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Guacamelee! review for PS3, PS Vita

Platform: PS Vita
Also on: PS3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Medium: Digital Download
Players: 1-2
Online: N/A
ESRB: RP – Rating Pending

Rarely do games manage to marry style and substance without having divorced one from the other by the completion of a title's development.  Cuts are made, or perhaps the vision wasn't clear to begin with.  Maybe a wide demographic responds to a more approachable look, or the game design had to be simplified to pacify a publisher's demands.  Whatever normally happens, it's the rare points of synchronization in games that breed such inspired response to the fact someone damn well pulled it off.

While these events occur more regularly as indie efforts on the experimentally-friendly PC platform, a longstanding trend of support for creative IP's has existed on Sony's PSN, which introduced its newest candidate this week:  Guacamelee!

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A combination of Mexican culture, gorgeous vistas, Castlevania design philosophies, and a metric ton of video game references and puns, Guacamelee! brings something for everyone– and almost always in an endearing manner.  It's story, for instance, isn't relied too heavily upon, and is entertaining enough that it can hop between lighthearted, somber, and goofy within a few beats of each note without testing the limits of our patience or disbelief.  We watch the average Juan walk through town on a normal day to the tune of losing the damsel in distress, then his life, and finally being resurrected as a legendary luchador emblazoned with the power of Mexican heritage and fantasy wrestling maneuvers.  It's not important to make this a heavy greek tragedy or some wacky meme generator, but Drinkbox understands that an action game can still have an iota of the player's attention for the brief flashes of dialog parsed here and there– like little reminders that there's still context to all the pretty graphics and action platforming at hand.

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Just as well, the pacing in Guacamelee!'s gameplay is a complimentary rapid-fire parallel to the speedy narrative, introducing simple gameplay elements that are almost always multipurposed for both exploration and combat.  Granted, normal attacks and the ability to grapple enemies are only going to find application in combat, but most of the special moves will tend to flesh out a little more mobility for the player.  The first being an uppercut, will serve as a way of reaching new heights in substitution for a double-jump, which is extended further when the double jump is eventually unlocked.

Small gameplay elements like this are a refreshing blast from the past, when video games were designed intelligently around a few core elements of gameplay, rather than the uncomfortable new trend of assigning special moves to a few select points in a game's path– outside of which they would hardly ever be used or useful.  There is no holding 'O' at a context-sensitive barrier in Guacamelee!, and it removes a barrier separating players from playing the game and holding a button to watch a performance act.

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Just as well, the combat starts out on a plane of simplicity which curves up into a steady grade of difficulty that within a few hours will have players actively using every attack, dodge, and ability in order to survive the latter enemy and boss encounters.  This may not be apparent at the beginning of the title, as from early impressions of Guacamelee!, it seemed that the game was content to offer a pretty, semi-linear Metroidvania experience akin to a few other digital releases this generation; one that would rest on its laurels of having a standout art style to draw its audience's attention.

Enemies, too, join the fray in the game's quick layering of systems, with a bevy of shield types that require coordinated attacks to break down to a point of vulnerability.  This simple addition gives enemies the extra padding that can actually spice up a battle, rather than the regular extra padding that enemies will gradually acquire throughout a game.  Additionally, the game features alternate dimensions, which at first temps the thought of Symphony of the Night's alternate castle, but is used more as a mechanic than slick technique for adding a life beyond the game's end.
Disappointing at first, but eventually the dimension swapping is incorporated in interesting ways that bring shades of Ikaruga to mind when combat is split 50/50 between enemies who can be affected at a given time.

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Guacamelee! is really a game about duality.  The title is a cross-purchase for both the PS3 and PS Vita, as well as supporting cross-save transfers, utilization of the Vita as a controller and persistent map if played on PS3, and even co-op support on the console version.  The versatility of Drinkbox's little game is such that it can be played in almost any combination of Sony's systems – save for co-op on the Vita – without sacrificing any amount of visual fidelity or controls.  This convenience is more and more admirable, when situations such as coming home to upload the Vita save to PSN for console play, then transferring the new PS3 save back to Vita for an extended bathroom break mean that the game is always on your side, at your side.

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The design decisions made in Guacamelee! will likely be overlooked as expected features in titles nowadays, but for a game that does everything it can to make life easier for the player while still being a bang-up piece of work, it's done a hell of a job.  The most that it could be knocked for is anything that it doesn't have enough of.  I would have loved for the campaign to be lengthier, but at the same time I adore that there are sections of the environment with no enemies or boxes to smash.  Instead, there's an amount of downtime and pacing in the overworld and 2D dungeons, which most games have forgotten to include.

Guacamelee! to me, was a special game that when I found something to be lackluster, a reasonable justification came to mind for why I felt something was lacking.  At once, the combat seemed to have plateaued, but then enemies began shifting between worlds, which led to a spirit of experimentation with that element.  Can I throw an enemy in one dimension at another and swap worlds to cause damage to both?  Of course.  Either by design or oversight, there are layers in the game's mechanics that can be investigated with some amount of reward.  This discovery seemed more intentional than a happy accident, but it's a nice touch that means the game is following its own rules on a level that the player can toy with.  You'll be thankful you did near the end-game as well, when boss fights are a whole different ball game of testing your reflexes and skillset by that time.

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If I had to, I'd nitpick the color-coded blocks that are ability-specific to break through.  The map labels these, and their prominence is welcome at a later time when referring to the last few areas available to reach in the map, but this is a convenience that detracts from a sense of investigation that all the other nostalgic touches would have encouraged me to seek out.  Use of the touch screen as a method of leaving a breadcrumb trail would have been a more intuitive blend of new technology solutions for an age-old problem of backtracking.

Another gripe is that while the platforming offers some dicey challenges, there are sections that suffer in over-complication of exercising the most recent ability gathered. Even worse, the mixing and matching of platforming and combat don't demonstrate the flow navigation via abilities and jumping as well as when given a cornucopia of walls to maneuver. Instead, these sections are a simple one-two punch of eliminating obstacles so that the platforming can be resumed near the bottom level, which then becomes a simple chore of hopping steps to the next level.

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On a more positive side, the striking aesthetics are one for this generation's record books. While the game's screenshots speak for themselves, the animation is spot-on and a delight to behold. Almost very environment has some parallax movement, along with beautiful lighting and atmospheric touches to settle players into the gorgeous world of Guacamelee! It's almost worth the price of admission to see the scope of geography in what could have easily been a game full of repetitively tiled dungeons.

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With visuals that could easily be mixed in with a dozen of modern-day cartoons, Drinkbox's magnanimous initiative to maintain a level of artistic fidelity in a 2D action-platformer has been whittled down to core values of new, shiny, and fun.  Best of all, it works wonderfully and leaves us wanting simply more to do.  While that's the note that anyone would like to end on, as an audience member it's a hard pill to swallow.  Hopefully other studios take note from Drinkbox's Guacamelee!, a game that's tastefully ripped the highlights of gaming lore and design, and managed to weave it seamlessly into a stylized Mexican fantasy tale.

Grade: A-