The PlayStation Network is quickly becoming a bastion for independent developers. Fostered by Sony's 20 million dollar investment into its Pub Fund, the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita have already seen some amazing work by indie teams, and are on the verge of getting a handful more in the coming months. The first in the ring this spring is the Mexican-themed, 2D sidescroller "Guacamelee!"
Commonly referred to as a "Metroidvania" style game, "Guacamelee!" puts you into the boots of Mexican wrestling fan Juan, as the love of his life is kidnapped. In his attempt to save her he gets himself killed, and sent to the land of the dead where he obtains a mystical luchador mask that gives him great powers, and brings him back to life. Juan must now set out to save El Presidente's Daughter from the evil Carlos Calaca, a soul raised from the dead, who has already turned Diablo into a chicken, and is on a course to merge the worlds of the living and the dead.
As far as 2D sidescrollers go, "Guacamelee!" is pretty straightforward when it comes to gameplay. Juan can run, jump, and punch his way through his small Mexican village, while acquiring additional special skills that help him improve his luchador skills. As the game progresses, Juan eventually learns a series of goat-inspired abilities that let him perform stronger attacks, scale walls, and switch between the dimensions of the living and the dead, all of which help him reach new areas of the game, and progress the story along. There aren't many new tricks in this game's bag, since its core gameplay goes back 25 years or so, but it is expertly executed and tuned to evoke a sense of nostalgia from anyone that ever spent time blowing into an NES cartridge.
Layered on top of the solid gameplay is some stellar writing - the kind you only find at an indie game studio. "Guacamelee!" is not afraid to weave some humor into the dialog of the game's most serious characters. On top of that, the backgrounds of the villages are decorated with some of the best video game and pop culture homages ever to grace a skybox. From Grumpy Cat to Mega Man to Mario and Luigi, Drinkbox have gone out of their way to incorporate an assortment the most recognizable characters and memes from the last few decades to illicit a fresh chuckle at every turn.
Unfortunately, even though it does have quite a few highlights, "Guacamelee!" isn't a perfect package, hitting a couple bumps in the road. Across both platforms, the most noticeable complaint is likely to be the game's difficulty level. Most seasoned players should be able to coast through the majority of the game's story, easily taking out most enemies as they navigate the caves and corridors of Mexico. However, there are various points in the game where the difficulty gets ratcheted up quite a bit (boss battles, secret rooms, etc.) to an almost insurmountable level, which makes it feels like "Guacmelee!" has some trouble finding an appropriate middle ground.
Outside of the game itself, "Guacamelee" is designed to take advantage of a couple of the PlayStation Network's best features - Cross-Buy and Cross-Save. At $14.99 "Guacamelee" is a reasonably priced PlayStation 3 PSN game, but at $14.99 "Guacamelee" is a steal as a PS3 and Vita Cross-Buy purchase. Having a game like this to play on both a console and a handheld device is fitting, given the play style, but each platform even comes with its own unique features. The PS3 iteration offers two-player co-op, while the Vita version works in some (unobtrusive) touch screen controls. Additionally, being able to take your save back and forth in a welcome option for anyone that (rightfully) wants to take Juan on the go. Should you decide to take advantage of the added Vita compatibility, just be careful of the left analog stick - it's a bit sensitive, and might not send you in your intended direction.
Very few games can blend the variety of things that Drinkbox Studio's "Guacamelee!" does. From luchadors to classic game homages, "Guacamelee!" has it all . The game's south of the border influences coupled with its simple gameplay make for an enjoyable title from beginning to end, and really should be a game that anyone with a PS3 or a Vita should spend some time with. Whether you're taking Juan out with a friend or alone on the road, his harrowing tale evokes a sense of the classics while introducing some fun new twists on this timeless formula that will should keep fans cheering for this luchador for a longtime to come.