If you've been playing games for any extended portion of your life, you'll completely understand my mindset while I played through Drinkbox's outstanding new south of the border platformer, Guacamelee. What mindset am I talking about? Every time I picked up the game, I almost immediately put it down. Why? I didn't want to finish and be sad it was over. Gaucamelee is one of those rare games that when completed, you wish you had never played in the first place so you could experience it again for the first time. This game easily walks away with the prize for the Vita's best platformer, a prize previously in the possession of Little Big Planet, and may be in the top five games available for Sony's portable. Buy it yesterday.
Note: In case it wasn't clear, I played through the game on the PS Vita, rather than the PS3. The games are identical and feature the cross-buy option: Buy it for PS3 and you get the Vita version for free. Savings!
Guacamelee's simple but bizarre story borrows from the classic "save the princess" plots we all know by now, but makes the archetype all its' own. You play as Juan Aguacate, a normal Luchadore-loving Mexican citizen. Five minutes into the game, a skeleton named Carlos Calaca kidnaps El Presidente's daughter and, in the process, kills you. Juan is resurrected as a mighty masked wrestler, and sets out to reclaim El Presidente's daughter. Simple, sure, but the story's framework is built up from bare bones with clever characterization and often hilarious dialogue. A reference to listening to Adele and crying in the rain was a personal favorite, but there are dozens more jokes in the text and some visual ones as well. And keep an eye on the billboards in the hub town, especially if you are familiar with Internet memes. The characters are equally appealing, resembling a rogue's gallery that would seem right at home battling The Tick and Arthur or Pete and Pete. The jokes, characters and story all weave together to form an adventure you won't soon forget.
In terms of quality, the gameplay matches the narrative. If you are familiar with the term "Metroidvania," you'll know exactly how Guacemelee is set up. If not, I'll explain: You play in an open, 2D world that becomes slowly more accessible as you find new attacks and power-ups. For example, an early power gained gives you the ability to perform an uppercut. This means you can punch your way up to platforms that were previously unreachable, and you can also break red blocks that once obstructed your path. Eventually, you'll have gained the right abilities to allow you to fully explore the map and confront the final boss. It is a gameplay structure that nearly always works, and Guacemelee is no exception.
Adding another coat of polish is the combat system. The combat calls to mind combo-based brawlers like God of War or Bayonetta, only scaled way back and in 2D, kind of like a more sophisticated Double Dragon. You have a number of moves used to create powerful combos, with more available for purchase through an in-game store. All the moves are modeled after wrestling attacks and slams, and weakened enemies can be tossed around (and into other enemies) with a quick tap of the triangle button. The combat's only weakness begins to show through in various "trap" rooms, where you'll have to beat every enemy to open the doors. By the tenth time you run across a room like this, you'll be totally over it and see it as a distraction from your main goal. With that minor annoyance aside, Guacemelee's combat is deep and rewarding and new moves keep it fresh right up until the end.
The final wrinkle to all this is the difference between the worlds of the living and the dead. You'll use the ability to fight different monsters (ones that are invulnerable in the living world are easily dispatched in the world of the dead and vice versa) and access new paths and secrets. The swapping between worlds is limited at first, but you eventually gain the ability to swap at will. Just a swipe on the touch screen brings you from one world to the other, and it has a very free form Link to the Past vibe to it. Granted, the mechanic is limited in use when you don't have the ability to swap at will, and the game is nearly over when you do finally get the ability, it is still a cool new layer to an already excellent game.
My only real complaint with Gaucemelee is its length. I'm not one of those reviewers who hates on short games simply by virtue of them being short; quite the contrary. If a game needs to be over in five to eight hours to avoid overstaying its welcome, fine. We are probably all better served by more compact adventures, especially those of us with spouses and families. That said, Gaucemelee can be beaten in about six hours, and you can tack on two more if you search out all the game's secrets. For the price, eight hours tops is just fine, but I was left wanting more. Guacemelee is a sublime experience, but for a game I loved so much, I would have liked to have had something, anything, to keep me coming back for a reason other than just replaying the game from beginning to end. NO - I don't mean a multiplayer mode (thank god that wasn't included, ruining another game in which it wouldn't have made any sense - Tomb Raider, I'm looking at you), but something extra might have been nice. Drinkbox; get us a sequel - PLEASE!
I'm not sure what else I can say - Guacemelee came out of nowhere and earned a top spot among all the Vita games I've played, and I've played most of them. It plays like a dream, it's nice to look at, it can be funny as all get out and it just feels like the real deal, a complete experience just shy of masterpiece status. And the cross buy feature means you don't need a Vita (or a PS3) to get your hands on this game. Like I said in my first paragraph, buy it yesterday.
Final Rating: 95%. Why haven't you bought this game already?