The story of “Guacamelee” references Mexican folklore. You play as Juan; a quiet agave farmer who gets thrust into the role of hero when the “El Presidente’s” daughter is captured by Carlos Calaca. Calaca became the ruler of the land of the dead when he beat the devil in a cockfighting match. Now he looks to combine the land of the living with the land of the dead. Calaca kills Juan, but he is resurrected by the power of a lucha libre mask. Juan attempts to stop the evil in his rebirth.
There is genuine humor in the world of “Guacamelee.” The humorous, tongue-in-cheek dialogue with dozens of video game references sprinkled throughout the world provide numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Keep your eyes open for nods to “Metroid,” “Mega Man,” “Super Mario Bros,” “Castle Crashers,” and others. Even Grumpy Cat makes a cameo.
The art style is reminiscent of the blocky cartoon style of “Samurai Jack.” The characters and setting are bright and colorful, and both the land of the living and dead have unique styles to make them pleasing to the eye. The art combined with the Mexican-style soundtrackto form a quirky experience that is oddly immersive.
Gameplay is a delightful mashup of beat ‘em up and 2D, open-world exploration (like “Metroid”). You’ll start your journey as a weakling with just a few basic abilities, but over time you’ll become a wrecking machine who is as strong as he is nimble. Different abilities open new areas of the world map.
This style of game always seems like an overwhelming task at the start. A quick look makes the enormous map appear like a daunting task. But earning new abilities and uncovering areas create satisfying gameplay of the highest order.
Combat is a big change from games of this ilk. Juan has a three-punch combo, and when enemies are weak enough, they can be grappled into wrestling moves. Those moves launch enemies into other enemies. Juan can also juggle enemies with launchers. Different enemy types force you to use every attack in your arsenal.
Much like “Metroid’s” RPG elements, “Guacamelee” rewards exploration in the form of treasure chests that grant health and stamina upgrades, which allow you to use more special moves in rapid succession.
“Guacamelee” offers a lot to see and unlock. A quick first-run session takes about five hours, but unlocking the true ending requires an extra three hours of exploration. Even that leaves some stones unturned. Finishing the game unlocks “Hard Mode” for an added challenge.
Hard mode may take the fun out of the game by adding too much frustration. The default difficulty will provide a serious challenge at times. Sometimes it will seem unfairly so, whether you’re facing a rugged boss or challenged by the platforming puzzles that require expert precision
Coming off of the cross-play offerings of “MLB: The Show,” I was worried that this game’s Vita version would be a watered-down replacement for the superior PS3 version. Fortunately, “Guacamelee’s” Vita version feels like a 1-to-1 replica of the PS3 counterpart. Throughout my time with the review, I found myself playing the Vita version more than the PS3 version just due to the convenience factor of the Vita. Cross-saves to the cloud are quick and painless.
The game adds a new wrinkle to the “Metroid” formula in two-player player co-op. “Guacamelee’s” combat is a perfect fit for co-op, giving it a “Battletoads” vibe as you pass enemies back and forth with brutal juggles and grapples.
Adding to the versatility of the Vita-PS3 relationship, two-player co-op can be played locally on the PS3, or a friend can join as the second player on the Vita while you play on the PS3. The Vita can also act as your map if you’re playing on the PS3 thanks to cross-play. The map changes in real time depending on the movement of your character. This is particularly helpful in a game like this where the map has to be referenced often.
“Guacamelee” continues the tradition of excellent PSN exclusives. Considering $15 gets you both the Vita and the PS3 version, it is money well spent. I won’t be surprised if it gets serious consideration when we look at the year’s best downloadable titles in December.