HIGH Super-tight combat and platforming.
LOW Trying to correctly identify the chicken thief.
WTF Why isn't Tostada available at the beginning?
Heard of DrinkBox Studios? No? It's a shame, because they're doing uncommonly good work for Sony, and for some reason they haven't been on the critical radar.
Their first title was Tales From Space: About a Blob, and it was solidly entertaining. After that came Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, and it was even better. Guacamelee! is their latest. While DrinkBox may have stepped away from blobs for the time being, they've shown marked improvements in each successive project—it's no surprise this one is their best yet.
Guacamelee! is a 2D action game with heavy platforming elements built on a base of environmental exploration that's enabled by collecting abilities and power-ups. Anyone who's played Metroid or any of the recent-ish Castlevania titles will feel right at home, but DrinkBox's interpretation stands proudly on its own.
Main character Juan is a luchador trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead. With a little help from a spiritual mentor, these elements come together by allowing him to flip back and forth between dimensions when not piledriving enemies or pulling off lengthy air combos.
Although a humorous, sharply-written story laden with references to other games sets the scene, narrative is not the main draw here—no, what Guacamelee! offers is some of the most tightly-tuned, colorfully illustrated and perfectly-paced platform action to come out in quite some time.
I found Guacamelee! to be particularly satisfying because it spends an equal amount of time on combat and environmental traversal. It's a neat trick pulled off by letting his special attacks perform double duty—the uppercut can serve as a triple jump, the dashing punch also propels him across vast chasms, and his headbutt clears enemies off of platforms with bone-shattering hits. By combining fighting and navigation tricks together, Juan's moveset feels surprisingly capable while also remaining admirably elegant.
This elegance is reinforced by a smart streamlining of the entire experience. Each barrier halting progress is color coordinated to match the corresponding attack Juan uses to clear it, and the total number of moves is small enough to learn quickly and comfortably, while deep enough to avoid boredom or repetition.
Pacing in the adventure is perfect. The world is built out in directions extending from a central town hub, and time-saving warp points facilitate quick visits back and forth when trying to collect abilities and power-ups. Because Juan can move so quickly through the world and because there's no filler in the game, I found myself barreling ahead with no downtime at all. This was a huge plus, and I appreciated that most of the collectibles and sidequests are optional.
This isn't to say that Guacamelee! is a pushover, though. Some of the pattern-based bosses seem invincible until the player susses out their patterns, and certain platform-heavy sections are sure to test anyone's dexterity. Flipping Juan back and forth between dimensions while jumping, double-jumping, clinging to walls and gaining altitude takes fast fingers and solid concentration. I imagine some players will be hung up for a little while here and there, but these brief interludes of old-school difficulty had me smiling even when they had me gnashing my teeth.
Although I found Guacamelee! exciting and engaging from start to finish, there were a couple of points that could have used a little work.
The first is that the alternate playable character is a female named Tostada. She makes a couple of brief appearances in the campaign, but it's never quite clear why she's there or who she's supposed to be. I thought she needed more screen time, and it was also disappointing to find that she's only selectable during multiplayer. She's got a great design and I would have loved going through the campaign with her. Hopefully this oversight will be rectified in the future.
The second issue is that there are secret collectibles revealed after the final boss is defeated. I was all set to start tracking them down after credits rolled, except that the game provides no hints as to where they are. It may be a minor thing, but blindly searching for items is a big turn-off to me, even in an experience as solidly compact as this one. A couple of pointers would have been appreciated.
In the big scheme of things, those two criticisms are pretty small potatoes, and for a hard-to-please critic like myself, this should be taken as a statement of Guacamelee!'s superior quality. Everything about it is finely-tuned and dripping with polish—the bright, stylized visuals, the rock-solid handling, the smart decisions in its core design, use of its Mexican themes, and so on. Every aspect of the experience screams quality, and every PlayStation Network (PSN) or Vita player would do well to check it out.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately six hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. No time was spent in multiplayer modes. Be aware that the Vita offers singleplayer only. In order to utilize the multiplayer, the game requires either a PS3 or a Vita and PS3 together. Fortunately, this game is a "cross-buy" title, meaning that when one version is purchased, the other is free.
Parents: Specific ESRB warning labels were not available at the time of review. In terms of content, I did not notice any instances of questionable language although there were a few very mild suggestive lines when speaking to one particular character. In terms of violence, the main character punches, kicks and suplexes skeletal bad guys and various monsters. None of it is graphic or very intense, visually. I did not find any instances of sexual content.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: I played almost the entire game without sound and had no issues or problems. All dialogue is presented with subtitles, and I did not find that any auditory cues were necessary during play. It's definitely accessible.