‘Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

April 23, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.
08 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

02 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

11 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

10 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

03 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

09 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

07 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

06 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

05 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luchador. (DrinkBox Studios)

04 Guacamelee!’ review: Colorful game honors Day of the Dead traditions

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luador. (DrinkBox Studios)

Indie action-adventure “Guacamelee!” makes an early promise to players. “This,” says a matchmaking, wine-obsessed monk in the game, “is better than watching my telenovelas.”

It’s rare if not unprecedented for a telenovela to be referenced in a video game, but it subtly reveals a truth about interactive entertainment in North America. Games are wonderful at creating crazy, colorful universes full of vampire killers and interstellar space pirates, but they are less good at delving into the various cultures that populate the real world.

“Guacamelee!” is a colorfully humorous game centered almost entirely on the customs surrounding Day of the Dead. It’s a simple stylistic conceit that seems so obvious that it’s puzzling it hasn’t been done with any regularity. Who needs zombies and vampires when there’s an entire holiday steeped in calavera (skull) imagery?

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luador. (DrinkBox Studios)

“Guacamelee!” (DrinkBox Studios)

Perhaps not since LucasArts’ 1998 Day of the Dead noir title “Grim Fandango” has a game so lovingly draped itself in Mexican folklore. Players take control of Juan Aguacate, a down-on-his-luck agave farmer with dreams of being a luchador (wrestler). He also has a crush on El Presidente’s daughter. She’s out of his league, at least until she’s kidnapped by the evil skeleton Carlos Calaca and Juan must save her.

Our stocky hero acquires a mask that gives him the power to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. It also turns him into the world’s greatest luchador.

Each vista is seen in all its Dia de los Muertos celebratory glory, complete with chattering skulls on shrines and inventory-rich piñatas. It allows the modestly-sized indie game, developed for the PS3 and PlayStation Vita by Toronto studio DrinkBox, to maximize each of its locations.

Small Mexican towns are populated with folks and their drama, which of course Juan can explore and fix. Juan is asked to smooth relations for a banda, to hunt down the perfect beans for the world’s best enchilada and to provide an ear to an elderly woman who longs for the days when she was considered a mamacita. Everyone in the universe speaks in Spanglish, meaning the English-only speakers will be heading to Google Translate from time to time. But the dialogue isn’t necessary to complete the game.

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luador. (DrinkBox Studios)

“Guacamelee!” (DrinkBox Studios)

“Guacamelee!” doesn’t have ambitions to be an educational tool. Most of the characters, especially the dead ones, seem to possess a certain lust for the bottle, but the tone is lighthearted and full of puns. A flaming skull explains to Juan why he still inhabits the world of the living: “There are no spirits in hell.”

All of this fun renders “Guacamelee!” a novel twist on the 2-D, side-scrolling game. As it becomes easier for action games to devote more resources to character and dialogue, developers face the reality that the very factors games relied on for the past two decades are now their least engrossing aspects.

Fights in “Guacamelee!,” for instance, come down to memory and thumb dexterity, as Juan must master new moves, sometimes requiring a quick succession of pressing four, six or nine buttons to defeat increasingly difficult enemies. It walks the thin line between addictive and frustrating. The fights become mini-puzzles within themselves — some characters can only be harmed in the world of the dead and vice versa.

The Day of the Dead-themed "Guacamelee!" allows players to control Juan Aquacate, a lowly agave farmer transformed into a superhuman luador. (DrinkBox Studios)

“Guacamelee!” (DrinkBox Studios)

Two final observations on the game’s action. There were moments, whether Juan was being attacked by double-digit hordes of skeletons or he had to jump Spider-man-like through a “Pitfall”-inspired forest, when I succeeded by forgetting about the combos and simply pushed the Vita buttons as hectically and randomly as I could. Chance key pounding, in fact, often worked better than any effort to master a particular move.

Even so, “Guacamelee!” passed the “one more time” test. Even in the midst of a particularly frustrating battle, the mix of instant gratification provided by winning a bout and the desire to get to know more townsfolk often had me saying, “Fine, I’ll try this one more time,” for a good 30 more times.

That’s because “Guacamelee!” nails the details. The music, courtesy of Peter Chapman and Rom Di Prisco, shape-shifts from traditional mariachi sounds in the town to more electro-tinged beats during the action, and “Guacamelee!” knows that it’s the characters with heart that matter. They don’t even have to be living — or dead: a barrel helpfully provides directions early in the game, at least until it reminds you that you look crazy for talking to a barrel.

– Todd Martens

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