Guacamelee 2 Review
An entertaining metroidvania that could have used a few more tricks
It’s crazy to think it’s been five years since the first Guacamelee! came out. How much have I changed in five years? How much have video games changed? Five years ago I was living in a different state, I didn’t know many of the friends I have today - heck, I had only just started writing for New Game Network. The Wii U was still in its first year of existence, but most of us were still playing games on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Five years is a long time. I remember loving the original Guacamelee! - the tricky enclosed combat sequences, the fun platforming that made use of the acquired skills, the boss fights that were presented as luchador wrestling matches, the electric score clearly influenced from Mexico’s rich musical history, and the vibrant enthusiastic art that made the title visually unique. To this day nothing quite looks or sounds like Guacamelee! And yet, as I played through the game’s sequel, Guacamelee! 2, in some ways it didn’t quite strike me the same way as it did the first time. It’s been five years, and while the original game is remembered as a great example of the metroidvania genre, one would hope that developer Drinkbox Studios’ return to the series would feel a little more inspired.
The sequel again follows the hero from the first game, Juan. After quickly recapping the final events of Guacamelee! where Juan rescues his true love, Lupita, from the evil Carlos Calaca, Guacamelee! 2 leaps forward seven years. Now, Juan (who has put on a few pounds) and Lupita are married and have a couple of kids. While Juan is out purchasing some avocados for his family’s dinner, his quiet town is suddenly assaulted by strange, black clouds. Abruptly, the eccentric mystic Uay Chivo (who can also turn into a goat) appears and tells Juan that he is needed again to save the Mexiverse. The whole thing feels a little like an off-brand Rick and Morty episode, which is not a bad thing, as Juan leaps between alternate timelines, spending the majority of the game in what is termed, “The Darkest Timeline”. In this version of the world, Juan failed to defeat Calaca, and instead a strange luchador named Salvador was the champion, though instead of settling down with a family he craves more and more power. This power leads him on a quest to obtain sacred guacamole which will give him superpowers and save him from an implied early death.
Despite a few storylines that don’t payoff, I think the narrative is a bit better this time around. It’s given more time to breathe and instead of a rote damsel in distress set-up, Juan’s journey through the Mexiverse to save his family is intriguing and unique. The game also draws interesting parallels between Juan and Salvador, highlighting how each other them handled their victory over Calaca in different ways. I also thought the humor was a bit more on-point this time, and leaned a little less on meme-jokes (something the game pokes fun of on its own). There are some really surprising moments that made me laugh out loud and some equally tender moments that make the characters that much more endearing - particularly involving Juan and his family.
Much like in the previous game, the levels and gameplay are built around the metroidvania school of design. Yet, it’s not quite as satisfying. Maybe it’s because we’ve done this all before. I don’t remember the original powers of Guacamelee! perfectly, but a lot of these abilities feel like repeats. Even if they are new, they’re not dynamically different enough to make the sequel feel like a unique experience. You still have your super uppercut, your dash, your frog splash. And again, the way that these skills are doled out don’t always feel as fluid as they were in the previous game. It might be that there’s an added emphasis on story, but while the story gets the ability to expand, the gameplay ends up suffering a bit in return.
Guacamelee! 2’s ability to provide more of the same isn’t a bad thing, but now that we’re on a second game and the bloom is off the rose a bit, I could start to see flaws that I didn’t note as easily in the first game. The sequel doesn’t handle quite as tightly as more recent metroidvania games and the automatic wall grabbing can be annoying, ruining intense, timed-based platforming sequences. The level design is a little droll at times, overly focused on reiterating newly learned mechanics. The game isn’t quite as well structured as the previous entry - and thus it can’t quite deliver the same thrills, despite bringing the same sizzling style to the table.
I would often acquire a skill, go through a series of challenges that perfected my use of said skill, and then immediately acquire another skill. During these sections, the game would occasionally stop and make you use your varied fighting skills, but many of the platforming sections don’t have much creativity. There’s just so much packed into so little time that it’s hard for Drinkbox to find the time to play around with these skills and really challenge the player.
Another skill that returns in Guacamelee! 2 is the ability to turn into a chicken. While this was done as part of the story in the first game, this time around you simply acquire the ability. It’s super contrived, but playing as a chicken is a lot of fun. The chicken form has its own moves this time, which is fun. By the end of the game I was actually able to do more damage as a chicken then as Juan.
One new addition to Guacamelee! 2 are the trainers who challenge Juan for additional skills. It’s fun to see some old characters from the previous game show up and give Juan a little grief as the world ends around them. After you interact with them, these trainers give you goals that unlock abilities when completed. These passive upgrades include increased damage, the ability to take hits and not lose your combo meter, and increased gold payouts when you win battles.
The structural issues also bleed into the difficulty as Guacamelee! 2 lacks the challenge of the original. The game has moments where it cranks things up and feels refreshing, as much of the rest of the game is simply going through the motions. I can’t tell if this is a shortcoming of this specific game as opposed to the previous one or maybe that metroidvania games like Ori and the Blind Forest, Axiom Verge, and Hollow Knight have elevated the genre by this point. Either way, I just couldn’t get the thrills I was looking for out of Guacamelee! 2’s gameplay. I constantly had a surplus in gold and forgot to purchase available upgrades because I was already cruising through the game. There is a harder difficulty, but only after you’ve beaten the game on Normal.
This feeling is also present in the boss fights. The encounters still have the fun style of the previous game, beginning each fight with a poster that promotes the fight as a wrestling match. However, this was another aspect of the game that I found to be a bit easy when compared to the previous game. Also, the boss fights didn’t feel as memorable this time around. X'tabay, Flame Face, Jaguar Javier, and Calaca were all so good that they’ve returned with varying capacities in Guacamelee! 2, but the bosses haven’t stuck with me the same this time around.
The game gets even easier when you add more players thanks to the newly added co-op. The combat sections are obviously easier when you add more players as the waves of enemies are easier to dispatch and you can revive downed allies. I would say that the platforming sections are more difficult, but they only need to be completed by one player, as the game will automatically warp one player to another once they leave the screen. It is much more difficult to have everyone attempt the sequences at the same time, especially with some of the more complex controls, but if you go one at time, that’s easily avoided - though not a ton of fun. All that being said, it is enjoyable to see enemies getting thrown around constantly during combat and with four plays able to drop-in/drop-out of Guacamelee! 2, the combat can quickly turn into hilarious chaos.
Guacamelee! 2 still looks great. The new engine doesn’t yield a significant visual departure from the first game, but again, nothing quite looks like this series so the moment you leave the start screen, it’s pretty spectacular. The colors are still vibrant and bright, the strange geometry is creative and the entire aesthetic ties in well with the ode to Mexico. Drinkbox also finds some fun things to do with the visuals as well. Cutscenes have been slightly upgraded, so there’s a little more drama to the story. The way the game communicates the differences between the Mexiverse locations is subtle, but effective. It also has some fun with this multiverse concept, sending Juan zipping between multiple dimensions, constantly changing up the style. My biggest qualm would be that sometimes the static backgrounds would be a little too busy and that could make it difficult to see certain platforming elements. There’s also a particular habit of using objects in the foreground to cover up those in the background and while I appreciate the desire to establish perspective, it can be annoying at times.
And of course, I’d be remiss to not call out the soundtrack. Rom Di Prisco and Peter Chapman return for another stab at their unique blend between snappy electric beats and classic Mexican melodies. There’s some recycled material in here, but there are also fun, new tracks as well. The duo slip right back into their shtick and it’s still working for them. There’s still a lot of Guacamelee! 2 that will have you bobbing your head, instinctively with the rhythm.
Guacamelee! 2 is also a solid technical effort. I had one bug that prevented me from continuing after a fight, locking me out of one of the enclosed combat arenas, but the game is generous in its save points, so restarting never means losing a ton of progress. Guacamelee! 2 also loads pretty quickly and delivers an experience that is on par with any other indie 2D platformer.
Guacamelee! 2 is really more of the same. That’s not a bad thing, but with a game that is so simple in its design it can beg the question of why a sequel is needed. The story is well written and it’s a funny game, but without evolving mechanics or level design, this seems to be a bit of a safe effort. It seems like going back to the well instead of building something new. And to revisit my musings at the beginning of this review, so much has changed in the genre during the five years since the first Guacamelee! came out, you would expect that this series would find a way to change as well - but it hasn’t, and that holds it back from being as special as the first game was.