Here’s food for thought. By the time Nintendo gets round to releasing a new Metroid, they could find the bar for the increasingly popular ‘Metroidvania’ genre has been set so high that they may struggle to topple it. In the past couple of years we’ve had plenty of notable newcomers for Samus’ proverbial crown, including this indie effort that certainly has more than a little Metroid running through its veins.
It’s the Mexican setting that sets this adventure apart, helping to give it its own unique identity. You play as Juan, a simple Mexican farmer. The strong and silent type, Juan meets his maker mere moments after the get-go, only to be resurrected as an almighty Lunchadore. As such, grapples feature heavily in Juan’s special move roster, allowing him to piledrive and superplex the undead army – orchestrated by sinister skeleton Carlos Calca – that’s currently tormenting his hometown. As well as Calca’s plans to thwart, there’s also a damsel in distress to save.
Juan gains dozens of new moves as the story unfolds, obtained by finding and destroying statues. One long running joke is that the owner of these statues – an elderly chap with the natty ability to transform into a goat – gets rather irate with Juan smashing up his property. Jokes like these are rife throughout – over the course of the game you’ll be treated to plenty of pop culture references, in addition to some subtle nods to other indie titles. Developers Drinkbox are clearly huge Nintendo fans too – there are dozens of references to Mario, Pokemon, Zelda and of course Metroid.
The levels are typically labyrinth-like in design but they’re far from bewildering to explore thanks to the impeccably designed map screen – the current objective is always clear, should you forget where to head next. Not once did we find ourselves wandering aimlessly during our 7-or-so hour quest, which is certainly something to praise.
With every new skill Juan earns, new areas open up in previously explored levels. Many of these contain health and stamina upgrades tucked away in hard to reach areas. Reaching them usually takes a few well-timed jumps and button presses – Juan’s attacks are not just used in battle, but also to reach new heights.
Combat is both fast paced and satisfying. As well as frequent encounters with new enemy types, older enemies become trickier to defeat by gaining both protective barriers and the ability to warp to a ‘dead world’ that’s accessible by the push of a button. These barriers are colour-coded and can only be broken with certain attacks. It’s because of this that not one of Juan’s special moves feels underused or superficial. They all serve purpose. Enemy attack patterns meanwhile are a joy to master – beat a battle arena unscathed and you’ll be rewarded with additional Pesos.
Progression is often impeded by large coloured blocks. These relate to Juan’s attacks, and although such signposting is helpful it does also make things a little easier than they need to be. You’ll find no cryptic clues or such here – often all you need to progress is to find and accordingly use a new attack. So while Guacamelee may test the dexterity of your digits, it may not test your grey matter all that much.
Fortunately this is far from being a major issue. Guacamelee captivates from start to finish, dazzling with its superbly drawn artwork, pleasingly traditional boss battles and the occasional distraction such as optional quests to help fellow townsfolk. Juan may have an undead army to stop, but still has time to reunite a little girl with her lost Lunchadore toy.
To elaborate more on the boss battles, the final boss puts up a remarkably good fight. So much so that we found ourselves backtracking to areas we missed, hoping to return to the fight with a slightly larger health bar and more stamina. Colourful costumes bestow perks too, such as stronger grapples or the ability to slowly regain health. There are male and female variants of each – in co-op a second player takes the role of Tostad, a nimble female fighter.
When Guacamelee was first released on PlayStation 3 and PS Vita back in 2013, critics found much to praise. Most did agree however that it was a little on the short side. That issue has been resolved here by the inclusion of ‘El Infierno’ – an additional challenge mode first released as DLC. Although these bite-sized challenges may not to be everyone’s cup of tequila due to their steep difficulty, they help the package feel complete and provide a reason to return once the story has been beaten.
Even if this were without ‘El Infierno’, it would still be a recommended download. It successfully incorporates the essential elements of the 2D Metroid and Castlevania games of yore, while also managing to find its own identity and purpose. Those well versed with said classics may find things a little easy and perhaps overly familiar, but there’s no debating that everything it offers is delivered with confidence.