You, Juan, stand in the middle of a village staring at the brickwork in front. The walls of the houses are covered in posters showing off Mexico’s favourite wrestlers, whilst the billboards above you announce their upcoming bouts. Yet, despite being completely fictitious, they all have a familiar ring to them. El Destructo vs La Bomba? Something about a business cat? El Casa Crashers?
To flesh out their imaginary corner of Mexico, developer Drink Box have turned to the web for inspiration. You’ll spend time peering at each image wondering if you get the reference they were intending, or possibly reading far more meaning into the stone statues than was intended. It’s a delightful aesthetic and one that comes across a humorous without being overwhelming. These aren’t the grating tooltips of Blood Dragon that push the knowing nod and a wink references too far, here they are woven into the background without disturbing the core of the game.
And Guacamelee is more than a collection of memes; there’s a village to save from the skeletal lord of the Land of the Dead and only a noble luchador like yourself can handle such a task. Behind the bright posters paying homage to all the Internet has to offer is an accomplished platformer-come-brawler. Bouncing your masked wrestler around in the opening act may seem no more testing than a simple walk to the ring. He jumps, he punches, and occasionally he jumps and punches for good measure, laying into the reanimated skeletons blocking his path. It’s easy fare that will barely trouble the even novice players, but soon the complexity grows.
Along the way you meet up with a goat. Bear with me as this is no ordinary farmyard animal; he’s a warrior trainer who just happens to be able to transform himself into a bleating beast. Though the whole game could be considered absurd, this portion of proceedings is particularly loopy as he only appears when you smash any of his Predator-looking statues. At which point he’ll amble out, complain, probably hit on your mum, and then reward you with a new move. Ranging from the battle-ready suplex to thunderous uppercuts, they turn your encounters with the undead from a street fight into a brawl worthy of the main event.
A combination of devastating uppercuts, powerful charges, and impressive frog splashes will send most foes reeling as their potency scythes through their ranks. They are by far and away your most effective weapon, balanced by a stamina metre that drains with each special move executed. As you wait for your gauge to recharge it’s back to the fists but by now a few of your opponents may be left dazed and open. Get close and Juan can pull them into a grapple before dispatching them with a quick hip-toss or a very satisfying suplex.
This is no WWE licensed game with wrestlers queuing up to take their turn at laying down some smack and tucking you into the perfect finisher animation. Here there may be a screen full of chaos as multiple attackers try to bring you down at once. With the large radius of effect on most attacks button mashing will get you out of a few scrapes but there’s a very satisfying feeling when you learn to control the battle, chaining special attacks together before relying on grappling to slow things down and allowing your stamina to refill.
Such control is definitely required later on, as more and more modifiers are placed on a fight. Opponents will exist in either the land of the living or the land of the dead, appearing as silhouettes against the background. Mid-fight you’ll have to toggle between the two worlds in an effort to avoid the invulnerable ghosts from the alternate realm whilst defeating those in the one in which you’re present. It’s initially confusing, but layer on shields that require specific moves to crack and by the end the gentle brawler you thought you were playing seems a world away.
In line with combat, the platforming also causes the veins on your forehead to throb with stress. The more special moves you learn from the goatman the more they are incorporated in traversing the increasingly difficult levels. With the Rooster Uppercut doubling as an extra jump and the Dashing Derpderp a warp forward, they grant access to higher and further ledges. By the time you reach the final temple it won’t be uncommon to be asked to string together multiple of these along with double jumps and wall jumps just to cross a single gap. On paper it may sounds contrived but in practice the ease of execution and the well-weighted controls cause it to be a challenge rather than a frustration. The level design is such that there tends to be a reasonable margin of error and the very generous restart system – popping you right back on the last piece of solid ground you were touching – means a failed jump is not the end of the world.
There is the odd exception however and a handful of areas lack any clear signposting as to just what set of moves you’re supposed to do to overcome them. Time and time you’ll try and, though eased by the efficient restart, it’ll feel like you’re headbutting a brick wall.
Your special moves also have a third use as they’re equally adept at opening doors as they are skulls. Each is tied to a different coloured stone that litter Mexico’s pathways and it is these which gate your movement. Very much in a Metroid-vania style, Guacamelee presents you with an open world – albeit limited in where you can actually access. It’s an incentive to return to find every last scrap of treasure and powerup, usually hidden along with a tricky platforming section that put me in mind of the tombs in Assassin’s Creed II that rewarded your skill in navigating their testing environments. Conveniently, each stone is marked boldly on your map and so with each additional power you’ll already have an idea of just where you can explore further.
It’s a tried and tested formula and one that works very well in this setting. If the adventure took place solely in scrolling levels, much of the joy that comes from returning to marvel at the village or wandering back to look at the ruined presidential palace would have been lost. There is a world worth exploring to unpick all of the pop-culture references and to eke out all the secrets from the villagers.
Drink Box have produced yet another visually stunning title, one that somehow manages to meld together worlds as diverse as Central American wrestling and the tangled web that is Internet humour. In many games this branding would have been its crux, the sales feature, but here that is only one facet. Alongside that stands a skilful platformer tied in with an extremely engaging brawler that will test many. In the full spirit of Lucha Libre, this is high flying style.