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Wot I Think: Guacamelee

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Guacamelee: Gold Edition has been out since before the stars were born, so it’s really about time we let you know Wot One Of Us Thinks. The 2D, side-scrolling Metroidvania is a cut above the rest, a shining example of the form. And also a damned good example of how boss fights can really spoil things. Here’s wot I think:

I can’t get over how much one moment can alter the overall memories of a game.

I’d been loving Guacamelee. It has flaws – not least the very troublesome failure to trigger button presses – and there have been particularly tricky moments where I’ve sworn and shouted and declared the unfairness of the universe. But it’s all been worthwhile because of a really superb Metroidvania platform experience, in a wonderfully realised world (or worlds), with wit, millions of moves, and a perfectly delivered escalating series of skills.

It’s a game themed around Mexican folklore, especially Día de Muertos, where you play a Luchadore aiming to – sigh – rescue a captured princess. Ah well. But that hoary motivation aside, what this is really about is running, jumping and fighting, as you expand your arsenal of moves and abilities, expanding the explorable world.

This is all delivered in just utterly splendid 2D cartoon graphics, the animations for which are luscious. Every enemy is so intricately animated, with a Disney-like flourish for sheen and a Chuck Jones sense for movement. These are high compliments indeed. And everything you see has been designed twice over, since you switch between the worlds of the living and the dead, at first when the game flips things, but later at will. It is, without doubt, a stunning piece of artwork.

On top of that there’s a superb combat system. Attacks can be played as straight button hits (I chose to play on a 360 pad, as it just made more sense), but also strung together in elaborate combos, effectively used in battle, and carefully deployed against the distinct attack styles of each enemy.

But best of all are the skills. Your attacks can double for movement advantages, especially the upward punch that propels you just that little higher. There’s wall jumping, running, achingly far into the game a precious double-jump, and many other surprises, until near the end when you’re equipped with such a vast array of moves that the you from five hours earlier would never believe he/she could cope with them. In fact, late on there’s what essentially amounts to an assault course for your fingers, a sequence of the toughest obstacles to make your way through using all of your learned abilities, in the most astonishingly difficult setting. It’s entirely optional, and I’ve spent genuinely hours trying to get through it, declaring each section obviously impossible until I master it, then labelling the next the same. I’ve still not made it all the way through, because, well, the latest section I’ve reached is obviously impossible. I’ll get there eventually.

There’s something similar for combat too, a vast pit of floors, each containing enemies to beat, that must all be completed in one go to reach the bottom. Do that and another one appears even harder, in which I’ve reached the very bottom level before being defeated, swearing at the screen and refusing to ever try again. I’ll get there eventually.

The game has a peculiar obsession with chickens, it has entirely optional little quests you can complete, finding missing band members, rounding up loose chickens, discovering the location of lost husbands, that sort of thing. There are advantages to doing them – extra health and stamina – but they’re almost blended into the background, not even flagged up as missions in your menu. The game is almost modest about its enormous amount of content.

It’s so long since I’ve gone from being so bad to being so good at a game. What I’m capable of achieving bemuses me, as I somehow string together a jump, sideways dash, second jump, swoop upwards, grip of the wall, roll, dodge through spikes, switch realities to bounce off a wall that exists in the other, then land on a ledge. Me and this game – we’ve gone far together.

I’ve had a fantastic time, and was looking forward to writing such a positive review.

And then I reached one particular boss fight. And my time with the game was horribly tainted. Because the amount of unfun, the degree to which I’ve been pissed off and infuriated by this sequence, has become my dominant memory of my time with it. It will be the game with the stupid boss fight now. Well, it will join the list of games with the stupid boss fights, at least.

I’ve ranted at length about why boss fights should always be skippable on many occasions. (Disagreeing with this argument reveals sociopathy in the contester, of course. Either a mad conviction that they’ll be forced to use the skip button against their will, or a creepy belief that others shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy something without liking the same things as them.) And there are few better examples of why than Guacamelee. Packed with story, dangling all sorts of reasons to keep powering forward, to see where it’s all going, and then putting a bloody great wall of hate across the pathway and telling you “tough shit”.

Complaining on Twitter about it, I didn’t even need to mention which fight it was. So many others groaned in agreement, knowing that I was talking about the battle against the jaguar character. Because the fight is, so very obviously, poor. As with so many errant boss fights in so many games, it contradicts the nature of how you’ve played until this point, and uses unfair tactics to create a false notion of “difficulty”. All those extremely complex fighting techniques you were taught, those chained combos of a very elaborate nature that you almost never really need to use… Facing this opponent that’s extremely strong and powerful, and… none of them work.

You also learn from fighting so many other enemies that there are certain things you can do to block attacks, or over-power enemies. None of these work. You’ve recently been given a new array of movement abilities between this boss fight and the last. None of them are useful. Instead you have a situation where the if the enemy is even one frame into an attack animation when you hit him, that attack happens anyway, despite your successful contact, and you get a massive chunk taken out of your health anyway.

Worse, the knockback effect of getting hit lasts as long as it takes for him to let loose his next attack. Should he choose to, he can kill you in one go if the AI feels like it. Yet when you hit him, nothing, he can carry on an attack he’s already doing.

I’ve beaten it now. I’ve gone past it, had more fun since. Until the final boss, which I defeated eventually, not getting any pleasure from the process, but at least not feeling cheated. That miserable hour or two that I spent earlier, on and off between doing other things to stop myself getting too angry, remains a blight in my experience. And for once I wanted to represent that in a review, rather than let that obnoxious section get reduced to a sentence. People love Guacamelee, and they’re going to be disappointed or angry that I’ve let that one sequence dominate so much in this review. I hope that makes my point.

I have had such a fantastic time with this enormous game. I’ve been playing it in work hours, then in evenings, the weekend, any spare moment I can find. It’s a wonderful thing. Play it, if you haven’t already. It has so much going for it. I’ve had such a lot of fun for the vast majority of the time. I can’t think of a better example of why there should be a “skip” button for the utterly irrelevant moments that interrupt the fun, and have hung this one out because of it. But despite the stain, it’s still a superb creation.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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