Guacamelee! Review: For the love of luchador

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When I enlisted to review this so-called Guacamelee, I had almost no idea what kind of thing I was diving into. Did it contain avocados? Would it be tasty? These questions and more I pondered as I booted the game up for the first time. Read on, dear reader, to find out if you too will put on the mask of many colors; the mask of the luchador.

Platform: PS3, PS Vita
Publisher: Drinkbox Studios
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Price: $14.99 (cross-buy, receive PS3 and PS Vita version)
ESRB: Rated T: Teen
Players: 2
Release Date: April 9, 2013

Guacamelee stars a luchador (Mexican wrestler) named Juan, except he doesn’t quite start out as a super-talented brawler. Juan is a lowly agave farmer who is embarrassingly defeated by the skeleton man, Carlos Calaca. With one indirect blow, Juan finds himself in the depths of the netherworld while Calaca takes away his childhood friend (and would-be girlfriend) for some evil empowerment ritual. Juan receives a special luchador mask that brings him back to life. From here, Juan brawls his way through hordes of undead to stop Calaca from completing his ritual of world-taking proportions.

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While the story may seem dire, there is levity to be found. Sprinkled throughout the hub city, you’ll find references to Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Minecraft, and many others that I’ll leave you to discover on your own. There’s a combat trainer named Combo Chicken who teaches you the ways of the luchador in the gym while his unfortunate assistant assists by taking the blows. One of my favorite comedic moments in the game was when I destroyed some seemingly random barrels and then realized that the owner of said barrels was naming them and lamenting each one as they broke into oblivion.

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One of the core elements of Guacamelee, as the title suggests, is brawling. As an agave farmer, Juan can punch, but slowly. As a mighty luchador brought back from the dead, though? Juan can do many things. He has a three-hit combo, a jump kick, a rolling dodge (he can also air-dodge), an air-fist slam, and lastly an upper cut. Life is good for Juan. Well, as good as it can be for a recently deceased man.

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I absolutely loved the combat in this game. It is so simple, and that’s the beauty of it. All of the moves, including the subsequent special moves, are used intuitively. Large combos do exist in this game, but they flow freely. Combos aren’t performed by hammering out a long list of predefined, memorized button combinations; you simply pull out the moves that you choose in the heat of battle. A stamina bar and some limitations on overusing the same special move in the air keep the button-mashing in check. Soon you will be flying forward and upward with flaming fists, pummeling in mid-air, air-diving to the ground, and dodging all manner of attacks. Is there anything more satisfying than ending a 10+ hit combo on an enemy with an air-grab transferred into a pile driver? I think not.

Adding to the mixture of brawling goodness, Guacamelee injects a few gameplay oddities to make your life as savior of the world a bit more difficult. Sometimes enemies have a colored shield that protects them from normal damage. It is only when you hit them with the proper special move that they become temporarily vulnerable. Thankfully, though these enemies can’t be harmed until the correct move is applied to their shields, they can still be stunned and knocked around. This makes the combat enjoyable and adds a layer of tactics to the gameplay. You can corral enemies with your moves, and during your combo, introduce different moves along the way to ensure that the differently shielded enemies that you’re knocking around start to take damage.

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There are also enemies that require Juan to switch between worlds. These encounters are somewhat infrequent, and they do occur later on. Certain enemies may be in one world or the other, and Juan can only damage enemies that are in the world that he is currently in. On the other hand, enemies of either world can damage Juan, so it becomes a bit of a balancing act to effectively take out the current group of baddies while dodging and maneuvering around the ones that he can’t attack.

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The other half of the gameplay is almost solely focused on platforming. The levels branch out in different directions, offering up secrets for those who seek them. The challenges in traversing the world are almost always different each time. You will often find yourself using every single one of Juan’s abilities to get through one section or another. For example, one part had me rolling through some spiky vines, then double-jumping, and finally air-punching to safety.

There are areas that mix things up by having you warp between worlds to make certain platforms appear, and others disappear, all while you’re moving through the environment. I found these areas to be quite intense and very fulfilling. Sometimes I did wish that I could be given a barrage of quick, difficult platforming, but most of it seemed to be focused on presenting a new, shortly lived challenge. However, I was surprised at how many different types of platforming puzzles there were.

Guacamelee dead living world

The art of Guacamelee measures up to the excellent gameplay. The art style is somewhat block-like and simplistic. The closest thing I can think of is Samurai Jack, though Guacamelee is much more detailed. It’s pretty neat seeing the differences between the two worlds. The world of the living often has warm tones of red and orange, while the world of the dead is flooded with purple, blue, and green. Even the few times when the main difference between the world of the dead and living is merely a pallet swap, the blinding yellow lights that glow from the statues and skulls of the dead is a sight to see. Guacamelee’s world is populated with all kinds of detail in each scene.

I can’t say that I’m in love with the entire soundtrack, but for the most part, I really liked the aural experience on offer here. The music in this game can best be described as traditional South American music infused with electronica. The hub town, Santa Luchita, has a festive tune playing for its inhabitants. The “dead” version of the song has an eerie sound to it, with what sounds to be ghostly voices performing choral duty. There are enough dissonant tones to bring it an after-life like feeling. It was fun discovering the differences in each tune as I made my way through the game.

Really, there are only a few minor gripes that I had with the game. One, and this is probably not a bad thing, I wanted more. I liked this game enough that I immediately started playing it on hard as soon as it was over. After that, I explored the world and found some secret challenge stages that take certain elements of the gameplay and turn up the difficulty dial. Beating the game for the first time on normal took me just over six hours. On my second playthrough on hard mode, I took just over five hours. I spent a few hours more finding and completing some of the bonus areas.

The other gripe is that the last boss apparently has a major problem. I fought him and died several times. I found that one time he wasn’t moving. He glitched. I decided to exit the game and retry. He glitched again, so I just decided to put him out of his misery and beat the game. Unfortunately he glitched yet again when I reached him in hard mode.

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If you’re in the mood for a game that focuses squarely on two of gaming’s greatest traditions, platforming and brawling, you simply can’t go wrong here. This game feels like it was made for the people who love pulling off insane air combos in Bayonetta, or perhaps for those who live for the moments in Super Smash Bros. when you pull out every move you have to get back to the platform safely while your opponents are giving it their all to stop you. The fact that the moves in this game are easy to memorize is a great boon. It allows players to intuitively use the move they want at any given moment, whether they’re leaping from platform to platform while air-dodging thorns, or trouncing enemies in a whirlwind of fists and throws. The game will constantly put forth new challenges, new enemies, and you simply have to utilize the tools given to you. The mask of the luchador is ready, but are you?

Grade: A

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Ryan Southard
Ryan Southard 776 posts

Ryan Southard is a video game enthusiast, dissecting games down to their tiniest details. Whether it's new or it's old, as long as it's awesome, he'll play it. Follow him on Twitter at @Ryan_Southard <a href="http://nerdreactor.com/about/">Meet the Nerd Reactor Team</a>