Game Review: 'Guacamelee'


One of these days I’m going to rub the back of my neck, and I’ll finally feel that implant that the gaming industry has managed to sneak onto my body during one of the alcohol-induced benders of my youth.  At some point, in between the 11th and 12th shot of Wild Turkey, I was hauled into a van and chipped like a bear in Yellowstone Park so that my brainwaves can be scanned and a game that somehow manages to scratch every weird itch I have can be developed and released.  It first happened in the early 2000s with Bloodrayne, a title featuring a feisty redheaded vampire clad in black leather slaughtering the Third Reich, and now it’s happening again with Guacamelee, which combines Metroidvania-structured platforming with the dizzying delirium of lucha libre cinema.

From its birth lucha libre struck a chord with Mexico, becoming a bizarre pop culture phenomenon that saw the biggest stars of the sport starring in countless films.  These luchadors were revered in their native country, and the heroic technicos (I’m not gonna get into the deeper aspects of it, otherwise we’ll be here a while) would find time to solve mysteries and fight the supernatural between exhibition matches.  El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, and others would face off against zombies, Aztec mummies, vampires, and werewolves, usually in kicky 1960s outfits and always with their masks firmly laced to their heads.  It’s a fascinating slice of pop culture history, and that same sense of sportsman-vs-supernatural is present in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee tells the story of Juan Aguacate, a wannabe luchador who earns his mask after he tussles with the undead Carlos Calaca and is left for dead.  Earning a blue mask and losing his shirt, Juan has to try and rescue El Presidente’s daughter (the woman he loves, naturally) from Calaca before he can complete a ritual to merge the world of the living with the world of the dead. 

The plot is just as silly as it sounds, and developer Drinkbox Studios makes sure that they don’t lose sight of that absurdity at any point during the game.  The art style of the game is bold and colorful, with sprites seemingly cobbled together from scraps of paper (sticking with the 1960s aesthetic that the great lucha libre films sprung from) but animated with a buttery smoothness.  The Metroidvania DNA is clearly on display as well, with new areas of the map opening up as you get new special moves to help you smash your way through barriers or rebound off the walls of a narrow crevice.  Even the backgrounds are lively and irreverent, rife with more internet memes than the front page of Reddit and silly “Mexicanized” versions of pop culture icons. 

Where the game differs from its sequential-platforming forebears is in its combat.  Juan is a luchador, and his combat skills reflect that.  There are no guns or ranged weapons, just a series of grapples, punches, and throws that you can combo together into seemingly endless chains, juggling one enemy into the air before you fling him unceremoniously into his skeletal cohort on the ground below.  The controls are tight, but at times the game can be unforgiving, sealing you in a room to fend off a horde of enemies.  That difficulty is increased by Juan’s ability to switch between living and dead worlds, as some enemies can only be harmed in one world, but still harm you in the other.

The two-world concept is also present in many of the game’s puzzles, which often have you skipping between dimensions in midair to jump from platform to platform or bounce between walls.  These sequences can be truly hair-pulling at times, but the game mercifully forgives your mistakes.  Falling into the sinister energy pooling on the ground will simply teleport you back to the start of the room, no worse for the wear.

Guacamelee is also part of Sony’s “Cross-Play” initiative, which means that purchasing the game on the PS3 will also net you a copy on your Playstation Vita, with saving to the cloud allowing you to go from home to portable and back again…which means that, once again, my PS Vita will make my trips to the bathroom more enjoyable.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to try and get this tracking chip going again.  I want a JRPG starring the atomic turtle Gamera with a soundtrack by Depeche mode.  I hope this works…