Guacamelee! Review

April 9, 2013

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These days, most games billed as Metroidvania don’t live up to the moniker. Even the last major Castlevania featured an over world rather than a continuous game world, seemingly indicating there’s not much demand for “I’ll come back later.”

Enter Guacamelee!, an excellent Mexican-themed brawler that oozes 2D authenticity. The latest offering from Toronto’s DrinkBox Studios maximizes the Metroidvania concept with tight combat, intricate level design, and a colorful aesthetic that reminds players that more is not necessarily better, even if you occasionally end up wishing that Guacamelee! would heed its own lesson.

At its core, Guacamelee is an exercise in simplicity versus complexity. Graphically and conceptually, it’s simple. It’s a functional throwback, a true Metroidvania with new areas unlocked via wrestling moves rather than weapons.

What’s more novel is the (literally) multi-dimensional combat, which makes use of a dual-world mechanic that places objects in two separate planes of reality. Some platforms – and traps and monsters and murderous contraptions – only appear in the world of the living, while others only appear in the world of the dead.

It’s an intriguing gimmick put to creative use throughout Guacamelee!, but it’s the source of much of the game’s needless complexity. Guacamelee! can be painstakingly difficult, often due to confusion rather than developer care.

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Guacamelee! otherwise blessedly adopts many player-friendly conventions that have come into vogue since the Super Nintendo. Some 2D purists might balk at autosaves, warp points, regular health drops, and a dodge roll. I’m new school, so I have no reservations saying that such mechanics make for a much more enjoyable experience, with more time spent engaging with new puzzles rather than replaying old ones.

Better yet, most of the truly obnoxious stuff is strictly optional. The most difficult platforming is found in side rooms guarding hidden treasure chests, and can largely be avoided if you’re only looking to go from point A to point B(oss fight).

The design scales wonderfully, each stage taking into account all the abilities you currently have and all the abilities you will have later in the game. Many of the more daunting chambers become astonishingly simple when revisited later in the game. DrinkBox has absolutely nailed the Metroidvania spirit, squirreling away countless secrets across a sprawling map that’s a pleasure to traverse.

While that multifaceted elegance makes Guacamelee! worthwhile, I wondered: What are gamers looking for from new games mired in nostalgia? Is there a difference between a video game that feels old relative to a video game that looks old?

See, nostalgia fiends often retrospectively cite degree of difficulty as one of the more endearing aspects of early 2D gaming, like veterans trading war stories about ‘Nam. Yet as frustrating as those early sidescrollers could be, the aggravation often arose from arcade sensibilities that forced players to master specific techniques for the privilege of seeing the next text scene.

Nowadays, developers who want players to experience the story avoid making one-directional pathways too convoluted, as with the glowing mountainside handholds in Uncharted. Such games instead offer dynamic battle scenarios deep enough to reward multiple strategies that weren’t possible when games relied on two buttons and a D-Pad.

Guacamelee! gleefully straddles gaming’s generational divide, marrying flexible movement mechanics to rigidly structured environments. DrinkBox wants you to work for your next checkpoint, and in that regard it’s a decidedly retro construction — the challenge is the narrative rather than a barrier to the plot. Thankfully, frequent milestones allow games to maintain a sense of forward progress despite repeated failure, and Guacamelee! is admirably forgiving in that regard.

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The problem is that the precision creates considerable tension with the game’s more current combat fundamentals, further exacerbated with the dual world mechanic and attacks that double as essential forms of locomotion. DrinkBox has given the player control of variables that used to be relegated to the processor, and the sheer amount of data can be overwhelming.

That’s not necessarily a criticism because I know a lot of gamers like a masochistic challenge. I couldn’t stop playing Guacamelee!, so I’m probably one of them. Besides, the layout is undeniably clever. DrinkBox has stretched its engine almost to the breaking point, crafting obstacles that seem impassible until they suddenly aren’t. Guacamelee! excels when it’s subtly encouraging you to try things you didn’t think were possible, resulting in a steep, but balanced learning curve.

At its worst, however, Guacamelee asks players to juggle too many divergent tasks in too short a window of time. It’s not uncommon to come across invisible platforms that can only be reached following a mid-flight double-jump chained together with a wall run, an uppercut, a dash punch, and multiple split-second dimensional shifts. Every action demands an individualized input, which means that it can take as many as a dozen distinct button presses just to get across a room.

Compare that to the more efficient (but no less devilish) They Bleed Pixels, and all the stuff the player has to keep track of – timing, direction, action, trans-dimensional locale, etc. – makes it exceedingly tricky to get into any kind of rhythm. Guacamelee! alternately plays both retro and modern, and while it mostly holds together, it’s annoying to be reminded that you’re not as reliable as the computer.

That’s Guacamelee!’s greatest fault. The platforming template calls for minimalistic simplicity, but DrinkBox has opted for a scheme that incorporates every button on the PS3 controller. The odds of an unforced jumping error increase exponentially with every additional component. Instead of focusing on physics, players have to expend considerable mental energy memorizing combos, and while it’s not a deal-breaker – Guacamelee! remains highly skill-intensive and plenty rewarding – it might be beyond the abilities of less dedicated players.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the story, which is frankly a bit… awkward. The clichéd damsel-in-distress storyline isn’t a driving force in its own game – the exploratory gameplay is a more powerful agent of forward momentum – but it’s nonetheless uncomfortable given the cultural climate following the debut of Tropes vs. Women in Games.

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I liked Guacamelee! and I don’t want to turn it into a political referendum, but it does utilize one of the stock character motivations that we tend to take for granted in a patriarchal industry. By pointing it out, I’m merely hoping to avoid the tacit acceptance that accompanies silence. We can do better, and I don’t mind saying so if it encourages developers to come up with some more original ideas.

But other than that, Guacamelee! is pretty awesome. The game is a blast to play, the artwork is tremendous, and DrinkBox has a delightful flair for gaming Easter eggs that most players will appreciate. I’ve also overstated the negatives for the sake of dramatic emphasis.

Just know that Guacamelee! is intended for a specific kind of player – one with the patience to try the same series of jumps 15times – and Guacamelee! gets two enthusiastic Thumbs Up (for Ebert) if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

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