Guacamelee! Gold Edition Review


What do you get when you combine metroidvania gameplay with luchadors? The answer is obviously Guacamelee, one of the most original and compulsively entertaining indie IPs I have come across recently. Guacamelee was originally released on PSN (the Playstation Network Store for those of you alergic to all things Sony) but was recently ported to the PC on Steam this past week. Gracias al Senor for that because it would be a tragedy to miss out on this luchador’s adventure.

Juan goes for agave to a-great-A! So many puns! 

Guacamelee follows the travails of the lone aguave farmer Juan Aguacate, who dreams of becoming a successful luchador wrestler so that he can impress the presidente’s daughter (who ironically has no other name). His plans are foiled when the king of the dead, a skeleton king named Calaca, kidnaps Juan’s love interest and kills Juan in the process. No worries though, because upon arriving in the land of the dead, Juan quickly is revived when he puts on a magical luchador mask which allows him to (eventually) flip between both dimensions (the living and the dead). So ya, the plot is utterly ridiculous, but Drinkbox Studios knows this and has a ton of fun along the way with a series of utterly ridiculous (and sometimes flat) gags and an absolute metric ton of hidden references to other video games of both the past and present. One standout is a particular sidequest which puts you on the hunt for a missing boy who likes to dress in green and hunt for monsters with his magical master sword. This is just one of a couple dozen references hidden throughout the world.

Remind you of anything? There are references to other games scattered throughout just as awesome.

But the real highlight of Guacamelee is its game systems. This is a true metroid-vania game, complete with rewarding backtracking, new powers, hidden secret, leader-boards for fastest completion times etc. etc. It is almost like Guacamelee had a list of the features required for a solid entry into this popular genre and tried to fit each and every one in. Whatever they did, it payed off, because I had a blast hunting for hidden power-ups while fighting off the skeleton army of luchadors and other sombrero wearing minions. The fighting system Guacamelee employs is a pretty straightforward 2D beat-em-up that emphasizes grappling to keep the numerous enemies at bay. Combine this lucha libre style melee combat with an ever-growing arsenal of special attacks, and pros will soon be picking up combos in the couple hundred. The combat is consistently challenging but always fair, with only one or two of the boss fights being a little disappointing in this area (in particular the 1st phase of the last boss, who is pretty cheap until you learn all his moves). There is nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but it is all executed with such mastery that I didn’t miss the innovation. What Drinkbox really innovates on is the exceptionally unique and charming setting. The art design here is top notch, really exploring this bright Mexican landscape which has never really been the basis of such a quality game before. I will say that I missed the lack of voice-acting, particularly because the dialogue lost some of the sarcastic charm and irony that it was relying on simply being a pop-up.

Sometimes the dialogue tries a little too hard (although it might have been more successful with voice actors). Still, who doesn’t like a few cat-tostrophic puns!

Before I drop my final verdict I want to quickly touch on the “Gold Edition” title that was appended to this PC release. The “Gold Edition” denotes the inclusion of some DLC and the ability to create and upload new costumes through Steam Workshop. The DLC, from what I can tell, is a series of challenge rooms that can be tackled to wrack up gold medals. There doesn’t seem to be leaderboards though with these rooms, which means that the added content could probably be completed in an hour or two. To put the length in perspective, you are talking about 6 hours for a decent completion of the game (I probably had about 70 percent of the items) and another couple hours for the DLC. But there is also a New Game+ mode that unlocks upon completion along with leaderboards for speed runs on both modes with or without 100% completion. Add in Steam Trading cards, achievements, the aforementioned costume editor, all for around 15 dollars, and that is a serious steal in my book.

That is why I am giving Guacamelee! Gold Edition a solid A-.
If you are looking for an utterly entertaining and irrepressibly charming metroid-vania game with a sense-of-style all its own, you can’t do better that putting on the luchador mask and joining Juan in his epic journey.

So what do you think? Are you going to put on the luchador mask? If you’ve played the game, do you agree with my review? Can you make a by-the-book metroid-vania with a funky new style and get away with it? I think so, but I would love to hear what you think so write to me on the comments below.


Top 3 Steam Summer Sale Indie Games


So the summer is here, and with it comes sunshine, sandals, suntans, and, most importantly, the Steam Summer Sale. It has been a joyous week and a half of scooping up dirt cheap video games, especially interesting titles that I wouldn’t normally be interested in. This year for the summer sales I gave myself a limit: no titles over ten bucks. It was a tough rule to live by with such delicious deals on games like Bioshock Infinite and Far Cry 3 staring me and my freshly built PC in the face, but I resisted and instead of blowing my cash on few big names, instead I scooped up a collection of cheap, but no less exciting titles. What follows are three of my absolute favorite purchases from the Steam Summer Sale. Each goes to show that it is not the cost or the size of the developer that determines an exceptional gaming experience.

Bit Trip Runner 2


When I was online and any of my Steam friends asked me which game they should pick up during the sale, without hesitation I recommended Runner2. While the game is utterly ridiculous to look it, Runner2 certainly stands out as one of the most consistently enjoyable and compulsively playable gaming experiences I have had recently. Runner2 puts you in the monochromatic sneakers of Commander Video along with a cohort of other zany characters as you move through short stages avoiding obstacles and collecting different items, all to the incredible, constantly evolving soundtrack of your own making. Phew, that sentence was almost as long as one of the levels. You see, Runner2 is at its heart a music game, where instead of playing plastic instruments you make music with every action performed on screen, be it collecting gold or avoiding obstacles. The result is music that is equally as rich and layered as any music game to date.

Seriously, the music in this game is as ridiculous and utterly engaging as the pitch perfect gameplay and symphonic art design.

Runner2 is a masterpiece where you guide Commander video through increasingly complex obstacles in environments that range from a countryside to a beach-side harbor, to the 8-bit world reminiscent of the first game in the series. But unlike the first game, Runner2 makes a multitude of improvements that make the game both approachable and more immediately playable. The controls are perfect, a requirement for a running game like this where mistiming how long you hold the jump button might completely botch your run. That being said, the inclusion of checkpoints and multiple difficulty levels along with a simple yet increasingly complex series of commands makes the levels consistently challenging but always fair.

Is that a pickle floating there on the screen above a branching level layout? Why yes it is and it is par for the course.

I don’t even want to mention collectibles like new characters, tons of character skins and the 1000s of collectible gold pieces makes this a game worth playing and replaying. I was able to get through every stage on the “Just Right” or normal difficulty with most of the collectibles in around 6 or 7 hours, but I missed a ton of the secret stages and of course the two other difficulty levels, each of which contributes to the dynamic music of each level. And again, that music…. wow, get the soundtrack edition like I did because you will want to listen to these tunes again and again, even when the game stops. They are that good. So if you like music, runners, or even if you just need some more joy in your life, check out Runner2. If this game can’t make you happy you need medical attention.

The Swapper

I hadn’t heard much about this one until I scooped it up on a flash sale, but I am more than thrilled that I did. Rarely are puzzle games so innately thought provoking as The Swapper with its eerie, claymation-esk art style and brain teasingly difficult puzzles. The first time I explored this strange, science fiction world I was immediately sucked into the story of my isolated spaceman and his (or is it her) swapper machine.This device allows the player to create four copies which then parrot the player’s movement unless the character decides to “swap” their soul into them in the same way the portal gun shoots different colored portals. But while this is the only gameplay mechanic the player is given, it is more than sufficient to make the complex puzzles that are the game’s bread and butter.

This game puts multiple personality disorder in a whole new light.

These puzzle rooms slowly introduce different obstacles like different colored lights that change the game in subtle but increasingly nuanced ways. For example, you can’t create new clones in blue light but if you can manage to get a clone in there then you can swap into it (if that makes any sense at all). While most of these puzzles are ingenious and that moment when you finally crack the code totally worth waiting for, there were a few where the solution required pixel perfect placement of your clones in order to succeed, which creates some rather frustrating moments where the solution may not seem apparent despite the fact you may be just inches away from completing it correctly. Unlike portal or other recent puzzle titles, this game is certainly a thinking man’s game that requires careful pre-planning and trial and error to accomplish some of the more difficult brain teasers.

I kept expecting a space monster to come out and eat my clones, but it never happened.

But the puzzles, while brilliant, are complemented by an incredibly haunting art design. Sound, lighting and especially the environments themselves are all worth mentioning, as together they create a haunting and mysterious world that I couldn’t get enough of. The art style is characterized by a type of claymation feel, with soft squishy bodies that is offset by some truly disturbing sound design. The first time one of your clones falls to its death you have no choice but to shudder. While the majority of The Swapper takes place on a space station of some kind, the environments are constantly shifting between blue industrial spaces to lush greeneries and unsettling white laboratories. Each area brings with it new places to explore and new puzzles to solve even while teasing out the game’s narrative. And what a narrative it is, filled with the philosophic ponderings equal to many a good science fiction novel. For example, are these disposable clones that you are forced to create and discard ad nauseum simply empty husks or something far more disturbing? The narrative is smart enough not to simply toss out empty answers but is always evoking deeper mysteries and moral implications. By the narratives end, when faced with a hard choice, I was fully entranced by the moral implications of this incredibly rich little puzzle game. The Swapper is short, clocking in around 3 hours or so not including the pursuit of the rumored hidden rooms that the Steam achievements hint at, but like Limbo and other indie puzzlers, this is a one-off experience that probably would lose much of its charm in a second playthrough. Still, this is a journey worth making and a true testament to the power of storytelling and art design in gaming, even if some of the puzzles are a little more frustrating than they need to be.

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine
Heist movies like Ocean’s 11, Reservoir Dogs and The Italian Job are some of my favorite films, so when I heard about the highly anticipated indie game with the long title and amazing pixelart style, Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, I was totally on board. Of course, that was three years ago when developers Pocketwatch Games nabbed an IGF award for “Excellence in Design” back in 2010. Despite falling off the face of the planet for a while like some other notable indie titles (Fez I’m looking at you), I am glad to report that this top-down stealth action puzzler defintely demonstrates the high level of polish expected of such a long development cycle.

You’ve got to see this one in action to get its simplistic but always frenetic energy. Screenshots don’t do it justice.

Monaco‘s concept can be traced all the way back to Pac-Man, except replace the dots with gold and the ghosts with policemen and you get the foundation of the gameplay. Now, add in the idea that your Pac-Man like avatar can only see what is in front of him, same with the various people out to apprehend you, and life as a thief gets a lot more interesting. Further differentiating itself from its fore-bearers, in Monaco you have the ability to choose a thief with a particular skill set. My personal favorite is the Cleaner, who can sneak up on unsuspecting enemies and knock them out for a short period with chloroform. Or maybe you would prefer the hacker, who can release viruses from electrical sockets to knock out power in any device, be it a triplaser or electronically sealed door. Your character selection has serious implications on how you play, allowing the more skilled player to slip past guards in increasingly clever ways.

The Cleaner is a cold son of a gun, but he gets the job done quick.

But sometimes the fun really begins when the guards are alerted, especially in multiplayer, which is definitely the way the developers want you to play. As the other players may or may not roam around the environments like bumbling fools instead of suave thieves, it is likely that someone will gain the attention of the fuzz, creating a mad dash for the loot and exit before you are apprehended. These moments are hilarious and thrilling, and somehow never infuriating like they certainly could be (and often are in games like Splinter Cell or other stealth titles). Your character’s stout health bar helps with this, and other players can revive you if you happen to fall, though they might not until after they are done cleaning out the level’s cash. The environments themselves are often varied containing multiple levels and numerous types of obstacles, but each level is never more than 5 to 10 minutes, especially in multiplayer. Playing the game alone is really an entirely different, though certainly enjoyable experience. The few levels I did alone I took at a much slower pace, often avoiding notice completely and stripping clearing each environment room by room. It is really like getting two games in one, as multiplayer is so frenetic whereas single player is much closer to a true top down stealth title. I am actually quite shocked how natural both styles of gameplay actually work, but that only goes to show you how polished Monaco actually is.

If you have a sharp eye you can pick out the monkey following one of the players at the bottom of the shot. The monkey prefers gold instead of bananas.

The art design is top notch, with excellent pixelart sprites and a phenomenal use of lighting. The game runs with a brightly lit and colorfully animated world that perfectly fits the neon drenched European local of Monaco. The story, while cute, is nothing that really ever caught my attention, which is fine because the game plays like more of an arcade game than anything. The inclusion of a robust level editor, which promises a consistent stream of new and challenging levels gives more than enough reason to come back again and again to Monaco. I am really excited to see what this little indie gem evolves into, as it certainly has all the right components to be a hit. Monoco: What’s Yours is Mine is the arcade heist game that demonstrates what happens when a talented design team decides to take a simple concept and turn it into an indie masterpiece.

So what do you think about my selections? Any cheap indie titles that should be on this list? What did you pick up on the summer sale? Any unexpected purchases that played out in your favor? Let me know in the comments below!

Proteus – Summer of Indie Pt 2


Welcome to the second installment of my Summer of Indie series. Now I know I said I would be talking about Proteus and Dear Esther but I really didn’t like the latter as much as I thought. Maybe in a later piece I will try to articulate why, but for now I want to talk about the much underappreciated Proteus, whose creators Ed Key and David Kanaga have not gotten enough attention despite the multitude of indie awards they have received. So today during the Summer of Indie lets talk about Proteus.


Before I get too deep here, I want to say that I am still not quite sure that Proteus is a game so much as a simulated, three-dimensional oral and visual experience. That’s a lot to take in, I know. What I mean by this is Proteus puts you in a strange and surreal local where you are not tasked with any particular end-goal, which is very different than most other games out there. I guess the most popular comparison would be a game like Minecraft, in which you simply find yourself in a world and it is up to you to decide what to do next. Yet unlike Minecraft and other crafting games, Proteus does not give the player any sort of abilities besides walking through the environment, looking around and taking screenshots (which I did liberally, as all of the following are from my game). So without further ado, I am going to dive into this bright, and above all, joyful world.

The word “giddy” kept coming to my mind while playing. 

The opening to Proteus really sets the stage for the 45 minute to an hour and a half experience. Upon starting up Proteus, the screen slowly irises open, like an eye opening from a long nights sleep. Your character is standing ankle deep in an expansive, pixellated body of water. In the distance looms an island populated with a few trees with a tall mountain scraping the sky behind them. That said, it is impossible for me to say what exactly will greet your waking eye when you play because each experience is unique in Proteus. The popular term is “emergent gameplay” and while it is hard for me to connect Proteus to a word like “gameplay,” this game is completely emergent. Much like Minecraft‘s expansive worlds, Proteus also creates an entirely new landscape that you get to explore each time you boot it up. For example, the second time I roamed Proteus my island had a massive tree in middle of it, which I called the “world tree” just because I could. The first time no such tree existed but there was a large stretch of mountains that ran along my islands edge.

Your world will probably look nothing like this. Don’t hate.

But back to that start, upon “waking up” I instinctively started moving towards the island. Once I made it to the shore, I noticed a neon pink pixellated tree shedding square leaves on the ground. The soundscape changed as I approached, the synthetic strings of the ocean was mixed with tinkling tones that grew louder as I approached the tree. Moving from there up the side of a hill dotted with yellow flowers, the sound changed again to include birds chirping and a light bell. I soon ran across some creatures I might describe as bright orange chickens, pecking at the ground. I must have startled them because they soon moved away, making lights digital beats as they moved off to the distance. I chased them around for a while until I got distracted by a mountain I wanted to climb, or a large tree, or a bunny that bounded off when I approached. It went on like this for a good ten minutes until the sun began to set, the sky shifting gradually from blue to orange to grey as a storm rolled in with the onset of night. I could climb a mountain to escape this cloudy night and look up at the night sky decorated by stars and a massive moon or look look at the shifting clouds below and the mountains peeking out above the clouds. It was simply beautiful in that this world was simple and yet beautiful to look out upon.

Is that pixel snow? Why yes it is…

I hesitate to write further about my experience after this point because it was so uniquely mine and each event I experienced I found on my own, guided by my own natural curiosity instead of a quest tracker or other traditional game device. But Proteus is not simply one randomly generated landscape; this experience does have a beginning, middle and end. I am not giving away much when I say that the island shifts between the four seasons which is activated by a subtle game mechanic in the world that you have to discover for yourself. Each season offers its own unique soundscape and visual landscape despite keeping the same island layout. While these seasonal experiences are interesting, I was happy that the timer for each day is about 15 minutes, because some seasons like winter are rather barren (understandably so). But I want to say again, Proteus has a proper ending, which I must say left me breathless, a feat that doesn’t often happen in video games, or in other media for that matter. Seriously, Proteus isn’t over until you hit the title screen again, and until you do keep playing; the ending is totally worth it and something I will not spoil for you (though I would love to talk about it in the comments section).

“If only stuff like this happened in real life,” says the geek.

So in the end is Proteus a game? I am not sure but I am also not sure I care. Proteus is a digital world that is entirely unique and completely player driven. I could see many people getting bored with it and stopping thirty minutes in just because the sense of joyous awe might begin to wear off, but for those of you that love to get lost in nature, or for those of you that love to play games simply to experience another world, then I can’t recommend Proteus enough. Keep in mind that once you have journeyed on Proteus‘s island once, maybe twice, you will probably not feel the desire to again, which might be too much of a constraint to spend the ten bucks on, which is the game’s full retail price on Steam. But, if you catch it on sale (like say during the Steam Summer Sale) or in a bundle (like I did) then Proteus is totally worth it. Trust me, no cup of coffee offers the same experience as a hour or so exploring the stunning, joyfully designed world of Proteus, which is why I am giving Proteus a solid Pick up on Sale.


So, what do you think? Have you played this indie gem? If you haven’t would you consider it? Should more games like this be made? Leave your comments below and let me know what you think!

Summer of Indie Pt. 1 – Thomas was Alone

It’s summer, which in case you haven’t already noticed means that there are basically no new games coming out. With promotions like the Steam Summer Sale and the XBLA Summer of Arcade, it is clear that gamers are supposed to be playing through some indie games when they are sunbathing on the beach, if you happen to live in Florida, or dancing in sprinklers, if you don’t. So today I am beginning the first of what I hope to be many articles highlighting some indie games I have played recently. What I love about these games is that each game offers a truly unique experience that could only happen in an indie title. But I am getting ahead of myself, so without further ado lets jump in to my first summer indie title.

Thomas was Alone

Let me get this out of the way to start, Thomas was Alone (which I will now refer to as TwA) is a masterpiece. Seriously, this game it in my top five indie games of all time alongside other works of genius like Bastion and Braid. I name those two, particular games because of the shared elements that TwA employs as well. Like Braid, TwA is a story driven puzzle game. Or is it platformer? I guess it’s a bit of both. While the puzzles maybe aren’t quite as ingenious or head scratching as Braid’s, they are just as engaging. To put it in perspective, upon firing up TwA I did not stop playing until the games conclusion, solving puzzle after addictive puzzle until the credits rolled some two hours later. Yes the game is short, but it is also immensely satisfying and you could probably pick it up for less than a cup of coffee. The puzzle mechanics are simple, physics driven gameplay primarily involving jumping, sliding and falling until you reach a goal “portal” which is often located “up and to the right.” Nothing special right? Wrong. The game quickly introduces multiple character pieces who each have their own “special powers.” For example one of the characters acts as a springboard of sorts, allowing the other characters to bound off her to reach higher places in the level. Notice I said “her” not “it,” more on that in a moment. Another character can float on the otherwise deadly water, acting as a raft to ferry the player characters to new areas. The game slowly introduces each character’s mechanics before asking the player to employ them in concert with the other characters in order to reach the increasingly difficult goal “portal.” By the middle of the game I was quickly dissecting the level’s layout in order to effectively utilize my small five piece army of character sprites to get each of them to the end (you can only end the level once each character is aligned with their specific goal portal). TwA is a game that requires coordination and planning instead of quick thinking (with a few levels being the exception). Yet as complicated as these obstacle courses got, they were never frustratingly so like some of the Braid puzzles. At the end of the more complicated levels I would often sit back quite satisfied with my accomplishment before diving back into the next level.

Don’t judge a game by its screenshot. You have to see this one in-motion.

But viewing TwA as simply a puzzle platformer game would be to do it a disservice. I would even go so far as to say that the puzzles themselves are second to the actual story. Thomas was Alone tells the story of a red quadrilateral AI called Thomas. Yes, you read correctly, this game’s protagonist is a red rectangle. Upon first reading about this game I too thought this was ridiculous, but ten minutes into the game I was entranced by this plucky little sprite who was simply looking for a friend. You see, Thomas starts the game alone, forced to speculate about the word he inhabits to himself. This speculation is transmitted to the player in the form of narration by the phenomenal Danny Wallace. Wallace’s narration is both charming and intuitive, often reflecting on the very actions you are taking the moment you take them. You see, this is a game in which the gameplay and the story are interwoven to the extent that they are greater than the sum of any individual part. By the end of the story I had experienced joy as Thomas befriended each new quadrilateral, fear as he dodged the pursuing pixel cloud of death, and delight at the various narrated anecdotes.

The gang’s all here.

The story and gameplay are also augmented by a simply phenomenal soundtrack and a minimalistic art design. The soundtrack is composed of a mix of simply piano melodies and electronic beats that is always subtle and complements the narrative beautifully. I am listening to TwA‘s soundtrack right now, and am reminded by games various themes of the dynamic range the game hits emotionally with distorted piano notes punctuated with digital tones to create a melancholic sound. The art design is equally effective as the soundtrack, with Thomas’s digital world filled with shadow and light that is extremely simple but always effective. Sometimes this minimalistic design of light and shadow creates moments of hesitation when it comes to judging jumps and heights of objects, especially for those characters that can barely jump. But these are rare moments, and are never confusing. TwA uses its art and sound to contribute in meaningful ways to the narrative and gameplay, which all work together to create a incredibly compelling experience.

So in case you couldn’t tell, I am in love with Thomas was Alone, and whether you consider yourself a hardcore gamer or only play Mario, like my wife, I am willing to bet that you too would fall in love with Thomas and his gang of misfit quadrilaterals. This is a game about friendship, working together and finding out that no one should go through this world alone, and that is a game I can get behind. You simply Must Play Thomas was Alone.

Check back again in a few days when I look at two short and incredibly unique titles, Proteus and Dear Esther. See you then.