Sunday, June 2, 2013

GOT 'IM - Guacamelee!

A Metrovania-style game with a portmanteau like that right in the title? I couldn't resist. Guacamelee! review up ahead.

Guacamelee! is a $15 game available on the PSN (both PS3 and Vita) and boy howdy it's delightful. Your player character is Juan, a poor agave farmer who pines for his childhood crush - El Presidente's daughter. However, when helping out the Padre at a local church, El Presidente's daughter is kidnapped by the evil Carlos Calaca, the king of the land of the dead. Carlos kills Juan (!?) and soon Juan finds himself wandering the land of the dead, but not for long - he finds a magic luchador's mask that revives him and grants him the power of a mighty luchador!  Now Juan must punch, kick, throw, and slam his way through the lands of the living and dead to defeat Calaca and rescue El Presidente's daughter.

I'm going to keep this review short and sweet, but Guacamelee is short and sweet. Guacamelee is a 2D brawler-platformer with stage design in the grand tradition of a Metroid or modern Castlevania game - large, open 2D areas joined contiguously and only divided by door-opening processes disguising load times.  Metrovanias (a term a prefer over "Castlemet" or "Castletroid" or "Metroidvania") are a particular love of mine, even if I have overwhelmingly more playtime invested in Castlevania than in Metroid. The exploration, the huge potential for hidden passages and treasure, items and upgrades opening new avenues, and the sheer impressive contiguousness of everything scratches multiple itches.  I love platformers, I love action-adventure games, I love RPGs, and I really enjoy open-world games.  Metrovanaias are at the center of that crazy Venn Diagram, and Guacamelee is a very nice one indeed. 

The basic guts of Guacamelee's gameplay are running, jumping, and brawling. Brawling is a simple 3-hit combo, and once enemies have weakened significantly, an indicator appears over their head and they can be slammed or thrown with the triangle button. Defeated enemies drop coins, and those coins allow Juan to upgrade his abilities and purchase a few new ones.  Juan has a typical health meter (which can be upgraded with items, natch), and a quickly-recharging stamina meter for a few of his skills.  It's not hard to figure out once you get going. 

So that's what it is.  Juan explores the map, switches between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead with the touch of a button, and learns new abilities to fight Guacamelee's colorful cast of villains.  But it's so unapologetic about its Metrovania influences that it's hilarious.  He gains skills from "Choozo" statues that are identical to Metroid's Chozo statues, except that their keeper is an ornery goat-man. By the end of the game Juan can double jump, wall-run, fly in a straight line, and use four special attacks in chain combos: an uppercut, a stomp, a headbutt, and a "Dashing Derpderp" (a dash punch). 

Those combo skills can get pretty elaborate.  You can perform up to four special moves in midair before having to land, and Juan can combo into a launch, continue an air combo, and then resume comboing on the ground as much as his stamina meter allows.  There is a sidequest for performing combos at a dojo of sorts, and eventually the combos got so complicated that I decided to give up.  I won't say that these combo challenges are harder than the training mode challenges in Persona 4: Arena, but they're tricky.  Lots of fighting game influence here, and good on DrinkBox Studios for developing a system with so much depth.  

The regular enemies of Guacamelee! can be a little tough to manage at first, before players have mastered combos and dodges.  Juan can use an invincible dash and roll that is key for punishing enemies and getting out of swarm situations.  Different enemies can also have barriers pierced either with color-coded special moves or by regular combos; enemies with black or white shading can only be fought in their particular world (either land of living and land of dead). So that's up to seven defensive types for players to recognize and break down, and all that's built upon huge combos, multiple special moves, defensive rolls, and a switch-between-worlds mechanic.  Shit can get hairy, but it's always fun and never feels cheap.  As tough as Guacamelee! occasionally gets, Juan has a lot of options and power at his disposal.  Completing a tough boss or sequence of regular enemies feels satisfying indeed. 

So, an angry goat, a "Dashing Derpderp," and a pervasive luchador theme? Guacamelee rides its Mexican themes heavily, with varying levels of effectiveness or even appropriateness, and then drenches it in internet humor.  Luchadores are revered, and there are visible posters for "Mega Hombre vs. El Link" among dozens of others.  If you love gaming references and internet jokes, then Guacamelee! is the stuff of dreams.  SOmetimes the dialog is more legitimately funny, with some truly wacko back-stories for Guacamelee!'s villains and several great quips from NPCs. The goat-sage character is particularly amusing whenever he shows up. 

Guacamelee's map isn't very large.  There are two town areas, three intermediary stages, and four "dungeon" stages.  I beat the game in five hours, and at least one of those five was purely endgame item hunting.  The map is bold, colorful, and generally easy to navigate. One (extremely convenient) bit is that almost every hidden area is blocked by a color-coded wall, with each of four colors corresponding to a different one of Juan's abilities.  After you've gained a few abilities and return to an older map, it's usually pretty easy to navigate your way to perhaps 80% of the hidden content.  It's that last 20% that's a bitch to find, for hardcore players only.

Seriously, the main story has a very good difficulty curve, with several bosses and sequences taking me multiple attempts, but it's forgiving with respawns and saves for the most part.  Until you start searching for mask pieces.  Heart pieces increase health and Skull pieces increase stamina.  You find those in various places at a reasonable pace.  But when you start looking for mask pieces (of which there are only six), your hair might begin to fall out.  I only found three over the course of the game and using a guide to locate the other three wasn't enough.  The platforming challenges for the last two mask pieces were so tough that I decided to give up and move on.  It's a shame too, because I really was interested in seeing Guacamelee!'s alternate ending.  Having those deeply-hidden secrets is a good design decision with a good incentive for players, but damn.  It was a little too intense for me. 

Visually, Guacamelee! looks fabulous, with a deco look heavily inspired by Mexican and Mexican-American mural art.  The colors are bold, and the bright deserts, desolate mountains, and lush verdant areas each have a sense of place.  The camera zooms in and out with surprising fluidity and detail, and it's impressive rather than distracting.  The animations are fluid crisp, with occasional slowdown for invincibility frames or dramatic effect instead of as a shortcoming.  The audio is (predictably) heavily Latin-themed, with lots of guitar and Mariachi brass, but it's alternately catchy, pleasant, and intense.  Not the greatest soundtrack I've played this year (that'd be Persona 4), but it gets the job done. 

So, Guacamelee! is a fun little ride that I wish were a little longer.  Once I hit the wall of not being able to get the last two mask pieces and final 5% of treasure chests, I wasn't in the mood for completion.  This is a stellar starting point, though, and DrinkBox is now 100% on my radar. Good on them for giving me a fun weekend.

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
8. Psychonauts
9. Tales of Vesperia
10. Guacamelee!

Targets: 4/13


Well, now this is done and so is Skyrim (I technically finished Guacamelee! in early April).  A Skyrim review should hopefully be up in a week or two.  In the meantime I've started a brand new game (by "brand new game" I mean "game released in 2002") and I've also been replaying one of my all-time favorite RPGs. Gonna try to make those two my June titles.

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