Platforms: PC | PS4 | Wii U | Xbox 360 | Xbox One (reviewed, £11.99)
Developer: DrinkBox Studios
'MetroidVania' platformers may be as ancient as Mother Brain and wall chickens, but they still pull in the punters. From Shadow Complex to Dust: An Elysian Tail and Strider, there's nothing more satisfying than constantly earning new skills and abilities while exploring brilliantly-designed levels, then eventually backtracking to beat challenges and humiliate enemies that once lorded it over us. Guacamelee! proved to be a superb example of the genre back when it released as a PSN exclusive last year, offering all the bells and whistles we expect, only with a heaped serving of spicy Mexican flavour to punch things up.
Indeed, punching things up was the aim of the game, only our newfound identity as a superpowered Luchador also let us throw down on Day Of The Dead-themed skeletal hordes with wrestling moves, smash our way through Aztec temples and occasionally turn into a chicken for the sheer merry heck of it. Pollo power!
Fifteen months later and the Super Turbo Championship Edition has arrived on new-gen consoles, Wii U, PC and Xbox 360, boasting updated visuals, new content and all the previously-released DLC. You could say that it's the whole enchilada. Since it's currently free for Xbox One owners and available as a free upgrade for PS4 gamers who picked up the original, it's high time we gave this fierce fiesta our full attention.
Guacamelee! can never be accused of taking itself too seriously. It's an unabashedly silly romp from start to finish, as evidenced by its premise that sees a tequila distiller setting forth to save the El Presidente's daughter from an evil army of colourful undead skeletons and massive oversized bosses. Sadly poor old Juan finds himself no match for the nefarious Carlos Calca, who kills our hero in short order, but a quick trip to the underworld later sees him resurrected as a masked superhero with otherworldly powers.
Of course, this being a Mexican-themed game, the masked superhero just has to be a Luchador complete with outrageous garb and over-the-top wrestling moves.
The MetroidVania adventure summarily begins and subscribes to a familiar formula. We'll explore a sprawling map bristling with collectibles and impenetrable obstacles that can only be circumnavigated or crushed by using a special ability, typically doled out by locating a mystical goat-shaman with sexual designs on Juan's mother. Well, he is a goat after all. Including block-shattering uppercuts, wall-jumps, ground pounds and aforementioned chicken transformations, our arsenal constantly increases, granting us access to new areas with tougher gauntlets of jumps, pits, spikes and platforms. It's satisfying and initially simple stuff, though some later levels introduce a fantastic dual world mechanic that lets us hop between the real world and the land of the dead through portals, changing platform locations and circumventing some surprisingly cerebral puzzles. I'd have enjoyed a few more of these sections, in all honesty.
It's worth noting, however, that Guacamelee! isn't a puzzle game. It's a brawler, and a seriously good one at that, especially when a friend picks up the second controller and hits 'A.'
Environments are full of dangerous adversaries, ranging from adorable sombrero-clad skeletons to mythical beasts and some enormous bosses. Juan starts out with some fairly basic punch combos to mix up with launches and dodge rolls, but once an enemy is weakened, he's capable of grabbing them and pulling off a number of powerful grapples including devastating slams or throws that sends entire boney platoons flying. New traversal abilities can also be used in combat, from your wall-hangs to ground pounds, granting you extra combat options to experiment with as you play. Foes quickly start to exhibit resistances to certain types of attack or vulnerabilities to a particular move, thus keeping Juan on his lycra-clad toes. Some of the tougher bosses will stretch your reflexes and strategies to the limit, else encourage you to grab the nearest bystander for some seamless 'drop-in' local cooperative support.
Admittedly combat may lack the grace, fluidity and responsiveness of Dust: An Elysian Tail, The Dishwasher and other similar games, sometimes making you wish for a little more speed in a pinch, but it perfectly fits the rougher, tougher, burlier protagonist.
The Super Turbo Championship Edition contains plenty of new content and features, including two new areas and a fantastic new boss alongside extra backstory for our cooperative companion. Tougher elite enemies prove to be a severe challenge compared to the rank and file, though a retooled economy system now lets us buy stat-boosting outfits to even the odds. Finally, the combo system has been vastly improved by the addition of a constantly-charging rage mode, known here as INTENSO on merit of it being rather intense for the duration. If you can dish out the pain fast enough, you'll fuel increasingly powerful attacks.
What really sets Guacamelee apart from the crowd are its visuals, art direction and soundtrack, which revel in both stock Mexican clichés, Aztec art, Dia de los Muertos costumes and a striking cartoony aesthetic that channels the likes of Samurai Jack with thick black outlines and angular features. It's an explosion of violent colour, blaring Mariachi trumpets and copious chickens; a neon-edged delight that always offers something eyecatching to look at even when running back through a previously-explored environment. Fine detail, lush backdrops, larger-than-life characters and fluid animations bring real personality to the proceedings, pin-sharp on the new machines.
Arguably, there's a case to be made that Guacamelee doesn't far enough with its rich setting and themes. Sure, the window dressing is pretty and riotously good fun, but it's still window dressing draped liberally over what is, at its core, a decidedly derivative MetroidVania platformer. All of its mechanics can be traced back to pre-existing games, while often there's little effort to disguise some unimaginative barriers to progression. Some of Guacamelee's obstacles are just coloured cubes with an arrow on them, for goodness' sake, while subquests in towns often boil down to visiting a few townsfolk and reading some vaguely stereotypical dialogue (much of which is a bit too referential, arch and reliant on memes even by modern gaming standards). There's a distinct lack of unique gameplay opportunities that really leverage the Mexican aesthetic, beyond the two-world structure that, in fairness, has nothing to do with being a Luchador in the first place.
Or simply put: Guacamelee's art direction, personality and setting is fantastic, but its gameplay is often interchangeable with any number of preceding games beyond a few special moves.
Thankfully Drinkbox have ensured that said gameplay is fun and thrilling enough to satisfy, while granting us one of the most vibrant and enjoyable adventures we've experienced since... well, Guacamelee, I suppose.
- Satisfying exploration, platforming and combat
- Superb visuals, violently colourful art design and catchy Mariachi soundtrack
- Genuine personality and flair, alongside extra value
- The Mexican theme sometimes feels like window-dressing
- Derivative and unimaginative in parts, some limp sidequests
- Combat can feel slightly sluggish compared to genre peers
The Short Version: Guacamelee! is the Big Enchilada when it comes to MetroidVania platformers, and the Super Turbo Championship Edition is very much the ultimate version. Though riotous fun factor and eyepopping Mexican flair sometimes disguises a few unimaginative challenges, its personality and satisfying gameplay will lock you in for the duration.
Make sure to download it for free while you can, Xbox One owners.