Still early in its development, Guacamelee has been in the concept phase for over a year, and only in actual production since September. The demo we played at PAX East was the most fully prepared the game has been to date. It had been shown previously at a small event in Toronto, but the developers assured us that it has changed quite a bit. The art style and the animation is constantly being reworked, as is the combat system. An iterative process to be sure, but Drinkbox Studios left us with what they called a bite-sized demo to experience the possibilities of this zany title.
Guacamelee is flush with hilarious dialogue and some spectacular art direction. The gameplay is clearly still being perfected for a full release on as many platforms as possible, most probably XBLA and PSN, come next Spring 2013.
The game at this time feels unfinished, and it is. There is still a whole year of development planned and one of the producers told us that the game changes drastically every time they show it. We have to give lenience, but also our honest impressions as the game stands now.
Every battle is pretty much the same: mash the melee button, while dodging of course, until the enemy explodes. For our part, a brawler needs to be more complex than a one-button attack. Adding an extra button for a strong attack, or differentiating between punches and kicks, allows for combinations and special moves that can be used for specific situations. We are always big fans of having a block/parry button so that learning the attacks of an enemy allows for a devastating defense. Without an overhaul, this brawling system will get stale really quickly.
More interesting than the brawling, is the puzzle aspect of the game. At one point you meet a goat; a goat that turns into a man; a man that teaches you how to switch between dimensions. After this, certain parts of the level are only active in one of the two dimensions (there is a third dimension to be added later in the game). To get to another part of the level, players must switch between dimensions to have certain platforms appear. Also, some enemies can only be damaged in one dimension, while they can attack you as ghost images. There are other parts to the levels where you need certain powerups to bash through walls, so something you had to pass by before will require some important backtracking later.
With some tweaking, Guacamelee could be a really fun and enthralling mashup of game genres. What we saw at PAX East needed some work, specifically in the battle controls.
For now, there are treasure chests that need to be busted open for powerups, health items, and general experience that comes to you in glowing blobs, like what you might see in God of War. There are breakable walls that require certain types of special moves and three different dimensions that will change levels to make certain areas appear and others disappear to help you advance and return. Oh, did we mention you can turn into a chicken? It helps you get into smaller areas. The hilarity of changing into a chicken may never get old. Other than that, it's punch, punch, punch, grapple, punch all the way to the end.
So far, using the Xbox controller, the X button is for general melee attack. When you beat enemies down enough, the game allows you to use the Y button for grapple, where you can perform a few different wrestling style throws. The right stick at PAX East was designated for a dodge move to avoid enemy attacks.
The B button is a special button that when combined with a direction performs one of the special moves. For instance, pressing up and B made the characters do a rising uppercut that could break through designated ceilings.
The A button makes the character jump. You can jump off of walls as well, an important part of navigating the levels.
Pulling both the triggers changes dimensions, which work well. It is not hard to recreate, nor will it happen by accident.
There is no online multiplayer, just local cooperative. We love a good cooperative, side-scrolling, brawler. Double Dragon anyone? Anyone? The second player can jump in and out of the game at any time, a mechanic we appreciate. Your gaming will never be bogged down because your friend had to go home, nor will your friends just have to watch you slug through a single player mode and talk about how awesome the game is. There is no friendly fire as of yet, this may change for the final version however.
The second player is a lady that you meet in the world of the dead. She has her reasons for revenge and will fight alongside the first player with the same set of moves, all of them animated slightly differently. Having the second character in the game can affect story line elements, as some of the bosses may know her and can adjust their dialogue accordingly.
The cooperative mode has a big downfall. The necessity of accurately timed dimensional changes slows down the action. To jump from one platform and land on another that only exists when you have swapped to the other dimension, really hampers the multiplayer. You either have to verbally confirm (“one…two…three!”) when you are going to jump and who is going to switch the dimension with your partner, something that was difficult anyway, or just do it a thousand times until random chance has advanced both of you from one end of the screen to the other. There is a fix to be made here, which could require a heavy reworking of the dimensional switching concept, or a very clever twist of gameplay.
What the game may lack in complexity and tightness of gameplay at this point, it excels way above average in story, character design, writing, and art direction. We laughed out loud a couple of times at the dialogue, and were drawn into the flashy battles unfolding before us.
Building off of the success of Tales From Space: About a Blob, Drinkbox Studios relies upon their seasoned wit and a mastery of storytelling to bring Guacamelee to life in a comedic and cartoony way. If you have ever seen Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove" you may find this game familiar, both visually and in its sense of humor. For instance, we ran into a magical goat that changed into a powerful wizard, who then quipped at us with a few sharp and funny lines before giving us the power to change dimensions.
Apparently, Carlos Calaca is “back”, as if we had known him from before, but he is back from the dead and has brought an army of skeletons and other felonious baddies with him. He has stolen El Presidente’s daughter and a brave luchador named Juan Aguacate sets out to save her. A classic tale to be sure, but Drinkbox makes sure to keep things lively with a great sense of humor. This preview trailer really tells it all:
The graphical style of Guacamelee is really a strong point of the game. Drinkbox has chosen an interesting theme, stuck with it, and executed it excellently throughout. Set in Mexico, there is a constant motif of Day of the Dead esqueleto bad guys and a stone Mayan construction to the surrounding levels. The characters remind us of something out of the Cartoon Network show Samurai Jack, both in style and creativity. The accompanying animation is spectacularly smooth. When you are playing, it feels like you are controlling a cartoon in real time. The colors and the level design combine with the action for a very visually pleasing experience.
There is no voice acting as of yet, but each character makes humorous grunts to accentuate the written dialogue. Objects have a way of smashing with a standard explosion noise, all the while vihuela guitars serenade the brawling.
Looking at previews of Guacamelee, we jumped at the chance to review the game. The concept is so strong in both gameplay and storyline that we had to see what it was all about. Some of our favorite games ever have been of the Metroid-vania ilk (like Super Metriod and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night unsurprisingly). To see a return to this great and underused genre was too much to pass up. Throw in a brawler twist and already the game is unique. Finish it off with an endearing revenge plot, multiple dimensions, a sharp cartoony style, and sharp comedy, all wrapped in a traditional Mexican theme and headed up by a Mexican wrestler as the main character, Guacamelee becomes a must play experience.
When we got our hands on the game at the Drinkbox Studios booth at PAX East, the strong concept and art direction stuck out the most. The developers have the style, animation, and writing down perfectly. The game looks great, moves so fluidly that it feels like you are watching yourself control a cartoon. More than once, we emitted some serious laughter with the bite-sized demo piece. The gameplay could use some work however.
At the booth, Producer Graham Smith told us that Guacamelee will not be released until 2013, so there is time to develop it further. Though the platforming puzzle aspect of the game is one of the main concepts, the majority of the game will be bashing through baddies with your fists and wrestling moves. In the demo, the brawling grew tiresome. With so many buttons on modern controllers, we find it less than satisfying to have only one melee attack button in a beat-em-up game. We need to see some combos, some blocking, alternating attack buttons mixed with grabs to really feel like we have made a difference as a player of the game. Pressing the X button endlessly will not propel players through to the end of the game. More likely, it will have them moving on to something else. We found ourselves eager to get through the levels only to see what the next bad guy had to say, because the dialogue and story line were so interesting.
With a few adjustments, Guacamelee could be a really great game. It could be a unique, fighting, puzzle, platforming, RPG the likes of which have never been compiled into one so good looking game. We will keep tabs on Drinkbox Studios to see what kind of updates are planned for the release in the Spring of 2013. Either way, it's worth a look for the concept alone, whether you should download it on XBLA will be a question of how well it is revamped.
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Christian Sherden is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
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