Obscure Mexican folklore, offbeat lucha-libre culture, and contemporary meme-based jocularity take center stage in Guacamelee!, a Metroidvania-style action-adventure beat 'em up with a terrific sense of humor and a wickedly enticing visual aesthetic that suggests a south-of-the-border Rayman Origins with an Ikaruga spin. Independent developer DrinkBox Studios has created a whimsical work of art that can be enjoyed by gamers of all ages, and thanks to the PSN's considerately travel-friendly Cross-Buy/Cross-Save utility, a single purchase allows for play on both the PS3 and PS Vita. Given the handheld's shallow selection of worthy titles released in 2013, Guacamelee! gives owners of Sony's newest portable platform reason to dust off the underutilized unit once again. A short but oh-so-sweet fable of masked redemption, dueling realities, and learning how to unleash one's inner hero, Guacamelee! craftily punches, kicks, and pile-drives its way into the heart with undeviating aplomb.
The player assumes the role of an agave harvester named Juan Aguacate, a humble but iron-willed peasant with dreams of becoming the world's most famous luchador. His wish begins to take shape on Día de Los Muertos, when the opprobrious Carlos Calanca sieges Juan's hometown of Pueblucho, destroys El Presidente's mansion, and kidnaps the commander-in-chief's daughter, Juan's longtime crush. Juan is quickly slain by Calanca and sent to the realm of the dead, where the feisty Tostada (co-op mode's deuteragonist) appears and unites the wannabe grappler with an enchanted free-fighting mask, revitalizing his suppressed soul and granting him the enormous power necessary to save his country and the love of his life.
One of the game's choicest features is its bewitching artwork, especially the character designs. Juan's wrestling masquerade transforms him from a simple farmer to an able-bodied suplexing dynamo. Tostada tastefully resembles a coral-pink Spider-Woman. Calanca is a sinister charro skeleton dressed in traditional mariachi garb, and Guacamelee!'s oddball subordinate bosses are just as charming. The monikers of the fierce Jaguar Javier and the rowdy, regularly intoxicated Flame Face leave little room for imagination, but the execution is sound: The former is a self-involved, well-dressed jungle cat and the latter has a head veiled in perpetually dancing fire. The backgrounds are equally captivating, from rural pueblos to lush woodlands, Aztec temples, and sun-drenched deserts; every in-joke-peppered locale (Grumpy Cat and Insanity Wolf make notable cameos) manifests a specific atmosphere that serves the task at hand. The region-inspired musical score is also a standout, with propulsive Son Jalisciense and ranchera anthems teeming with pitch-perfect horns, guitars, violins, and the occasional pulsing percussion.
As the Metroidvania subgenre branding suggests, Guacamelee! presents a nonlinear side-scrolling structure complete with various RPG elements. Fetch quests for needy NPCs, secret chests filled with treasure, skill upgrades, extended area exploration, and routine backtracking are all prominent and generally well-executed, but the game is at its most competently magnetic during its boisterous combat sequences. Insidiously condensed on a surface level, but exceedingly complex as the narrative progresses, it allows for expert controlling of Juan's plethora of signature attacks, which will take a reasonable amount of dedicated training, initially aided in part by the helpful ringside coaching of the surly Combo Chicken. Certain special maneuvers, obtained from a lecherous shaman who morphs into a goat, can be used to open up previously inaccessible pathways scattered about the environment. The game's universe isn't so vast that making repeat mental notes of where breakable red blocks (uppercut), yellow blocks (head-butt), or green blocks (ground-pound) are isn't a continual annoyance.
Similar to other games of its ilk, Guacamelee! produces a sharp difficulty spike roughly halfway through. Once the full scale of the alive/deceased polarity-switching mechanic materializes, clutch situations can get uncomfortably hairy with a persistent swiftness. Emerging in not only battles, but puzzles as well, swapping between light/dark zones to reveal/conceal enemies and walls adds an extra layer of depth to the proceedings. When a horde of foes from separate planes is upon you, every hit able to be absorbed, chaos rapidly ensues as nimble dimensional changes must be made in order to survive. It's a cunning functionality that makes Guacamelee! even more of a well-rounded endeavor, but, admittedly, the slightly gimmicky tool isn't implemented as evenly as it could have been, and ultimately ends up feeling like a bit of a novelty.
Guacamelee! is a relatively brief undertaking; attaining 100% completion is possible in less than eight hours, and the cooperative scenarios don't do much to supplement such unbecoming abbreviation. Yet the game is so pure and so unique, a beautifully realized agricultor-to-campeón parable, that it still stands as a must-play for anyone with even the paltriest appreciation for the medium.