Guacamelee is a standard “Metroidvania” game, which is to say it’s an open-ended 2D beat-em-up side-scrolller in which you gain new abilities over time that allow you to explore previously inaccessible places. It’s formulaic as hell, but it’s a proven formula that is executed here well.
The art is its biggest strength. Vibrant, well-animated characters that manage to look both minimalistic and expressive. The world itself feels like a distillation of a greater Internet geekdom filtered through a Mexican lens. Every poster in the game references another indie game, a gaming website, or an Internet meme, all of which is turned into a cartoonish Mexican commercial, and once you get the power to switch between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead, you’ll realize that every geeky poster has its Dia de Muertos counterpart. It’s all pretty clever and constantly makes you smile.
Unfortunately, combat is major part of this formula, and the combat in Guacamelee doesn’t quite work. You’re not very maneuverable, and all your attacks are followed by a slight pause that makes you feel slow despite the wonderfully fluid animation. This feels awkward at first, but eventually the combat demands more precision than the controls allow.
Some enemies will have shields that only break when hit with a specific attack, but you won’t be able to use that one necessary attack because you’re too busy dodging bones, scythes, and hammers from all directions. You might risk a punch every now and then, but you’re not doing any actual damage. Then a demon hedgehog will roll at you with an un-dogeable attack and knock you on the ground. Since you’re not invincible after getting hit, you’ll get hit yet again as you go through the “standing up” animation. Even though you have a sizable heath bar, the combination of enemies and animations encourages you to give up and restart after getting hit just once.
Charm is the first thing to go once a game gets frustrating. After a particularly grueling battle, you’ll be in such a foul mood that the jokes won’t be funny, the memes and references will seem dumb instead of clever, and the charm of the game will just seem forced.
The platforming sections are similarly demanding, requiring you to switch between dimensions and perform special moves with such pixel precision that the jumps become an exercise in obsessive repetition until you know what you have to do before you have to do it. And it’s awesome. The platforming is devoid of any real stakes. If you run into too many spikes and die, you respawn at the nearest shop (of which there are many), and if you fall into water or a bottomless pit, you’re immediately transported to the last piece of land that you were standing on. You’re never punished for failing a jump, and since most of these difficult jumps are optional, leading to hidden treasures, you literally have nothing to lose but everything to gain.
The platforming embodies a very different design philosophy than the combat. Both ramp up quite a bit in difficulty, but whereas the combat motivates you to try by threatening you with death, the platforming motivates you to try by tempting you with powerups. It’s positive versus negative reinforcement, and by the end of the game, it becomes clear which one is more effective. I stopped playing at the final boss, but I found a vast majority of those optional powerups.
Guacamelee is entertaining but slight. It sets out to do one thing well and it does that one thing well, but all the good will earned through the early part of game gets used up once the combat ramps up in difficulty. Asa result, you’ll either quit before the end or keep at it over and over again until the game’s charm wears off completely.
On the plus side, the $15 price tag includes both the PSN version and the PS Vita version of the game. Guacamelee also supports cross-play, meaning you can save your game on the Playstation 3 and continue playing on the Vita.