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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (430)

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Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
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ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
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Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
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Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
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World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
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Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
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The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
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Guacamelee!   PC (Steam) 

Mexroid    4/5 stars

“Guacamelee!” is the third game from Indie developer, Drinkbox, and their only title that isn’t part of their ‘Tales from Space’ IP. Instead, “Guacamelee!” takes inspiration from Mexican culture and its stereotypical obsession with masked wrestling. Since Mexican masked wrestling is essentially the same thing as American professional wrestling, only with telenovela-quality drama and even more ridiculous costumes, I was prepared to casually pass over “Guacamelee!” without a second glance. But then I saw an online conversation that directly compared “Guacamelee’s!” gameplay with that classic 2D action/adventure series, ‘Metroid.’ Since Nintendo hasn’t released a 2D ‘Metroid’ since “Zero Mission” on the Game Boy Advance in 2004, and Konami has all but stopped releasing their so-called ‘Metroid-vania’ style ‘Castlevania’ games with the obsolescence of the DS, I have been itching for a similar experience, but could find none. Thus I found myself willing to give a game about Mexican masked wrestling a chance to prove itself based solely upon the strength of its gameplay.

Presentation
“Guacamelee!” shares a strong resemblance to Drinkbox’s ‘Tales from Space’ games. Of course, it only makes sense that the same design team using the same artistic style and assets would create a similar product. “Guacamelee!” uses Flash as its graphics engine, and the PC version even has built-in Steam Workshop functionality that allows players to create custom skins for the main character.

But saying “Guacamelee!” looks like a typical Flash game is really underselling the artistic talent of the design team by focusing solely on the technology behind the game. “Guacamelee!” takes strong inspiration from the bright colors and iconic décor found in Mexico, especially the folk art tradition of alebrijes and the Mexican Halloween substitute, Dia de los Muertos. The characters and environments are so filled with visual personality that the graphics bring a sense of cartoony credibility to the idea that the player is exploring small Mexican villages and ancient ruins. The game also employs a lot of meme-centric visual humor, as the game’s villages are plastered with posters for wrestling matches that involve parodies of Internet memes or other videogames.

The soundtrack in “Guacamelee!” is an excellent collection of mariachi and other Latin-influenced tunes. It’s available for sale on Steam as an add-on for the game, which was tempting, but I ultimately decided to give it a pass. The game features no voiceacting aside from the grunts and groans emitted by the player’s character during combat, but the sound effects are, for the most part, good, and in many cases contribute to the overall goofy, wrestling-themed aesthetic of the game, such as the brief riffs of “La Cucaracha” and epilepsy-inducing screen flashing that accompanies every new power-up.

Story
The story in “Guacamelee!” reminds me fondly of my high school Spanish classes, in which each class was to divide into groups to create things our teacher called “Spanish Videos.” What they actually were, however, were demented looks into the psyches of small-town mid-western students and our perception of Mexican (we were taught ‘Mexican Spanish,’ not ‘Spanish Spanish’) culture. Most of these high school Spanish Videos from the 1990s would be considered racist nowadays, or at least earn the students involved a trip to talk to a school psychiatrist. “Guacamelee’s!” narrative is, at its core, such a Spanish Video in game form.

It seems to be all the rage amongst videogame journalists to jump onto some white knight crusade, such as being pro-feminist, pro-gay, or just being politically correct in every way possible. Is it because gaming is still perceived as a hobby for young, WASP males? Maybe. And perhaps I should jump up and down and point at how stereotype-riddled and insulting to our neighbors South-of-the-Border “Guacamelee!” is, especially because it was made by an entirely non-Hispanic dev-team from North-of-the-Other-Border (Canada). But I won’t.

I’ll point out “Guacamelee’s!” potentially-offensive tone, but I can’t criticize it because the end result of this complete lack of political correctness is pretty damned funny. And what comedy isn’t offensive to someone?

“Guacamelee!” begins by introducing the player to the silent protagonist, Juan, who owns an agave farm just outside the tiny Mexican village of Pueblucha (an elision of pueblo (town) and lucha (wrestling). Being the good Mexican stereotypes they are, the citizens of Pueblucha are preparing for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. Juan does his part by helping the local Catholic friar break some empty tequila barrels before his love interest, El Presidente’s daughter, shows up at the church and asks him to help her carry some chairs. On the way to El Presidente’s house, tragedy strikes, and Juan finds himself facing off against a band of genuine undead, who promptly kill him and kidnap El Presidente’s daughter.

But death is not the end, as the undead’s presence obviously illustrates, and Juan finds himself in the Dead World, which is a grim reflection of the living world. As he stumbles through the dead version of Pueblucha, Juan soon encounters a mysterious female luchador named Tostada, who encourages him to don the mask of a legendary luchador and return to the world of the living in order to rescue his love interest and foil the plans of the undead charro, Carlos Calaca, who wants to rule over both worlds.

While Juan and Tostada are both playable characters, they also don’t really get a whole lot of development. The villains, on the other hand, receive some interesting back stories and solid motivations, as do a handful of goofy supporting characters. The narrative in “Guacamelee!” is fairly simple and straight-forward, but filled with enough jokes and silliness that I found it quite enjoyable. I even learned some new tidbits about Mexican culture that I wasn’t aware of, such as the artistic tradition of alebrijes (Wikipedia is your friend).

Ultimately, “Guacamelee!” is NOT to be taken seriously, but the quality of the writing development of the game’s scenario are both better AND saner than anything I’ve ever seen on the local Spanish-language TV network.

Gameplay
“Guacamelee!” in three words is ‘Metroid plus brawling.’ At its core, “Guacamelee!” takes inspiration from both Nintendo’s popular space bounty hunter franchise and combo-based 2D Beat ‘em Ups.

As players guide Juan and/or Tostada (in 2-player local co-op) through the game world, they will come across a variety of enemies to be punched and a variety of colored blocks that impede progress. Finding tongue-in-cheek ‘Choozo’ statues unlocks a variety of new abilities that can be used both in combat and to reach previously-inaccessible areas. Killing enemies also earns Juan money, which can be spent on a handful of upgrades and costumes (some of which are purely cosmetic, but others of which provide tangible benefits).

The game’s HUD is rather simple, as Juan only has a life bar and a stamina bar. Using any special move consumes a single unit of stamina, which regenerates automatically after a short delay. Most enemies drop health orbs that can refill Juan’s health. Additionally, Juan can purchase and find fragments of health and stamina containers, with three fragments granting an upgrade.

The game world has a complete map that is available from the beginning, with color-coded indicators that reveal which locations still hold undiscovered secrets. Individual locations on the world map, however, must be explored to reveal their maps. Each location has save points liberally scattered around, which automatically save the game and completely restore Juan’s health/stamina.

Combat in “Guacamelee!” focuses around combos with a counter that appears right under the health/stamina meters. Getting higher combos doesn’t really accomplish much besides earning bonus money to unlock all of the purchasable upgrades quicker and without grinding. “Guacamelee!” is designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind, and supports it flawlessly right out of the box. Juan can perform both basic moves and stamina-consuming special moves by combining a button press with a directional press on the left analog stick. Special moves are useful for stringing together long combos, but not necessary in basic combat. Thus they are FORCED upon the player by the fact that, as Juan unlocks more abilities, more and more enemies start wearing glowing shields that must be shattered by a color-coded special attack. Most combat situations feel reasonably well-balanced, but I came to HATE yellow sombrero skeletons, as they move stupidly fast, dodge so constantly that they are nearly impossible to hit, and seem to have far more range on their melee attacks than a non-boss enemy should.

Outside of combat, Juan has a few ‘Metroid’ inspired special moves that help solely with movement, such as the ability to turn into a chicken and squeeze into small gaps, run straight up vertical surfaces, and even swap instantly between the world of the living and the world of the dead. These abilities are utilized quite well, with a number of cleverly-designed puzzles and mazes.

But even with the good intentions behind both the combat and the puzzles, “Guacamelee!” has a tendency to delve into frustrating territory. There are a handful of platforming puzzles that are incredibly close to the ‘Nintendo-Hard’ that frustrated gamers back in the 3rd Generation. Sure, “Guacamelee!” isn’t as dictatorial as most NES games simply because of the liberal save points and the fact that falling in a bottomless pit doesn’t impose a damage penalty. But I encountered at least three puzzles that I knew how to solve, but still required over an hour to get the twitch reflexes down for them (including one that seems like it was meant to purposefully invoke the hateful speederbike stages from “Battletoads”). Additionally, the game features several ‘Nintendo-Hard’ bosses (including the final boss) that require perfect pattern memorization and really go against the game’s general combat theme of racking up big combos. These combat situations are hit-and-run, requiring the player to keep Juan moving at all times, only getting in a cheap shot when there’s an opening. While I enjoyed the rest of the game, these out-of-place difficulty spikes are a callback to an aspect of retro gaming that should stay in the past.

Overall
“Guacamelee!” is a goofy, politically incorrect caricature of Things Mexicans Like. While I thought the focus on masked wrestling would ruin the experience, it ultimately didn’t. Instead of a love letter to lucha, “Guacamelee!” is a love letter to ‘Metroid,’ with a postscript professing great fondness for classic Beat ‘em Ups. Old school gamers likely won’t be too put-off by the difficulty spikes (But remember, oldsters, your reflexes aren’t as good as they were when you were a young ‘un playing on your NES!), but neogamers might. When creating an homage to a classic game genre that no longer exists, it’s important to keep the good parts while discarding the bad. Regardless, fans of 2D games looking for a solid ‘Metroid’ or ‘Metroidvania’ style action/adventure could do far worse than this.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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