Truth be told, the original Guacamelee! wasn’t exactly the most appetizing Enchilada.
It didn’t feel like it was setting out to blow any minds, merely existing to fill some undetermined spot for Metroid-Vanias. It was perfectly adequate, with punchy combat, a vibrant aesthetic pushed even further into remembrance thanks to an ferocious soundtrack, but it didn’t pop out the way it should’ve. It popped out for other people though, which is why Guacamelee! 2 came out recently.
This is the latest title from Canadian studio Drinkbox Studios, whose sole purpose in life is to create quaint and modest titles that shy away from mainstream success, but still find a devoted following. Tales from Space, the original Guacamelee!, Severed; They’re all met with incredibly positive praise, but not mainstream acclaim, but y’know what? Guacamelee! 2 might be the title to change it, but in due time.
The game’s story is a direct continuation of the first title, with it dropping you straight into the final sequence of fighting against Calaca. After deftly kicking his ass, you resurrect your love Lupita and live a long and happy life together, with kids, and chickens, and stuff. Unfortunately, this bliss doesn’t last, as new villain Salvador threatens to disrupt not just Juan’s world, but every other world that exists in another dimension, so Juan rounds up the gang to kick some Mexican arse.
The opening paragraph may not sound like I’m the right man for the job of reviewing this modest title, but you’d be wrong. Hand me a Metroid-Vania, and I’ll create a sloppily drawn map on an A4 piece of paper with shoddy pencils, and that’s where the original Guacamelee! failed. It felt extremely linear, with no real call-back to return to previous areas, since the promise of health and stamina upgrades were pointless, considering how easy enemies were.
Imagine my surprise when all of my previous complaints were thrown out of the bloody window.
Guacamelee! 2 is an absolutely stellar upgrade from the original, in every way, shape and form. The level design, the combat, the variety, the ambition, the enemies, the visual design, the characters, the writing; Oh my giddy aunt, it’s all so brilliant. It’s genuinely the best Metroid-Vania I’ve played since Shadow Complex, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, what’s in the game?
One thing you’ll notice almost immediately is the first boss you face is quite similar to the intro of Symphony of The Night, even going so far as to nick the infamous “What is a man?” line. From there, Guacamelee! 2’s tongue stays firmly in its cheek, to the point where it might impale the skin as you’re given an endless barrage of references, parodies and jokes at the expense and benefit of any game, or gaming news, Drinkbox Studios had nearby. PUBG, Fortnite, loot boxes, Street Fighter, cliches in narrative design, and so on.
Another thing I should point out is that the comedy in Guacamelee! 2 isn’t just references. There are clear distinctions between what is a joke at the expense of other entity, and what is a nod to something someone at Drinkbox enjoyed. They even go so far as to add original comedic moments into the game as well, and they work brilliantly with everything else! It’s rare that a game is this consistently funny, but then again, this isn’t Full Frontal we’re reviewing, is it?
That being said, the way the narrative tends to flip-flop between goofy action, one-liners and memes, to emotional confrontations or moments between the characters is unnecessary. One particular moment that sticks out is the origin story of Salvador, and after they spend time explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing, you think “damn…”, only for the person explaining said story to go, “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall”. I’m not kidding, and it’s just as unhumorous as I’ve described it.
The thing that gets my goat, however, is the game can still have these emotional moments, and in fact, still does at points. There are various points where characters have their time in this sob-story limelight, and it’s quite hard-hitting and makes you feel for them. The origin story of Salvador would be one such point if it wasn’t for that DOA joke being crowbarred in.
Still, this doesn’t affect gameplay, which is just as punchy and weighted as it was in the first Guacamelee!, with that beat ’em up flavor being as tasty as ever. The best improvement present in this sequel has to be the larger emphasis on dual-world gameplay. Fans of the original will remember that you play as a rooster at various points, but it was mostly limited to small gimmicky platforming. Now, the world hosts a fresh balance of both sides, with there being a variable smorgasbord of content and combat challenges for both the luchador and his rooster counterpart.
The level design, and to a further extent, the difficulty curve of Guacamelee! 2, is something of a superb sight to watch unfurl. With the context that our hero Juan has grown to be a fat slob since his luchador days, seeing him regain his old strengths and come out on top as a winner was a blast. Facing off against a brilliant variety of AI skeletons against a backdrop of newly-found flourishing environments was also a spectacle to watch, albeit a messy one.
See, the problem with both Guacamelee! games is the colors present in both games are so vibrant and bright, that a lot of the combat, as glorious as it may be, can usually get lost in a sea of confusion. You take hits that you aren’t supposed to, you aim for something that misses the mark by a mile, and your general level of skill drops down considerably. While it’s less of a problem in the second than it is in the first, Drinkbox does tend to sabotage this sometimes by including such massive arenas to fight in.
What this leads into is a few fights where the camera is so zoomed out, you tend to dis-attach from the fight proceedings completely, and get pummeled due to not knowing what the bloody hell is going on. Monsters will continuously spawn, explosions and meaty punches and kicks will blast your speakers, the music continues to add to this audio onslaught, and that’s another problem the game has.
Thankfully, there is a solution, and that’s the upgrade system, which hosts a cavalcade of benefits for Juan and the rooster. Most of them are passive, and truthfully, most of them are meaningless, designated to categories and moves which are more gimmicky to pull off and attempt. The ones that enable you to keep a sense of flow, precision and demolition into the later stages of a combo, however? Brilliant.
Guacamelee! 2 sounds annoying. Here’s a quote Drinkbox could use at some point in the future: It’s the best game I’ve ever played whilst permanently muted. There’s something about the tinny voice clips of characters grunting and huffing while they jump, dodge, and attack enemies, paired with the constant modern mariachi music in the background that was so insufferable. Thankfully, as soon as you replace the music with say, the Bleed soundtracks, you return to enjoyment from the games many, many improvements.
Movement in Guacamelee! 2 feels superb. It doesn’t take long for the game to start offering these potentially perilous platforming pitfalls placed for Juan to pass perfectly with precision. Attempts to navigate each room with the powers given to you will usually be rewarded by gold and the aforementioned stamina and health upgrades, most of which are tucked away in small challenge rooms.
In these small challenge rooms, it’s rare that the same challenge is used twice. They stretch the potential and the possibilities of what you can do with Juan so far, that it’s staggering. Nearly every room has one of these gauntlets hidden in there somewhere, and it was a blast to re-visit certain areas and crawl through them meticulously in order to find their hidden stashes and their challenges.
Lightly peppered throughout the game are some mini-bosses and proper bosses, all of which can be differentiated from one another really well. While there might only be five proper bosses, the saying goes “Quality over quantity”, and the bosses in Guacamelee! 2 are placed in the exact moments where you’ll say to yourself “Hmm… I fancy a challenge now”.
The game still feels linear at points, but revisiting areas with new-found skills like the wall-run and wall-jump was brilliant. Thanks to a certain plot point, the world gets revamped, and Juan suddenly needs to try to navigate previous areas with new tricks up his sleeve, along with the rooster, and it felt so good to do.
Still, this all has to be put next to a huge flaming asterisk– An asterisk that reads “This is basically just Guacamelee! 1.5 due to how little they’ve changed”, and in most cases, that’d be a problem. I personally don’t believe it is, however, as within the first Guacamelee!, there was an idea and a vision not fully realized.
Guacamelee! 2 is only an hour or so longer than the original, with my playthrough clocking in at 9 and a half hours– And that was a 100% run– But it didn’t feel like a game of that length. As stated previously, it seems that Drinkbox’s main focus is to provide modest yet consistent little packages, but this is the first time they’ve created something incredibly vast, ultimately fulfilling, and something just so objectively great.
In the end, Guacamelee! 2 is a perfectly paced, perfectly designed Metroid-Vania, and one of the best to be made in years. If it wasn’t for the sound design being so overblown and overbearing, then it’d be the easiest 10/10 score I’d ever give in my life, but playing a game muted isn’t exactly a good sign, is it? Nevertheless, everything else about the game has a mirror shine, and this is an essential purchase for anyone who loves platformers, Metroid-Vanias, or if you pronounce Mexican food wrong.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of Guacamelee! 2. A review code was provided.
A really fun Metroid-Vania, filled with brilliant involving and evolving combat, comedy that hits more than misses, and an aesthetic more fleshed out and more full of life than before. You wouldn't wanna listen to it though.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.