Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: Guacamelee

The life of a luchador is never easy. On a daily basis, you have to wear a colorful mask that makes you big and buff, punch, kick, throw, headbutt, aerial uppercut, ground pound, switch dimensions, turn into a chicken, run up walls and save the world from the undead on a daily basis so that a prophecy that'll destroy the world or some shit cannot be fulfilled. I was certainly not up to the task when it was initially offered in April, but when the offer was available to PC gamers in August, I honestly couldn't resist. No, I don't know why putting it on Steam for five or so dollars less than the PSN version was what make me buy it. All I know is that it's a pretty good game and I feel like a jackass for skipping out on it earlier due to how good it is.

Initially, I thought it was going to be one of those lame retraux games – you know the sort; 2D graphics, safe platforming gameplay that wouldn't offend your grandma let alone the retro game purists, chiptune music because it's all about that authentic retro experience, some video game references and internet memes (oh golly we're so relevant guys!!!), and just the feeling that I'd rather be playing an actual retro game like Mega Man 2 or Actraiser instead. In a bizarre twist not even M Night Shyamalan could come up with, it has all of that (except the chiptune soundtrack bit; there are some chiptune-y sections in a few songs but otherwise, all the trumpets, maracas and acoustic guitars are uncompressed), but does such a fucking good job of it that I really don't care that it uses those lame retraux elements. Not only that, but it kept my attention for all five or so hours that it took to get through the main story plus a few more hours trying to get all the bonus shit for Steam achievements. Just going on a side rant for a sec here – I hardly ever try to go for achievements/trophies/what have you because really, who cares except for you? A game has to be pretty good for me to want to do that, and you know what, Guacamelee sure as shit is one of them!

The story won't exactly be winning any awards, but it doesn't really have to. The actual concept is that of a farmer named Juan turning into a luchador who is neither alive nor dead (or something) as he can travel through the realms of the living and the dead through some supernatural shit. Juan has to rescue El Presidente's daughter from Calaca, an evil skeleton who wants to merge the two realms together. There's some shit about prophecies, but the story itself is pretty lame. Where it has any semblance of a backbone is in its humor. Internet jokes aside, it's a good time because it really doesn't take itself too seriously. I mean at one point, you have a chicken that's going "you're halfway there" and then another goes "just kidding" a bit later. One of Calaca's sidekicks is jealous of El Presidente's daughter and every time you run into her, it either boils down to that or her making advances on Juan. At that point, shots are fired at the fact that he's a silent protagonist. The story goes between filler and being a catalyst for jokes. You got those Chozo statue looking things from the Metroid games and a goatman who looks after them. He gets increasingly annoyed as you smash them and he begrudgedly teaches you new techniques just because those statues contained mystical powers. This game feels like a game made by gamers for gamers, more or less with the kind of humor that they'd expect from a game under these circumstances.

But fuck, this game is no laughing matter. Once you start acquiring some abilities, you'll find yourself doing platforming puzzles where you have to not just do wall jumps, but know when to do uppercuts to get up higher, forward punches to get further horizontally and even switch dimensions so that certain platforms appear and disappear for wall jumps, running up walls and launching from a wall. Sounds crazy? Well, it can get crazy, but it does ease you into things thankfully. For one thing, new abilities are spaced out by a fair bit, giving you ample time to get used to what you just got. The other thing is that there are enough situations for you to learn to associate certain things with certain abilities. After that point, when it starts getting crazy like in the last area or the optional areas, it won't seem as intimidating because you already have an idea of what to do. Honestly, in tandem with the combat, this is what keeps the game interesting. Rather than be content with some cookie cutter platforming segments like certain other games seem to be, Guacamelee raises its middle digits and does what it wants.

Speaking of combat, there's a fair bit to combat, but like the platforming, it eases you into it. You'll start by dealing with grunts that just attack if you get close by and grunts that throw bones at you (whether it's their own bones or the bones of their fallen comrades, I'm not sure of). Eventually, you'll deal with their more skittish cousins, elephant-looking anteaters that roll into you, Ridley's children, big guys with big clubs and guys who shoot lightning at you. Oh, and they'll occasionally sport barriers that either require a few hits before you can start laying into them, or colored barriers that can only be broken by specific special attacks. For instance, you can only lay into them once you uppercut their red barriers off, or ground pound their green barriers into dust. While it often indulges in the arena style battling where you get to a room, get barraged by an entourage of enemies and can't leave until they all die, you'll also occasionally find enemies on your way to the next arena room.

Usually, that kind of thing can work out well. In a Metroidvania game like Symphony Of The Night, this works because Alucard will find a fair amount of enemies and while he's strong-ish, he has to reserve his strength because it's not like he knows where the next save room is and if he goes too hard, the next room may be his tomb. In Guacamelee, though, eh, the enemies can give Juan reasonably big health recovery and on their own, they're pretty weak and predictable. In arena settings where you have to deal with heaps, they can give you a run for your money if you're not careful (especially in the last level where there are heaps with all sorts of barriers). Unlike Symphony Of The Night, save spots in Guacamelee are fairly common, and dying in combat will just put you back at the beginning of that room (nobody dies platforming; you just teleport back to the last platform you were standing on). A lot of the difficulty is found in the arena fights where you fight heaps of enemies. That's also where a lot of the excitement is found simply because there's often a lot to consider and you have to stay on your toes. Thankfully, the abilities you gain can be used effectively in combat to create long combos, and rolling can keep the flow going as it bypasses attacks. Due to the options you have at your disposal and the enemies you face, combat can get intense and by the end of the game, shit just gets exciting as fuck!

You'll occasionally face a boss.. and by that, I mean you'll face four in the entire game, the final boss included. Then again, they're good bosses at least. The first boss seems more like a test to see if you really understood the whole colored barriers thing while making sure you pay attention to her dimension shifting (you don't have it at that point, by the way) so you don't get stuck in a spike pit. Meanwhile, the other three simply barrage you with attacks and you have to dodge them and then counterattack them. They're pretty trial and error heavy, requiring you to pay attention to their animations to see what attack they're going to use and then rushing in to deliver a combo attack or two... and then dying a couple of times because you weren't paying attention. Once you have a rough idea of how they work, these fights most definitely serve as highlights... highlighting how robustly Juan can move. Well, okay, Juan being controlled by a keyboard is kind of iffy when it comes to precision platforming and all that happy go lucky shit (it's lucky the mouse is around for first person shooters), but fuck, when your bosses can highlight how awesome a combat engine can be, they must be doing something right!

I have to wonder though... why use the Metroidvania style of progression? No, really, what is up with there being like a hub level and then a bunch of areas all around it that can only be accessed by getting upgrades? Because of upgrades? Why not have more isolated levels? Beats having some hub level with a handful of shitty fetch quests that net you some money, a heart/stamina piece and/or a Steam achievement. I mean, the basic idea is that you're trekking through a desert, up some mountains or whatever long, platform heavy path lies before a temple, then you go through the temple to get the power ups necessary to get to either the boss or the story event at the end. Most of these levels are designed with the abilities you get at those points in mind, with some half assed additions to make it feel like you can use your newer abilities to get collectibles, like most of them fucking matter. I feel that the village hub level is best reserved for the beginning and then when you're first in the realm of the dead just to establish some sort of tension, like you have to save these people from the apocalypse!

Guacamelee has a clean cartoony look ala Samurai Jack. Everything has this clean, simplistic and colorful look to them. What surprises me is that despite a lot of the designs consisting of lines constructing shapes, they can still look smooth. Whether it's through careful linework or the colors and shading, it amazes me how a linear art style can conjure up some rather beautiful results. Okay, I guess a lot of it has to do with the colors – from the pleasantly shaded backgrounds to the vivid, lively foreground objects, everything just pops out and looks really good. Granted, the designs aren't exactly the paragons of creativity (oooooh skeletons, Ridley children and anteaters), but for what they're worth, they definitely work. Supernatural monsters and skeletons working for a dead guy that's trying to kill everyone, that works just fine. What stands out is the way that they differentiate between the realms of the living and dead. The former has happier colors while the latter is a bit more depressing or foreboding, depending on where in the world you are.

As far as the sound design is concerned, it's largely consistent of Mexican sounding music. From the acoustic guitars to trumpets and maracas  there's a definite Mexican flavor. To add a bit of spice, there's some chiptune-y rhythms. They're mainly there to add some tension or energy, either to fights or to just you exploring the world. They differentiate the moods a bit from the two dimensions – while the realm of the living is livelier  the realm of the dead plays host to more downtempo music, which is a pretty nice touch, not to mention suitable to the colors in those dimensions. In general, the music in this game is enjoyable in the same way that music in general makes... I don't know, creative writing enjoyable. It's background music that has your attention, adds a layer of depth to the room you're in and just makes you want to keep going because you don't want to stop the music. The soundtrack itself is fairly good and I'd recommend giving it a listen on its own terms as the songs are nice and catchy, but in the context of the game, well, it just makes the downtime between combat and platforming more exciting.

When this game came out, I thought that it'd be like Outland in that it ends up being a fucking sick game that hardly anybody would play. Well, a fair few people have played it – certainly enough to warrant a PC release that includes some optional challenges testing your skills in the arts of combat and platforming (I personally thought that some of the combat ones were just total horse shit because they felt more like arbitrary limits than a legitimate challenge but hey, maybe I need to "git gud"), but it doesn't reach Outland levels of excellence. Instead, Guacamelee is a fun, fun game that never stops the music. Whether it's the combat, the platforming or the actual music in question, there's just a lot of things to look forward to that'll keep you playing. It never overstays its welcome and in fact, it only gets better the further along you go, ending on a high note. A few niggling issues like the side content being of inconsistent quality (ranging from fun to fucking worthless) doesn't stop it from being something that I'd recommend to you, dear reader.

8.5/10 (Great)