feel that the secret power-ups hidden throughout the game were not enough incentive to play through after beating the main story and side quests. There are numerous hidden coins throughout the game that give the ability to buy new costumes. Most, if not all, of the costumes have a major drawback that make them almost not worth using.
Guacamelee! is a superb “Metroidvania” and a fantastic game in its own right. It brings enough distinguishing flavor to set it in an entirely different league than the countless games cut from the same cloth. If you’re considering downloading it, stop considering it. JUST DO IT!