“So why can you turn into a chicken?”
“Why CAN’T you turn into a chicken?”
Though the response doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s very fitting of the world of Guacamelee!, an upcoming Metroidvania-style game about a luchador, alternate dimensions, and absurdity. In the time I spent playing the game and speaking with Drinkbox Studios designer Chris McQuinn (who said the chicken thing actually has some serious story implications), I gleamed two facts about Guacamelee!: it’s 100% silly, and it’s 100% worth your time.
As previously mentioned, you can turn into a chicken, but as you would expect due to the nature of luchadores and the title of the game, you also have a wide variety of melee moves at your disposal as you explore the world in search for El Presidente’s daughter. You are down-on-his-luck Mexican Juan Aguacate and you can punch, kick, dive roll, wall jump, air charge, and so much more to get around.
And as is true of Metroidvania games, not all of these abilities are unlocked right from the get-go. At one point in the demo, you are presented with two paths: upwards or through a door (opposite an entrepreneurial personal trainer, but we’ll get to him later). Upwards, however, is seemingly unreachable at this point. You can see the exit up top, but with the lack of any platforms along the way, you are left with two sheer walls and a very ornate door, so the door it is.
You eventually return to this room, but as a slightly more improved luchador than before. Taught to you by an old man that can turn into a goat (or is the other way around?), you learn the Goat Jump, which is basically a wall jump but presumably in reference to how mountain goats seemingly and effortlessly ascend near vertical cliffs. So you have an open world with progress cordoned-off by gaining additional abilities from currently accessible areas. Metroidvania? You bet. Only Metroidvania?
Not even close.
Remember those alternate dimensions I’d mentioned earlier? Well, they play a significant role in the game, too. Throughout the game, there are floating portals, black hole-ish things hanging around in the world. Whenever you touch one, the world flips into one of these alternate dimensions (such as The World of the Dead and The World of Nightmares, neither of which sound particularly pleasant to be in). These transitions will affect the existence and placement of traversal elements and environmental obstacles as well as enemy vulnerability. It happens in an instant and will require you react accordingly. If you think you can stop to catch your breath, you’re dead wrong.
You may start out by wall jumping across an open chasm, but you’ll pass through a portal, swapping in the fickle solidarity of another wall for abject emptiness and certain doom in the pit below. But then you’ll have to avoid another portal to get through to the other side that will allow you to fall through to your goal. It feels a bit like the water-freezing mechanic of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, which is a good thing considering that was one of my favorite parts.
They also add a nice wrinkle to the co-op play where the second player takes the place of an ostensibly female character named Tostada. If you don’t work together to time jumps together, you’ll quickly get out of sync and one of you will probably be cursing the other as you fall and die. Dying isn’t that big of an issue, though, as you’ll simply come up as a bubble à la New Super Mario Bros. Wii. You’ll float around until your partner can come around and pop you out of purgatory. I don’t know what happens if both of you get bubbled, though, as my newfound PAX buddy and I were not wanting for skill.
But the biggest thing Guacamelee! has going for it is that the game is just absolutely funny. Upon meeting a mostly ineffectual seductress, she eventually succumbs to being overt rather than subtle and even finds time to make a pun along the way. It’s hard enough to make a game entertaining but to create one that will have you outright laugh out loud is a feat in and of itself.
This is on top of, however, the fact that it is also a tight brawler. Things can get a bit hard to keep track of and you will occasionally feel overwhelmed at the fault of the game and not your skill, but the breadth of your abilities makes for some fun combat. You can punch and kick and whatnot, but you can also grapple with enemies and kick straight into the air for either additional juggling or heightened jumping capabilities. Rolling will get you out of sticky situations and past thorny walls. It feels a bit like Shank in the way that every move is short yet impactful but it is also much more about movement in combat than straight-up ravaging foes.
And either out of coincidence or homage, there is a portion of the demo that is similar to the Skulldozer level of the Mariachi-theme area of LittleBigPlanet where you are running away from a giant, stumbling, bumbling dragon-ish beast in a bit of forced scrolling platforming. You’ll beat up a few guys along the way, but by and large, the best way is to avoid them altogether and handily navigate your way to safety rather than punch your way through.
These aforementioned skills are things you can upgrade, too. That trainer in the room I mentioned before will trade skills for coins, improving your melee damage or health or whatever. It makes upgrading easy without the need to include experience points.
But Guacamelee! is also still very much under development. Just to the left of the trainer is a chest full of coins, enough, actually, to help you actually afford an upgrade. As I played, McQuinn said, “you know, it seems like it would be better for the chest to come first.” And you know what, he’s not wrong. That definitely would have helped understanding the trainer menu a bit better and removed an unnecessary instigation of trainer dialogue.
With that being the only qualm I have so far in my short 15 minutes with the game, I must say that I’m extremely looking forward to Guacamelee! It looks to be a more than capable side-scroller with the Metroidvania trappings that make me play and obsess over Metroidvania-style games; it’s genuinely funny; and it looks so incredibly charming.
Though playable since PAX East this year (and announced just the October before that), this is the first I’ve had with it and you know what? Everyone was right; Guacamelee! is pretty great. As I bring up that the only moderately recent luchador-themed games involved Saints Row 3 and that one pretty bad brawler for XBLA, McQuinn is sure to point out that they are trying to explore the lesser known parts of Mexican culture without poking fun at it, which seems that so far, they’ve done.
But still no word on that chicken. Look for Guacamelee! on PSN and PS Vita sometime next year.