Juan of the Dead
1,075SRP: £9.99If you’re a fan of colourful indie platformers, games with a sense of humour and/or life in general, you should probably check out Guacamelee! Gold on your local PC gaming rig of choice. Drinkbox Studio’s side-scrolling festival of Mexican Metroid-Vania fuses the heart of a luchador with the soul of a Super Meat Boy, and it’s every bit as tactile and tough as you might expect from such a bastard union.
This is the tale of Juan, a simple peasant trapped in the routine of everyday life, dreaming of wrestling idols and becoming a hero to the local townsfolk. Of course this being a game and all, that situation quickly alters. El Presidente’s daughter is kidnapped by a cadre of skeletal supernatural villains, and when Juan is the only soul brave enough to give chase, his fate is quickly sealed as the gang turns on their pursuer and dispatches his soul to the land of the dead.
So begins his quest for justice, the girl, glory and enchiladas.
As you might expect from the genre and title, Guacamelee! concerns itself mostly with combat and platforming, with both elements proving themselves worthy components as Juan bounces around the artfully designed side-scrolling map unlocking colour-coded skills that provide access to further sections and necessitating backtracking for ever more tempting loot and upgrades. As is standard for the genre template, there’s always something tantalisingly just out of sight; a quick side-quest to fulfill, a new area to explore or a room that can finally be broken into.
Unlike certain other contemporaries however, Juan’s unlockable abilities are more than just colour-coded keys, and their skill-based application plays an essential role in Guacamelee!’s unforgiving difficulty curve. As an example, a red-coloured uppercut might be initially useful for smashing blocks above head-height, but it’s also quickly put to use as an extension to a double-jump, for reaching airborne opponents, juggling difficult ground-based enemies or saving Juan from a fall.
There are three more of those to master, along with the ability to turn yourself into a chicken (really), or jump between the world of the living and the world of the dead - each of which exists with its own set of enemies and platforms that combine for some fiendish puzzles. As with the likes of Super Meat Boy or N+, it’s advisable not to play Guacamelee! when tired. Please take my word on that. Put the pad down, come back tomorrow. Everything will be easier I promise.
Each of Juan’s skills is introduced with a series of set pieces to show him the ropes, but it’s when they combine in the latter half of the game that Guacamelee! becomes something at once quite special and also incredibly complex. Enemies soon appear with shields that can only be broken by a specific variety of special attack, and whilst Juan can only do damage to whichever creatures are in his current plane of existence, they cheat a little with the ability to hurt him from either dimension, necessitating the ability to quickly switch combos and juggle two different combat arenas at once.
I’m not going to lie here, Guacamelee! feels - at times - a little too tough for my aging 30-something reflexes, but also much like Super Meat Boy, even its darkest moments of teeth-grinding frustration continually prod at your brain for just one more try. Checkpointing in combat and platforming is superbly implemented to get back to the action without missing a beat, and most of the challenge is surmountable with practice and also deeply satisfying to overcome. It’s a game with mechanics that you can feel yourself getting better at with every passing enemy, and although the difficulty is always a step ahead, boy does it feel good to occasionally catch up.
And much like Juan, Guacamelee! is a simple and yet vibrantly colourful beast. This is a world ripe for exploration, peppered with ridiculous dialogue and characters pulled from all the Mexican stereotypes you can shake your taco at. Despite ladling on the puns and references thick and fast however, Drinkbox just about manages to tread the line between humour and over-reliance on pop culture, and Juan’s visual style translates neatly from PS3 original to the uber-resolution of the PC monitor. Of all three host platforms I’d probably still favour the Vita’s condensed vibrancy above both big-screen iterations, but Guacamelee! looks great no matter where you play.
- Tactile, satisfying platforming
- Simple, deep combat
- Colourful design
- Pun after pun
- Occasionally a little too hectic
- A few frustrating difficulty spikes
- Humour occasionally falls flat
Guacamelee! PC Review
Guacamelee! is a project that wears its heart and influences proudly on its sleeve, but never feels as if those are being exploited purely for lack of inspiration. Juan is his own man, and his tale is by turns addictive, silly, maddening and supremely well designed. The platforming is tactile and never feels unfair, the puzzles are skill-based and satisfying to overcome, and the combat is simple in execution but supremely deep in combination.
Make no mistake though, this is one tough, tough critter. There are moments in Guacamelee! that rival the best a-ha! sections in games like Mark of the Ninja or Shadow Complex once you overcome the difficulty spikes, and to evoke comparison to either of those titles should tell you everything you need to know.
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