If you own a PlayStation Vita, you’ve probably heard of Toronto-based developer DrinkBox Studios but don’t even know it. Having released Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack on Vita in February of 2012 to high critical acclaim, they’re taking a break from the Tales from Space series, instead releasing a brand new IP in the form of Guacamelee. It’s a ridiculous name, sure, but by now you should be aware that you should never judge a book by its cover, or a game by its name, or a person by how much they look like their dog. The list goes on.
Guacamelee is a 2D, side-scrolling, metroid-vania style game, and now that the boring bit is out of the way and we’ve successfully pigeonholed a game that is as brilliant as it is slightly unhinged, bursting at the seams with references to DrinkBox’s own games and games they clearly admire (Castle Crashers, for example), we can get on with actually talking about what makes it a truly essential purchase for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita owners alike. Starting with what the hell it’s all about.
If you’re a fan of Mexican culture, Luchadores and whatnot, then you’re going to be in heaven here. If you’re not, well, the same applies. A beautifully colourful aesthetic design is the background to a traditional story of good versus evil. You, the downtrodden, failed luchador called Juan, who never got the girl (though it’s fairly obvious right from the get go there is mutual attraction), and the bad-guy, the evil Skeleton Carlos Calaca, who made a deal with the devil to win a competition and, having his glory snatched from him at the last moment, vowed revenge on the world. Having managed to turn the Devil himself into a Chicken (I’m not drunk, this is the plot), he now rules the land of the dead, and is slowly transforming both living and dead worlds into one, so everyone can worship his greatness. Issues… After being killed, Juan finds a mysterious Luchador mask and suddenly it’s his job to save the princess – and world, obviously.
It never takes itself seriously, and there’s a generous lashing of humour throughout. It doesn’t always hit, but does more often than not. The daft moments don’t take anything away from the storytelling; in fact, they quite often spur you on. For example, unlocking new “powers” is done by smashing special statues, whereby a goat will transform into human form and teach you how to use it. The goat isn’t particularly happy you keep destroying his statues, and will constantly throw one-liners at you, as to why you keep smashing things up. And that’s before the moment you realise you can transform into a chicken and back, at will. Chickens are a theme throughout, as one side mission (that is really a tutorial for the grapple system) sees you beat chickens up and throw them towards their coop.
Graphical bluster and Hollywood production values are all well and good, but if a game plays like garbage, that’s worth nothing, and Guacamelee plays superbly well, with responsive controls and a deep combo system that reveals itself slowly over time, all whilst delivering such utterly compulsive, addictive exploration to the player. Like many games of its ilk, you’ll see things you clearly can’t get to you, things that require skills you simply do not possess, and rather than feel frustrated, you’ll pass these points safe in the knowledge that the prize isn’t far away, and you’ll be back soon.
But the skills you unlock aren’t just for accessing new areas. The level design is pretty special and will require you to utilise traditional platforming, along with each new skill you acquire. One of the first skills you’ll gain access to is an uppercut-style move which launches you into the air. This can be used after a standard jump, meaning you can jump, then use the uppercut skill to gain even more height and access an area you couldn’t reach otherwise. It even goes one further, with another move being a ground smash – at one point you’ll have to ground-smash through a green block, then quickly uppercut through a red block to stop yourself falling into a pool of toxic acid. It works so well because the game plays so well.
Then there’re the enemies, who eventually can have shields which correspond to the skills you unlock. A red shield can be broken with the red move, the uppercut. You get the idea. You’ve probably guessed from the title that melee attacks are a big part of the game, and while you could probably get a decent length in without learning any combos, you’ll get great satisfaction from hitting an enemy, launching them into the air, a few more punches, an uppercut into the air, then grappling with them before throwing them at the other enemies. Unlockable moves are even more satisfying, giving Juan the chance to beat someone up, then as the Triangle “grapple” prompt appears, suplexing them into their friends, causing splash damage as you keep brining the pain. Add to this the fact that you’ll eventually be able to jump between the living and dead worlds, with some enemies only visible in each, and it’s a hugely satisfying combat system, it really is. It’s not like everything is perfect though, some of the tighter platform sections are very difficult. Moment to moment, wall jumping (when unlocked) and the like are fine, but small platforms are the game’s achilles’ heel at times.
As well as the main story quest, there are other smaller side-quests. They are pretty simplistic, though some will require a good level of searching the game world, whether it’s to bring Cheese to a Chef, or finding a favourite toy for a skeleton child in the land of the dead. If there’s any major complaint when it comes to Guacamelee, it’s that it might be a little short, and skilled gamers who are used to this style of game could even 100% it in under, or around 8 or 9 hours – though there is the option to replay the game on hard mode. You could easily make the argument, though, that it feels so short because you are left desperately wanting more.
As you’d expect, a suitably Latin soundtrack accompanies everything you do, which may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there really was no other choice but to go that direction for the game, especially given the gorgeous visuals that range from underground locations to sandy deserts. It’s becoming a slight cliché to say it, but as someone who has grown tired of brown and grey games, Guacamelee is a breath of fresh air, in a similar way to BioShock Infinite.
Of course, being a PS Vita and PlayStation 3 title, cross-save is present, and works in exactly the same manner as Sly Cooper: Thieves of Time does. When you’re done with one session, hit the menu and upload your save to the cloud, then download it on the other platform. Simple, but not quite as elegant as it could be – though that’s not DrinkBox’s fault. In fact, they go one further, allowing the Vita to be used as a second controller via Remote Play for co-op, which is executed well, too. There’s very little between the two versions, too, with it really boiling down to circumstance, or screen size preference.
VERDICT: If you hadn’t heard of DrinkBox Studios by this point, you damn well should have now. Guacamelee is a superb game that is absolutely essential for PS Vita owners, but also stands up as yet another high quality PlayStation 3 downloadable title. The ability to always keep playing, thanks to the cross-platform save ability is brilliant, but means that you’ll probably get through Guacamelee even quicker than you might normally, which sadly only accentuates how short the game is. But don’t let the length put you off, this is a sweet and incredibly satisfying game, and one you should go and download right away.
BRILLIANT. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.