On paper, a video game based around a luchador, utilizing the exploration and power-ups in a way similar to Metroid or Castlevania games, would sound crazy. I'm happy to report, though, that that very concept turned into one of my favorite games I've played in a while.
Like most games heavy on exploration, the narrative in Guacamelee takes a backseat to the rest of the experience. That's not to say it's a poorly crafted story in any way, it's just very minimal. You play as Juan Aguacate (you can also play as Tostada but Juan is the main character), a lonely farmer who is off to see his childhood friend, el Presidente's daughter. When you arrive, a skeleton in a bull fighter's outfit attacks and steals el Presidente's daughter away, killing Juan in the process. In the land of the dead, Juan finds a luchador's mask that transforms him into a legendary luchador. Now equipped with the power to fight back, Juan sets off on a journey to stop Calaca's evil plan and save his childhood friend.
For about 90% of the game, that's all the plot you get. You pass from area to area, defeating Calaca's evil henchmen and working your way up to the big final show down. While sometimes very minimalist stories make an experience feel weaker, the narrative in Guacamelee keeps the game chugging along without ever feeling overbearing.
Though I won't spoil it here, I have to mention the ending to the game. While nothing mind blowing or revolutionary, the ending took a turn I didn't expect and went down a rather somber, yet heartwarming route. For a game that focused all it's efforts on charm and silliness, the ending actually evoked some powerful feelings from me, and I felt much more satisfied with the conclusion than I ever thought I would.
One of my favorite things about Guacamelee is how simple the controls and power-ups are, but that doesn't stop the game from pushing your muscle memory and critical thinking skills to the test. You jump with A, punch with X, and you grab/throw enemies with Y and that's as deep as the basic combat goes. There is a rather long list of combos you can look up and learn, but most enemies die so quickly to your fists of fury, you could make it through with just discovering them for yourself.
What really makes gameplay interesting are the powers you acquire along the way. They range from simple things like an uppercut and a ground pound, to more unique things, like the ability to fly across the screen from a wall grab or turning into a chicken. In the beginning, most of your moves just destroy colored blocks you find in temples and the overworld, helping you explore more, but near the end of your adventure, the puzzles and platforming absolutely requires you to use all your abilities in a row just to progress. It really feels good to take everything you've learned along the way and combine them all into a few seconds of muscle memory all to complete a puzzle.
Even though I love that late puzzles require you to use everything you've learned, it leads to the one gripe I have with the game. Some puzzles require split second reaction times to beat and are long enough that you need to meticulously remember each step moments before you actually need to use one of your moves. I'm all for games really pushing you, but some of them just felt way too precise, and retrying the same puzzle over and over again just to fail on one little slip up became frustrating extremely quickly. Thankfully, there were only a few puzzles that were like this, to me, so it's not too unbearable.
Your world traversal moves are also usable in combat, as some enemies you come across will have shields that only certain moves can break. For example, you might be fighting a skeleton with a red shield, meaning you have to use your uppercut move to break it. Bosses employ the shields a lot more, meaning just like the platforming puzzles, you will need to utilize all of your powers to take them down. I loved how the game hammered in it's moves to you over and over again, so using them in a row would become second nature.
Finally, around halfway through the game, you are given a very interesting power. With the tap of a button, you can teleport between the living world, and the dead world, a la A Link To The Past. Beyond the color pallet changing, many new things open up for you depending on what world you are currently in. A bustling city in the living world turns into a sombre, yet still lively city of skeletons in the dead world. This mechanic is also implemented in puzzles, as some things only exist in one world, meaning if there is something blocking your path in the dead world, it may not be there in the living world. I constantly found myself traveling to areas I had already cleared and changing the world just to see if a new secret was revealed or an easter egg would appear, making the exploration even more fun.
Every aspect of the presentation is gorgeous and charming, making Guacamelee feel like a game with a lot of soul. The art style is colorful and detailed, especially when you get access to the living world/dead world transportation. The living world is rustic and joyous, while the dead world is illuminated with lights, and very feels very much like a "Day of the Dead" celebration. There were multiple moments where I felt like I was playing through a painting, that's how colorful and realized some locations are. It's clear there was a lot of love put into making the game as beautiful as it is.
The music stays true to the games Mexican/Hispanic theme as the songs use a lot of wind and string instruments. The soundtrack stays lively throughout the entire experience, very rarely moving to a somber track. It keeps the experience uplifting and charming, creating something that's fun to play through and listen to.
While I could go so much more into detail about what makes the presentation so lovely, Guacamelee is one of those games where you really need to experience it for yourself, to really understand why it's so great. Everything comes together in such a beautiful way that it's hard to really describe in individual sections. For a game about exploration and combat, the fact that they nailed the art style and music so well shows how special this game is.
While I wouldn't say Guacamelee does anything new or out of the box, it does take everything that the "Metroidvania" genre of games and makes it the best it's ever been. The world around you is brimming with secrets, but almost none of them are able to be discovered right when you start the game. You have to progress, obtaining more and more powers that help you traverse the environment, before you can discover everything. The powers are simple to use, yet the game really forces you to learn them buy heart to progress through puzzles and platforming sections. All in all, Guacamelee takes everything amazing about platforming/exploration games, and makes them even better.
The humor is something I would like to mention, as it really shines during a playthrough. From references in the environment, like finding the Journey protagonist passed out on a mountain, to characters spouting memes from time to time, the humor always feels on point and never forced. Most games fail when they try to be humorous experiences, but Guacamelee's is subtle enough to really catch you off guard when you aren't expecting it.
For the money I payed, even the vanilla version of Guacamelee would be worth it. However, I bought the "complete" version and there are so many new things you can experiment with compared to the base game. There are a lot more costumes you can purchase at the store, leading to different gameplay experiences. For example, one costume lets you pump out massive damage, however you also take a massive amount of damage when hit. Or, there is a costume that makes your throws do extra damage, but your melee damage goes down. With around 8 costumes to choose from, you could give yourself extra challenges just by wearing any of them through a playthrough.
The biggest slice of extra content is located in Guacamelee's version of hell, El Inferno. Once unlocked, you are presented with 17 challenges, all of which you can earn a bronze, silver, or gold medal upon completion. Be warned though, these challenges are tough, and require you to use every single thing you have learned in the game to even be presented with a bronze medal. For all the hard platforming challenges I came across in the campaign, none of them compare to how brutal some of the challenges are. Earn ten bronze medals and you open a door that rewards you with a decent amount of gold. Earn ten silver medals and you unlock your final power that finally lets you destroy the various purple blocks around the world. Earn ten gold and.... I have no idea. I have tried the 17 challenges over and over again and I only managed to earn one gold medal. Hell, my sanity barely held together enough for me to get my tenth silver medal. If you are craving a good amount of challenge after completing the campaign, these trails are just the thing to keep you playing the game.
For an indie game, Guacamelee goes above and beyond the quality you see in a lot of triple A games. The art style is beautiful and detailed, the music is lively and appropriate, combat is simple yet poses more of a challenge over time, and the platforming and puzzles will test everything you know about the game to complete. As the credits rolled, I was genuinely sad because I didn't want the game to be over. While it's length feels appropriate, not ending too soon but not overstaying it's welcome, it's a game I wanted to last 100 more hours just because the gameplay was that good. Guacamelee is something special that I believe any gamer should try... whether you are looking for a lively game to pass the time or a true challenge, you will find what you are looking for in this game. I don't like to call games perfect, but Guacamelee is the closest I've seen come to perfection in a long, long time.