If you're reading this review and haven't played Guacamelee!, Drinkbox Studio's newest title for PSN, then it's probably due to one of these reasons:
- You don't own a PS3 or Vita.
- You don't like meme references in your games and have refused to touch the game because jokes like Business Cat are referenced.
More on that part in a bit.*
- Some other arbitrary reason.
What? Challenging gameplay and a Luchador mythos not good enough for you? Fine. This review won't convince you otherwise.
In Guacamelee!, you're Juan Aquacate, an plumber agave farmer off to rescue the princess mayor's daughter from the evil clutches of Bowser an evil charro skeleton by the name of Carlos Calaca. Juan is killed by Calaca and brought to the land of the dead to be resurrected as a mighty Luchador, the one hope for the skeleton-infested town.
If you've followed any coverage of the game at all, then you should have a handle on the basics behind Guacamelee!'s brawler-based gameplay. There's a light combo system that depends heavily on the use of the abilities you gain to explore the world with. These abilities are color-coded and handed to you as the story progresses, and you can refer to the color blocks of the map map to see what abilities different areas of the game require to progress further. Yes, Guacamelee! is a Metroidvania game, and it wants you to know that. In fact, it wants you to know a great deal about how much the team at Drinkbox Studios adores other video games. The game is so crammed with stylized references to other products that they even interrupt the experience of ingesting Guacamelee!'s world.
*In-game posters feature Mexicanized takes on a plethora of old Nintendo characters, other indie games such as VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy, and plenty more. It's not just games, either. There are a handful of meme and other internet culture references that feel even more superfluous. The majority of the art is harmlessly located on town billboards that are mostly absent in the game's second-half, but there exist a handful of moments in the story—you pull your powers from “Choozo” statues, for instance—that abruptly pull the player directly out of Guacameele!'s vibrant world. This overabundance of pop culture is easily Guacamelee!'s most baffling design decision. The Mexican themes and Luchador art is so well done that these references feel like an unnecessary crutch to Guacamelee!'s splendid world.
The press circuit is a vicious, speedy beast, and so if you've wandered past forum gossip and random screenshots of these meme-tastic elements, know that there's a significant and challenging product underneath the unnecessary throwbacks. Guacamelee! threw me into Super Meat Boy fits of rage with its platforming sections, and subsequently filled me with pride and relief following its often fantastic boss fights. Players will spend the majority of their time performing wrestling moves on skeletons, not staring at the “Me Gusta” poster in its insidious face.
This doesn't excuse the inclusion of such art, however. Drinkbox Studios crafted a fresh, colorful aesthetic that didn't need the internet's exhaustive “sense of humor” to flesh it out further. Imaginative 2D art that doesn't sell itself to the bowels of pixel art or the melodramatic air of Braid/Limbo is hard to come by, and the fine designers at Drinkbox Studios carved out a sharp world that could play fine without so many outdated memes that exist solely for the “lols.”
Is there a time and place for meme art in games? Do Guacamelee!'s Mexican themes offend? How does a game studio properly issue a love letter to their influences? Guacamelee! is a surprising source for a number of in-depth questions regarding ethnic art and internet influence, but it's also one of the finest games available for the PlayStation Vita. Players steering clear of it for the reasons listed above are missing a robust venture in the world of action-platforming.