Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Guacamelee Review

Guacamelee isn't exactly the Wrestlevania I imagined. You play as a guy wearing a Lucha mask, and he does piledrivers and suplexes, but this is a Mexican themed Metroidvania first and foremost. Lucha Libre is only a small part of Guacamelee. You could say it's the cilantro of Guacamelee. Aztec temples, Mexican folklore, and colorful characters would be the tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos that give Guacamelee its unique flavor. The avocado in Guacamelee tastes very familiar, though. It tastes like Metroid and Castlevania.

What initially caught my eye about Guacamelee was Juan’s Lucha mask, but I’m not sure if he’s even a wrestler. There’s wrestling memorabilia and a weight bench in his house, but he starts the game without the mask. He’s an agave farmer. That’s the fruit they make tequila from. One day, Calaca, the villain of the story, kills Juan and kidnaps the president's daughter to sacrifice her in a ritual. That’s when Juan gets the Lucha mask, which is what allows him to come back to life. Is Juan a bad enough dude to save the president's daughter? The premise sounds kind of like Rondo of Blood's, but there are actually a lot of twists and turns involving Calaca’s origin and his henchmen throughout the game, which make the story anything but your standard save the princess stuff. It’s a story of love, betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. And it’s much more interesting than what you usually get in Metroid and Castlevania games. It kind of caught me by surprise, and I really enjoyed it.

While Guacamelee’s Mexican setting is pretty unique for a video game, the core gameplay is fairly standard Metroidvania stuff but with a Mexican twist. Instead of exploring Chozo ruins or Dracula’s castle, dungeons are Aztec temples, villages are Mexican pueblos in the Simon's Quest style, and instead of Morph Ball mazes, there’s chicken mazes. Juan can turn into a chicken and go into small tunnels his human form wouldn’t fit in. You can find equivalents for most, if not all, of Juan’s traversal abilities in Metroid, Castlevania, and Zelda games.

The thing that really stands out to me about Guacamelee’s gameplay is the combat system. Guacamelee’s combat shares more in common with beat ‘em ups and fighting games than the average Metroidvania. It’s not just that Juan throws headbutts and dragon punches instead of slashing, whipping, or shooting lasers out of his arm. There’s combos, juggles, hit stun, knockdowns, launchers, and throws, just like in beat ‘em ups and fighting games. You have to use beat ‘em up strategies in battle, too. You have to try to get all the enemies on one side so they don’t surround you, hit as many enemies as possible with special moves, and throw enemies into each other to keep crowds in check, for example. Add to this the fact that you’re on a 2D plane and there’s a combo counter, and you can probably see why this reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe.

The Zelda part comes in the form of the living and dead world mechanic, which is a lot like A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess' light and dark world mechanic. You can switch between worlds to hide or reveal walls, doors, and platforms, meet different NPCs, and fight enemies in the opposite world. You can only switch by going through portals in the beginning, but you get the ability to switch with a button press pretty early on. This mechanic fits with the life and death theme of the game, but it's not something that requires much thought. It's not much of a puzzle solving mechanic. It's always obvious when you need to switch because you can see the outline of platforms in the opposite world, walls you can pass through sparkle in the living world, and you can see the shadowy silhouette of enemies waiting in the opposite world. This mechanic just means you have to press an extra button while platforming and enemies in the opposite world can hit you but you can't hit them during combat.

I like a good platforming challenge, but I thought both the platforming and combat became too complicated for their own good the further I got into the game because of the world switching mechanic. It made me not want to play the post game stuff at all. There are platforming sections where you have to switch worlds in midair like 10 times, and long fights where you battle waves of enemies coming at you from both worlds. Guacamelee also does that Twilight Princess thing in which the game constantly locks you in a room and makes you fight a bunch of enemies. I'm not a fan of inescapable gauntlets to begin with, so having to deal with enemies you can't hit in one world makes them even worse.

I also don't really like the way the game blocks off areas with lame color coded blocks. I get that they're easy to see and understand, but couldn't they have come up with something that blended in better with the environments and maybe wasn't so obvious? I guess I just expect a bit more puzzle solving and getting lost in a Metroidvania. I never felt like I had to use critical thinking to do anything in this game.

Guacamelee has a very striking graphical style, which I love. Not a lot of games pull off the cartoon look so well. Especially one so stylish and abstract. I would not be surprised to hear that Samurai Jack was the main influence for Guacamelee's graphics because it has that same kind of colorful and rigid look to everything. I also love how the color palette perfectly sets the mood. The colors instantly make me think of Mexican art and decor.

I like most of Guacamelee's soundtrack. It has a lot of instrumental Mariachi style music with acoustic guitars and trumpets, which remind me of a Ska band I like, The Cat Empire. I especially liked one of the songs which sounds like a Castlevania cover with traditional Mexican instruments. It was on a ferry and there were mermen jumping out of the water, so I don't think it was a coincidence. I don't like the more modern sounding tracks, though. They start putting in record scratching and stuff, and I don't think that really fits the game.

I liked Guacamelee, but I was done with it once I beat Calaca. I don't feel much desire to go back and 100% it. I've had my fill of those annoying world switching battles for now. This is a pretty good Metroidvania, though. The graphics and music are nice, it has an interesting story, the beat 'em up combat system is good, and there's a lot of challenging platforming. I also really like the Mexican setting. I don't think this is the greatest indie Metroidvania, but I'm interested in playing Guacamelee 2 now because I think this series has potential.