|The grapples are turned to eleven.|
-Great level design that has many platforming challenges.
-Unique story and setting make for a fun and odd experience.
I find it a bit hard to critique Guacamelee because, for the most part, I found the experience to be very interesting and unique. Forgoing the ranged combat of titles of its class like Castlevania and Metroid, it instead focuses on melee combat that is quite varied and tense, as it brings the fight to you. However, the game has a number of flaws that mostly center around this very system, and ends up seeping into other aspects of the game.
The combat mechanics allow the player to bypass new platforming challenges and often, the combat attempts to merge these two ideas. You'll often be locked in one area and forced to pummel some foes to death, but it starts off first as a very generic experience. However, towards the midpoint of the game, there is an introduction of colored shields, which make little sense within the context of the game, but function similarly to different types of space pirates like Metroid Prime, so I was willing to forgive it. The enemy AI, however, was a bit less-than-forgiving, and though you can knock certain foes off their feet with moves that don't match their shields, eventually some gain the ability to counter you if you are unable to hit them with the right color. This, coupled with the high density of foes in the room and the addition of combo-shields AND the fact that your foes can regenerate shields of a different color, can make the action a bit hectic. But that's a small complaint, and barely a complaint at all.
The platforming, specifically the "dungeons" that feature challenges for the player to overcome should they want to continue forward, is very impressive, with some clever Ideas that utilize the entirety of the expansive moveset the player is given over the course of the game. But in the dungeons, the level design also falters, as the developers choose to open shortcuts that require no effort at all for the player to return the way they came, making most platforming challenges a one-time experience and turning the dungeons into strange looping affairs that feel a bit cheapened by the effect. There is some platforming that feels smooth and calculated in Guacamelee, but at other times, the obstacles in your way feel a bit haphazard or downright cruel, and with the implemented save-states, you may find yourself repeating the same portion several times- and though it helps that you never really take falling damage, the amount of platforming challenges that are followed by kill rooms is annoying, to say the least. When kill rooms are timed by certain types of enemies, the experiece can become sadistic, and though I'm sure the developers felt very clever in implementing these platforming-based puzzle/combat combination rooms, it doesn't come off as very enjoyable. The amount of these rooms increases in frequency until the finale of the game, which ultimately ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
While I think the dialogue and aesthetic of Guacamelee are quite nice, and a breath of fresh air, the music is often a bit uninspiring and grating, focusing on generic Luchador-like theme that feel forced. The story also feels a bit thrown together- at times it is very humorous, but it lacks proper pacing- learning the identity of a mysterious figure ten minutes after first seeing him isn't all that rewarding, and some characters have huge exposition while others barely have any. But my main complaints come back to the focus of the game being combat rather than exploration. While there IS exploration, it's locked away behind multiple powerups and doesn't offer anything substantial as a reward- in fact, many of the "rewards" feel useless since there's a shop where upgrades can be bought with money that is easily obtained. The game doesn't reward exploration, and though it's combat-exploration is fun, and what it does offer isn't that fantastic.
I am being critical, of course, but I was told by many that this was a very good game. And honestly, when I got to the end of this game and found out there were collectibles I still needed to obtain in order to get the "best" ending, I felt no desire to continue playing for two reasons: the map is designed organically and features a strange "fog-of-war" like appearance that makes it difficult to pinpoint where exactly secrets might be, and I felt exhausted by the game at that point. Though the collectibles were most likely hidden in areas that required platforming rather than combat, the idea of potentially having to play more combat-oriented areas was not appealing to me in the least. And that's not really a good thing. The unfortunate thing is that I started the game with a very positive impression, but it wore on me as I continued. The blend of platforming and combat is interesting but it excels in one area, and if you're in it for the story, you'll find yourself punching faces more than enjoying the level design.
Final Verdict: All of its elements are sound, but Guacamelee falls back too frequently on its combat, and though this element is passable, it's not particularly fun. The exploration is also marred by a strange map and the in-game shop. Still, it's hard to deny its aesthetic and attitude aren't charming, though they are unable to excuse its flaws.