**Review copy provided by the publisher**
Guacamelee 2 is a game I didn’t know I wanted until a year ago when I saw the reveal trailer and it’s a game I didn’t know I needed until I played it. Guacamelee 2 doubles down on everything that made the first game great and improves on a few of the weaker areas as well. Not many games have me grinning like a child while simultaneously gripping the controller so tightly I might have torn it in two if I hadn’t been slacking at the gym lately. That was my experience nearly the entire time I played Guacamelee 2; laughing, tensing up, or both. I couldn’t stop playing and when I did I felt genuinely exhausted.
My initial lack of enthusiasm for Guacamelee 2 is odd given that I thoroughly enjoyed 2013’s Guacamelee from indie developer Drinkbox Studios. Guacamelee‘s colorful visuals, fun combat, and challenging platforming, made it one of the best metroidvanias I’d played in years and likely played a role in inspiring the metroidvania renaissance that has been particularly pertinent in 2018.
Perhaps that’s why I found myself in the odd situation of not being excited for a sequel to a game I loved. The market for metroidvanias is becoming a touch saturated, or at least it feels that way to me. Unlike back in 2013, Drinkbox Studios isn’t releasing a fresh new game into a relatively quiet market. 2018 has been a phenomenal year for 2D platformers with Celeste, Dead Cells, and The Messenger being personal favorites. We’ve also had the likes of Death’s Gambit, Timespinner, and Chasm, and while they aren’t all strictly metroidvanias, or they have their own spin on the formula, they likely appeal to the same players. It’s getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd, especially when, visually at least, Guacamelee 2 looks a lot like its predecessor.
Part of the appeal of metroidvanias is exploring the unknown, not just in terms of the environment, but in terms of the new movesets. I love being surprised by new abilities and finding out how to progress past previously inaccessible areas. Guacamelee 2 promised to be another good game, but it also looked like a familiar one. A game that would show me a good time without necessarily leaving a lasting impression. For the first thirty to sixty minutes that was definitely the case. I moved through the same basic platforming and combat scenarios I’d already experienced in the original, constantly stopping to have the story explained to me, and generally found the whole thing to be a bit of a chore.
After a quick playable intro where you beat the boss from the end of the first game, a la Symphony of the Night, you travel forward seven years to find that our hero, Juan, has settled down with Lupita and had a couple of kids. Juan isn’t the man he was all those years ago and he needs to start from scratch, much like the player who has probably lost a bit of the advanced muscle memory that got them through the original. I like to imagine that Juan is still a hero to his children, but he’s lost all his abilities and isn’t likely to save the world again any time soon.
Except he has to. A darkness falls over his village and threatens the entire Mexiverse, the name given to all the different versions of reality. Juan must regain his powers and travel to the darkest timeline to defeat the evil Salvador and stop the darkness spreading. In the darkest timeline, Juan and Lupita were killed by Calaca in the first game. Salvador ended up being the luchador who defeated Calaca however, unlike with Juan, the power went to his head. Salvador has a lot of potential as an antagonist, but he’s not developed much beyond this promising introduction.
Guacamelee had pop culture references galore and was often criticized for being overly memey (which I believe is what the kids call jokes these days). It was a fair criticism. Guacamelee made references to pop culture, but that was typically all they were. You would sit there and be like “oh, I know that thing they’re referencing,” without finding it especially funny. In case you haven’t already guessed from the fact that the story revolves around a Mexiverse, Guacamelee 2 continues the trend of pop culture references however it does it a lot better, making actual jokes based around the references instead of just being “here’s a thing you know from movies and games.” To be clear, we’re mainly talking dad jokes here, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, Guacamelee 2 won me over to its terrible sense of humor. References to chicken dinners are going to date quicker than PUBG’s visuals, however most of the subject matter is older games and should, therefore, be just as amusing in ten years’ time.
Guacamelee 2 spends a little too much time explaining its premise, however once this is over, the game explodes with pent-up energy, quickly giving you back all your previous abilities and then some. From this point on, you will nearly always be doing something different either via new abilities or the way you use existing ones with new environmental challenges. Guacamelee 2 doesn’t let up and it is absolutely thrilling. I completed the story in eight hours spread over just two sittings and both times I stopped playing only because I absolutely had to. There’s an addictive quality to it that reminds me of Celeste where, no matter how many times I told myself I would take a rest soon, I always ended up playing just one more screen.
Drinkbox Studios deserves huge credit for the way it’s introduced so many combat and movement options, in addition to environmental hazards, in such a way that you never feel overwhelmed. I’m not the most dextrous of gamers out there. There must be a couple of loose wires between my brain and my hands because the two rarely agree on split-second decisions. If you’d have described some of the moves I’d have to pull off in the latter half of the game or the optional content, I’d have assumed it was beyond me. Somehow, Drinkbox Studios made me feel like a skilled gamer at times, and while many of the challenges are tough, they always felt doable and fair.
Juan starts with a basic punch attack, a grab, a dodge, and a jump. From there, you learn the rooster uppercut, dash punch, frog slam, and KO headbutt. These moves are used to break through colored blocks and enemy shields, as well as generally being more useful than a regular punch in combat. These special moves are tied to your stamina so at the start you can only use two before needing to wait for a bit however you can easily find permanent stamina boosts and some of the upgrades make it possible to effectively spam these as much as you like near the end. You can also execute four different wrestling moves once you have an enemy in a grab attack.
Out of combat, the big new addition is the eagle boost which is used to hookshot across gaps. You can also run up walls, fly horizontally off of them, and switch dimensions whenever you like. And there’s the basic double jump and wall jump of course. You’ll also need to use the uppercut and dash punch as part of the platforming to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Oh, and you also play as a chicken that has its own set of both movement and combat abilities such as the pollo shot and the pollo slide. You played as a chicken in the first game, however it’s a much bigger part of the experience here. The chicken has its own mini-dungeon areas and I never considered them to be an unwanted distraction thanks to the new moves and abilities. I won’t go quite as far as to say I’m ready for the chicken to get his own spin-off game, but it’s not content I want to skip either.
You can upgrade moves through five skill trees: fitness; basic fighting; wrestling; chicken; and special moves. I chose carefully at first, expecting to have to make sacrifices, however I was disappointed to find that I could easily complete all five upgrade paths before completing the main campaign, and that was without doing a great deal of optional exploration. I had less than 60% of the map uncovered when I completed Guacamelee 2’s story and yet I had over 30,000 spare gold coins with nothing to buy.
I prefer it when you can’t buy everything just by playing through the story. Ideally, you’d need to either completely clear the map or do a new game plus playthrough to max out all your abilities. Unfortunately, Guacamelee 2 doesn’t have a new game plus. I’m not sure whether there’s no new game plus because there aren’t enough abilities to work towards or there aren’t more abilities because there’s no new game plus. Either way, it’s disappointing. A hard mode is unlocked on completion, but I would have preferred this to have been open from the start. The combat is tough enough to keep you on your toes, but I ended up cruising through all the boss fights. For many players, especially those who played hard mode on the original, the first run through is going to be too easy.
Thankfully, there is a secondary story involving finding a set of five keys so even when you’ve finished the main game, you should have plenty of motivation to keep going beyond just a desire to see 100% on the map screen. The Switch version also contains a set of built-in achievements despite the Switch not having an official system of its own.
The Switch version runs perfectly. If it ever dropped below 60 fps I couldn’t tell and the visuals are stunning. Even though Guacamelee 2 does look similar to its predecessor at first glance, everything has had a noticeable upgrade. Animations are more detailed and vibrant, with sharper lines, although you might not fully appreciate the difference until you compare the two side by side. Guacamelee 2 also has a co-op mode for up to four players. I can’t really comment much on this other than to confirm it works. I wouldn’t personally want to play this in co-op, but it’s there if you want it.
It’s one thing to master Juan’s moveset, but quite another to use it in the myriad of ways required in Guacamelee 2. You might think you’ve mastered changing dimensions, the eagle shot, and flying off walls, but have you mastered eagle shotting while alternating between dimensions? What about changing dimensions while flying off walls? You have? Okay, let’s have you flying off walls, switching dimensions, eagle shotting, and chaining an uppercut and dash punch to reach the platform. And this starts with you clinging to the side of a moving dragon.
Just when you’ve mastered that combination of moves, you’ll be presented with glowing orbs that reset your special powers, letting you chain multiple uppercuts together, and then, of course, this will be combined with other abilities to make for a new set of challenges and so on. I know this sounds a lot like every other metroidvania you’ve played, but the sheer quantity of available moves and meaningful tweaks to the environment is probably unprecedented, even compared to the previous game.
Combat areas are almost as inventive. You’re regularly locked into a room and have to defeat all the enemies to move on. Typically, there are two or three rounds of enemies. The first round introduces either a new enemy type or a new mechanic, such as undodgeable attacks or kinetic shields. There’s usually only one or two enemies and it’s relatively easy. The second round is the true test of your skills where you’ll find yourself facing off against multiple different shield types, mages that buff other enemies or even spawn new ones, and bubbles that slow time when you’re stuck inside them. As with the platforming, no two encounters are ever the same.
Drinkbox Studios has a sixth sense for when you might need some light relief, so it drops in random interludes that are like a mental massage for the brain. When you’re exhausted from tricky combat encounters and platforming, there’s little that’s more satisfying than grabbing a feather and plowing through hundreds of the same powerful enemies that gave you a headache in the first place. Once it’s over, you’re ready to double jump back into the action.
Breaks also come in the form of tributes to other games. As discussed earlier, these tributes aren’t just referencing popular culture this time around; they’re playable sections, albeit usually deliberately easy ones. I don’t want to spoil too many as the surprise is part of the fun, but I will say that there are parts inspired by Street Fighter, The Unfinished Swan, and the JRPG genre as a whole. I smiled the entire way through each and every one of these sections, which is especially remarkable because the latter included turn-based combat.
During these flashbacks to great games old and new, I felt like I was skimming through a greatest hits collection of memorable moments in gaming. In ten or twenty years time, when new games give callbacks to the classics, Guacamelee 2 should be one of the games recognized. It’s one of the best games of 2018 and one of the best modern metroidvanias.
I don’t know where Drinkbox Studios can go with a potential Guacamelee 3 but I thought much the same thing after the first game and here we are five years later with a sequel that is a huge leap forward for the excellent original. There’s a lot of competition in the 2D platformer space this year, but you absolutely must find the time for Guacamelee 2.