Review: Guacamelee! 2

By Angelo Auriemma

The original Guacamelee! is Juan of my favorite metroidvania games – a smart, charming, and funny experience that made a lasting impact on me for its gorgeous art design, often underrepresented Mexican setting, and its colorful, irreverent humor. The game didn’t take itself seriously, and I loved that. It possessed a fun, energetic temperament, setting it apart from the grim and downbeat moods that many games try and evoke nowadays with their sweeping narratives and dramatic acting. Its combat was bare bones but got the job done.  Much like the games it was inspired by, its maps were designed in a manner that would have the player retracing their steps to places they had already been in order to discover new, previously unreachable corners of the map.

Altogether, I have fond memories of the game — I played it on all three PlayStation consoles it appeared on and got the platinum trophy twice. If it were any other year than the ridiculously great 2013, it could have been my game of the year.

Throughout my time writing this review, I faced a conflict – is it better to review Guacamelee! 2 as a single product or as a sequel? Ultimately, I feel as though it is fair to write under the assumption that you’ve played the first, as I have a hard time imagining someone seeing Guacamelee! 2 and feeling compelled to dive into it rather than its predecessor. That being said, the large amount of my complaints can be excused if this is your first experience with the series. In fact, as a single product, you’re set. Stop reading, buy it, and you’ll have a fun time.

The reason new players will enjoy themselves is simple — it’s mostly just the original Guacamelee! all over again. I won’t go as far as saying that it’s an identical twin — just a fraternal one. It’s a few new places, a few new gameplay elements, but as a whole, that’s where the differences end. The game as a whole is fantastic — it’s short, gorgeous and funny. A perfect contrast to the plentiful open-worlds we see nowadays that require you to give up your career if you intend on finishing them in a reasonable timeframe. As for its design, the game’s flaws stick out like a sore thumb, but it has no greater weakness than its similarities to its predecessor, at times making it feel more like an add-on expansion than a brand new game.    

If it’s been a while since you’ve played the game, we’ll play catch-up: you play as Juan – a farmer from a small village in Mexico who was struck dead and revived as a high-flying, thunder-fisted luchador. With the ability to flip between the worlds of the living and the dead on the fly, as well as the power to morph into a chicken,  Juan is once again forced out of retirement to save the world from a monstrous threat.

One of Guacamelee!’s greatest strengths is in its astronomical levels of charm. The game’s sense of humor isn’t too dissimilar from that of the Deadpool films — rather than precisely timed Juan-liners, it’s a series of shotgun blasts. Some of the jokes land, some … really don’t. That being said, I found Guacamelee! 2’s comedy to subvert my expectations in ways that its predecessor didn’t.

See, just given my description of the game, even if you have no experience with the series, you rightfully understand this – it’s ridiculous. But the thing is, it understands that. Not only does it get it – but it runs with it. For God’s sake, it’s a game where you regularly morph into a chicken and are referred to by your fellow fowl as “The Chosen One.” This isn’t Citizen Kane.

The dialogue and situational absurdity aren’t the only key moments of charm and emotion in the game, however. Throughout my time exploring, I came across an abundance of cheeky references to other games, films, and television shows strewn about in billboard ads or referenced by passersby. An advertisement for a duel between a shovel-wielding warrior and a knight who fights with a needle. A chest that comes to life and refers to a “Bell of Awakening.” These nods breathe unsuspecting life and laughs, making exploring and grinding to collect all of the scattered treasure chests a more enjoyable experience.

Additionally, the more genuine, wholesome beats of the game play very well.  Rather than force you into a cutscene to watch life-like characters act and express their emotions directly, Guacamelee! 2’s silent characters left you to extract your own interpretations and take things at your own pace. Drinkbox Studios – the developers behind the game – wonderfully handled Juan’s ability to switch between the worlds of the living and the dead on the fly. Oftentimes, you would be tasked with being a middleman, carrying a conversation between someone living and someone deceased. You’re able to hear people discuss their loved ones from the past, and then meet those people in the afterlife. It’s really well-designed, and despite its frequent attempts to try and extract laughs, there were several moments where my smile wasn’t a response to humor, but something I found to be genuinely endearing.

Switching focus to gameplay, while the original Guacamelee! isn’t perfect, it provides just enough variety to keep things fresh without overstaying its welcome. Flashforward, and its successor shares many of its same problems, as well as its high points. It is a sequel that is more of the same – tweaking and expanding the mechanics rather than introducing many new ones.

For example, Juan’s basic movements in combat are beat-for-beat the same as they were in the original game, with seemingly no changes whatsoever. Combat boils down to simple punches, throws, and dodges. Enemies still produce colored shields that can only be broken with specific attacks. The only major change worth noting is that some attacks, highlighted in a white glow, cannot be dodged, ramping up the need for mobility in combat.

In contrast, Juan’s chicken form (aptly titled Pollo Juan) has seen vast improvements, evolving from a simple schtick into more of a unique, second playable character. Pollo Juan can perform the same basic combat moves as his human counterpart – punches, grabs, and throws – while also having his own traversal mechanics, such as a boost shot that can be used when squaring off against foes.

Much like the combat, the traversal system has seen little change from the first game. Juan unlocks the familiar double-jump, wall run, and glide, as well as the ability to flip between the land of the living and the dead, to traverse past walls or obstacles that only appear in one or the other. The only new traversal mechanic worth mentioning is the hook-shot ability allowing Juan to zip from one point to another.

With the additions to the pollo form and the new hook-shot ability being small improvements, the player is largely only given moves that they knew from the first game, which produces a substantial issue common to the metroidvania genre that punishes those who played the original – you need to re-earn things you already had. Much of the game consisted of me coming across a block or obstacle that I already knew how to cross, but did not have the ability for just yet. Knowing exactly what unlockable you will eventually earn to move forward with the game diminishes the moments that a new move is rewarded.

See, in the original Guacamelee! there is a substantial portion of the game where you cannot double jump, and the idea of running along walls or soaring for great distances seems like a far-off fantasy. Upon unlocking those moves, you begin to see the game in new ways, and the map expands exponentially. In Guacamelee! 2, on the other hand, with your knowledge of the first game, there was no sense of genuine surprise with each unlock.

Now, I understand the other side of this coin – if skills and moves from the first game were introduced from the get-go, there would be little reason to return to previous areas to try and pass obstacles you couldn’t previously. But this choice to restart as if the original game never happened makes me wonder if there couldn’t have been some chance at evolution here. For example, say you start with the double jump, but then unlock a triple jump later on. Or maybe the ability to lay down a new platform mid-air a la Mega Man and regain your positioning. These recommendations may sound crazy, and they’d undoubtedly change the layout of the map considerably, but they’d go a long way to making this a new experience rather than simply the original Guacamelee! all over again.

Upon first booting up the game, I was pleasantly surprised at just how easily the memories of how to play came rushing back. Even though I played through the game on Hard, I flew through the opening few hours. It was when my confidence began to get the best of me that the game started to absolutely eat my lunch. From roughly the halfway point of the game until the end, I found the experience to be immensely challenging – more than anything I was expecting from the title.

Combat is fairly balanced most of the time, but occasionally, I found the design of fighting sections to be more brutal and leaning towards unfair rather than a rewarding challenge. Boss fights are never overly challenging, save for one optional fight in the endgame that makes Dark Souls’ infamously difficult Ornstein and Smough look like absolute pushovers, which sort of adds to my point. For as consistent and well-designed as Drinkbox’s games are, they seemed to have hit a wall regarding the enemy placement in parts. Implementing truly challenging combat sections can be great – it can make the player think about the layout of the room, the environmental hazards, the amount of stamina they have remaining to execute one final super attack. But far too often, the developers rely on the trick of shoving you into a small room with a dozen enemies and passing it off as a challenge rather than lazy design.

Despite the combat being truly daunting at times, the true difficulty of the game comes in the traversal and environmental design. There are times where, while traversing the environment, I caught myself genuinely smiling ear-to-ear at the design of some puzzles. The way that the screen would move automatically, forcing you to speedily hop ledge to ledge without a stutter, or hook-shot your way into a wall that you would then ascend on-foot is inherently exhilarating. Guacamelee! 2 has some truly brilliant moments of puzzle-solving and forcing your skills at traversing the beautifully sculpted scenery.

However, my biggest complaint with the world design is the overabundance of obstacles that will kill you upon so much as grazing them. This goes back to my argument on cheap enemy placement – there is well-thought out challenge, and there is the lazy concept that the player repeatedly dying indicates a good challenge over poor design. I’m well aware of 2-D platformers featuring obstacles like spikes or lava that kill you upon touching them, but it’s the sheer amount of them in Guacamelee! 2 that begins to wear on you as you progress through the game while hunting down its collectible items.

Last, but not least, are the optional dungeons to acquire the super special secret key to open a super special secret door. These dungeons are flat-out sadistic. I love a good challenge as much as anyone, but these gauntlets induce nothing but misery as I trudged through the same death trap, attempt after attempt after attempt. These areas may be entirely optional, but that’s not actually the case if you want to see the “good ending” — an ending, which I may add, that was not worth the price of admission.

Guacamelee! 2 is a fun, charming, and gorgeously designed game marred by brutal difficulty spikes and a disappointing retreading of old ground. I saw the credits roll after nine hours of gameplay, only to return and 100-percent it around hour 13. If you were a fan of the original Guacamelee! and are looking for a familiar experience, then this is a bulkier, more challenging revisit to the well-crafted Mexican landscape you loved in the first game. In contrast, if you are new to the series, I feel as if the two games are interchangeable.  You could play either one and have a similar experience to a friend who played just the other.

That’s the thing about Guacamelee! 2 – it’s coming in with a ton of advantages and disadvantages. On Juan hand, it’s starting where its predecessor wonderfully left off, riding the coattails of excellent design and an underrepresented cultural viewpoint. However, given the limitations of having to repeat the same hero’s journey, you are left embarking on an adventure you’ve already had. Stop me if you’ve heard this Juan – as a series, Guacamelee! is great. But once you’ve played Juan, you’ve played them all.