Into The Spine Of: Guacamelee! 2

Move to the side, exploration. Brute force is here.

Guacamelee! 2 combines the combo-based combat of a character action game with the high stakes balancing act of a precision platformer to create a 2D Metroidvania that never slows down long enough to actually feel like a Metroidvania.

DrinkBox Studios’ sequel picks up a few years after the conclusion of their 2013 indie hit. Juan, our luchador hero, has settled down with El Presidente’s Daughter in a small Mexican village. The couple has a pair of children, and Juan has a dad bod to match. That all changes when mysterious black clouds begin to close in on the village, destroying everything they touch. Juan dons the mask of the luchador, once again, shedding his pastoral life for another action-packed adventure and a few pounds in the process.

With that, Jaun’s off on a quest to defeat Salvador, the villainous luchador behind the descending darkness, and to reclaim a pixelated MacGuffin (that looks an awful lot like the MacGuffin in a certain Nintendo series). As Juan barrels through a series of interconnected levels (and timelines—expect a Rick and Morty level of multiverse absurdity) toward the final confrontation with Salvador at breakneck speed, the game goes through the motions traditionally associated with the Metroidvania genre. But exploration, the hallmark of Metroid-inspired games, is largely absent.

Guacamelee! 2 has removed the outdated memes that adorned the walls of its predecessor, but doubled down on jokes on the past and present of video games. These references are fun (“The Grindiest Timeline” is a special treat for RPG fans), and I enjoyed seeing an homage to Limbo in the early moments of the game. But, these pop culture gags and constant jokes about Mexican culture make the game’s world feel flimsy. I didn’t care about exploring Guacamelee! 2’s world; I wasn’t motivated to search every nook and cranny for lore, because this world has no sense of history, save the history that we, as gamers/fans of Nacho Libre, bring to it.

I also wasn’t motivated to search the world for the unlockable tools used to complete the game because Guacamelee! 2 constantly funnelled me to the next item I needed. In Guacamelee! 2, you won’t realize you need a new tool or ability until seconds before you receive it. The thrill of the Metroidvania is in searching an area thoroughly, poring over the map for rooms you may have missed containing tools you sorely need, and rejoicing when you finally find it. Guacamelee! 2 constantly undercuts this satisfaction by holding your hand on the path to the next upgrade.

Let’s be clear, though: the game has thrills in spades, just not the ones that genre aficionados might be expecting. Fans of this year’s God of War (and maybe, more so, fans of the original God of War) will find a lot to love in Juan’s combo-heavy moveset. Combat encounters take place in locked-off chambers, and these puzzlebox fights require mastery of an arsenal of grapples, slams and punches. The upside of the game’s breakneck pacing as a Metroidvania is that each tool used for accessing new areas is also a new attack added to an ever-expanding moveset. The game forces you to learn these moves well, packing rooms with more enemies than simple button-mashing could ever hope to vanquish. And each attack can be upgraded using an intuitive skill tree system (reminiscent of Wolfenstein 2’s) that rewards your approach to combat with new unlocks to augment your specific playstyle.

Platforming is similarly challenging, borrowing more from Super Meat Boy than Super Metroid. (Although, DrinkBox smartly keeps the most difficult sections off the critical path, instead rewarding ambitious players with heart pieces and stamina boosts upon completion). Juan’s jump is satisfyingly weighty, and these sections will often task you with seeing how long you can keep his muscle-bound frame in the air. His moveset is just as valuable here; you’ll need to dash, double jump and uppercut to survive as you journey toward Salvador.

The game’s timeline-hopping story is integrated into the action. Players will need to juggle enemies from parallel universes to succeed in battle; begin a jump in the land of the dead and land it in the land of the living. This mechanic runs throughout the length of the game and is reminiscent of the brilliant “Effect and Cause” level in Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2.

Guacamelee! 2 is a 12-hour long balancing act, which combines the adrenaline rush of masocore platformers with the intense combat of beat-’em-ups. Its Metroidvania structure can, at times, feel like a formality, but or the most part, it keeps both feet planted on the highwire.

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