Good Metroidvania games are too few and far between these days and you know what? So are good Lucha Libre themed games. Honestly the last game I can think of that really did the whole south of the border thing well was Total Overdose but that game came out almost a decade ago. It’s a pity too because it’s a culture and setting with a lot of potential for good stories and good video games. Drink Box Studios apparently shares my feelings on the matter though and as such we now have Guacamelee, a Lucha Libre themed metroidvania game, and thankfully those two concepts managed to go all peanut butter and chocolate on each other.
The premise here is that you are Juan, a lowly Agave farmer, who is in love with El Presidente’s daughter. On Dia de los Muertos, she is kidnapped by the evil undead charro Calaca, who in the process kills you when you try to save her. Thankfully in the world of the dead you find a mystical luchador mask that allows you to come back to life and set out on a quest to save your senorita by defeating Calaca and his minions and stopping their diabolical plan. It’s basically your classic “hero rescues the princess” tale but with a Mexican twist, and the story plays with that idea wonderfully. The more intricate details of the story are all tinged with the flair of a bad Spanish soap opera and the ending in particular evokes that specific kind of overdone emotional melodrama. It’s all in all a good take on the classic formula with some interesting characters, Calaca’s minions in particular are a fun bunch of degenerates with creative sob stories to tell. That said the story is actually fairly light and simply provides a nice little wrapper for the fantastic gameplay.
While metroidvania is still the most apt way to describe this game, it definitely does some things differently and rather than focus on RPG elements or loot, instead platforming and a deep grappling system take the spotlight. Yes, you will be running through large labyrinthine maps that slowly unlock their secrets as you gain upgrades, that heart of the formula still remains beating. That said for as much upgrades will be unlocking new areas for you it’s going to be you actually getting better at the game and learning the controls that opens up the most of the doors. Almost all of the extra goodies are hidden behind elaborate and incredibly devious platforming challenges that ask you to put your abilities to the test. These require the kind of precision timing and quick reflexes that will cripple your wrists and make your throat go hoarse with curses. Of course this kind of difficulty makes conquering these challenges all the sweeter and thankfully the worst of it seems to be optional, with the main path being much more forgiving. Best part is the platforming actually feels really good with the controls being super tight on both the PS3 and VITA versions (I split my time between the two while playing through the game). You’re easily able to chain move to move and movement mode to movement mode and both in and out of combat you’ll quickly learn cover to insane amounts of ground and use your abilities to scale seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s a good system and it feels more much tactile than just using upgrades as special keys for special doors, though there is certainly some measure of that.
The combat is where the game really shines though with you being able to mix pretty much all of your abilities together into super long DMC style combos. You start off small, with just your basic three hit melee attack, a dodge move, and the ability to grapple a foe when they get weak (grappling let’s you throw a foe in any desired direction) but you quickly unlock power attacks and special grapple moves that can not only not extend your combos but do massive amounts of damage. It’s with these moves you’ll be throwing together long ass combos that’ll have you gliding across the screen and taking down hordes of enemies without even suffering a scratch. It naturally takes a while to get really good with the combat and become the ultimate masked avatar of destruction the game will demand you become but it’s worth the effort as just like the platforming it’s super intuitive and a ton of fun once you master it. Even at that point though the game provides a good chunk of challenge with things like the enemies gaining shields that will only fall to specific moves. They even bring in the “world of the dead/world of the living” conceit that plays a major role in the story by making you switch between worlds during combat (and platforming) to reveal enemies and objects. Enemies that reside in the other world can hit you just fine no matter what side of the mortal coil you’re on but you need to be in sync with them to actually get your hits in. It’s a fast paced extra layer and mixed with the adaptive and deep combat system you really have to be appraised of the whole encounter at any given time, it makes for a much more active game than what I normally expect from a metroidvania but that is by no means a bad thing.
The presentation here is also absolutely fantastic, the sharp clean 2D animation that Drink Box perfected with their “About a Blob” series translates seamlessly into the dusty yet colourful world of Lucha Libre fight posters. The visual design of everything is a mix of the sharp explosive lines of a black velvet promo poster for a Lucha Libre match and the smooth curved lines of ancient Aztec murals; it’s a good look and balances the past and present of Mexican art influences perfectly. The music also goes for a good fusion, understandably it starts with a mariachi base but there are other influences abound throughout and makes for an evolving feel area to area that really helps each location stand out. The best part of the visuals by far though are the posters plastered all over the two towns in the game. They are chock-a-block with video game references, internet memes, and just genuinely fun jokes. I was actually super surprised how deep they go with the video game references here, it’s more than just call backs to the dev’s past games (though those are certainly in there), it’s full on named things to the point of being just shy of infringing on some copyrights. I mean for fuck’s sake, you get your power ups from Chozo statues, not Chozo-esque statues, exact replicas that are even outright called Chozo statues.
To put it all down to a point, Guacamelee is a damn fun game, no buts about it. The main story is a little on the short side at only 4-6 hours (though there is an unlockable hard mode and various collectibles to lengthen the experience) and I feel like they could have done some more with the upgrade system. Even without chasing after every little thing I still managed to beat enough money out of my various enemies to buy every upgrade in the store and honestly not having a loot system of any kind feels like an oversight, I would have loved to have collected various masks and belts with kick ass buffs attached but sadly that was not to be. Not that I’m complaining though, I’m just doing my job as reviewer; in the end this is easily one of the best games to come out of the whole Sony Pub Fund initiative and if you’re a fan of metroidvania games, especially difficult ones, then picking this sucker up should be a no-brainer. So for a near perfect blend of Lucha Libre chiles and metroidvania grade beef, Guacamelee gets a 4 out of 5 stars. While the difficulty level may be too much for those used to more RPG based metroidvania games, Guacamelee strikes a great overall balance and with the cross buy and cross save features being part of the package this is a must buy for anyone invested in the Sony platform.
Also I have never wanted a burrito more in my entire life, just putting that out there….