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Combat Analysis: Guacamelee

As a combat designer, I do a lot of meticulous and thorough analysis of other game's combat mechanics and systems. My most recent analysis was of Drinkbox Studio's Guacamelee on PS3 and Vita.

I've done a handful of these analytical articles (and produced some videos as well) on the official blog page for my independently developed game Aztez. If you have a game you'd like to see analyzed in article or video form, let me know. ;)

Guacamelee is an independently developed beat 'em up on the PS3 and Vita. It's a Metroidvania style game where you regularly switch between the world of the living and the world of the dead, each having slightly different configurations of floors and walls. It also happens to be a combat heavy game with a big emphasis on mob crushing, and what they have done here is worth evaluating. Guacamelee was developed by Drinkbox Studios, a 12-15 person team from Toronto. As of this writing, I've completed the game.

Pros:

  • First and foremost, these people can animate beautifully. All the animations are very fluid and charming, and the game (not just the animations but the look in general) feels like it was heavily influenced by the works of Genndy Tartakovsky. In my opinion, this is a good thing!
  • Running looks and feels good! There's no slide and no acceleration or deceleration (great for platformers, but not great for beat 'em ups), and the character moves at a pleasant speed.
  • The game's defense mechanic (good job on keeping it down to one, Drinkbox; very elegant!) is implemented well and is useful. It's a forward roll along the ground that provides an invulnerability window so that enemy hitboxes don't affect the player character. The game lets you know when you have successfully done it, which is very satisfying.
  • Every attack animation has a very well animated motion effect. Most of them are not particularly interesting, but the few that are, really kill it. The game's command attacks (the ones done with the Circle button) are all really great.
  • The command moves (all the moves done with the Circle button) are all very thought out and fun to do. In addition to being integrated into the combat formally and properly, they all serve as barrier breakers in the Metroidvania style game structure. Let's talk about that!
  • The game has a Metroidvania game structure. Now I'm very very picky about my Metroidvanias, and while I don't think Guacamelee's high end game structure is superb (I have certainly enjoyed it though), it's a massive improvement over the standard third age beat 'em up formula. Good work guys!
  • You can cancel your basic standing attacks at any point with the defense roll, the grab, or any of the ground command moves.
  • Later on in the game, enemies have shields that can only be broken with certain mechanics. This is a fun and interesting way to enforce use of certain mechanics. It can be a little messy on account of there being 5 or 6 different shield types, but it's way better than not having it.
  • When enemies die they explode into a bunch of pieces, which is super satisfying. The pieces don't have any weight (argh) but it's still to good effect. Especially with the skeletons.
  • The grab system is enjoyable; you can grab an enemy that has been pounded on a bit and throw them around where they'll receive more damage and can deal damage to enemies they hit.
  • Boss fights are fun challenges! They're not very difficult, but they're very good "intro to boss patterns" fights with good tells and distinct attacks.
  • Oh, and generally speaking, the enemies have good tells, too.


Cons:

  • While everything else about the running is great, the first frame of the animation whenever you run is a very extreme frame and it's kind of distracting. I would have used a more neutral frame, since it would have provided a smoother transition.
  • Interestingly enough, the defense mechanic functions differently in the air; providing defense input puts the character in a guard pose while they maintain invulnerability. It's not a bad implementation, but to me it feels like a missed opportunity to augment the air game in an interesting way. Perhaps by making the character roll around in the air in some simple way. This air defense is used in various platforming segments to good effect, but this could have been maintained with a more interesting maneuver.
  • The way the character translates when attacking is very weird because the feet position in the animations stay planted. It feels very floaty as a result. Throw the standing Square combo to see what I mean, and then throw the headbutt (Neutral Circle) to see an animation that should and does have planted feet. Obviously for things like the dash command (Forward Circle) this is more okay, but the feet need to plant properly in order to feel grounded, which is where powerful non-air animations come from.
  • So the grab is generally a cool mechanic set, but there's one major implementation problem; when you provide grab input while running, you slide really far as the animation plays out. I can see this implementation helping more laid back players, but for me it just feels like I'm on ice. And as far as I can tell nothing else is implemented this way so I'm confused about this.
  • You cannot cancel your attacks with a jump. This is a bummer because A. it just doesn't feel as good to wait until after the animation is done to jump, B. jump-cancelling out of harm's way can and should be another defense measure, especially in such a platformy beat 'em up, and C. one of the command moves (belly flop thing) is jump based, so I want to jump cancel into belly flop and stuff!
  • This is a big one; it just doesn't feel very good to hit enemies. A big part of it is the super puny hit effect. It's strange to me that that thing is so weak given the extravagant nature of the other effects. There is also no animation freeze (which is the act of freezing the player and enemy characters for a frame or two in order to drive home the impact. Furthermore, the animations enemies play when they get struck are not nearly as snappy as they need to be.
  • Not that any game needs this, but the lack of a camera shake on the impacts are another missed opportunity for more sensational attacks.
  • Despite being a fun system, when it comes to the grabs, I am far more likely to just suplex an enemy (which will most certainly almost always kill them), rather than throw them (which may or may not kill any of the enemies receiving damage in this attack). I think the way this should have been structured is that a suplex will do as much damage as it does now, but a thrown enemy will do as much damage or more if it successfully hits another enemy, and little damage if it does not. The grab kick is a good example of how the throw SHOULD look and act, but a lot of meaning was lost here.
  • Bigger enemies that get struck but don't play a got-struck animation need visual feedback in order to let the player know they're taking damage.

All in all, I  enjoyed Guacamelee! It badly needs more impact and power in its mechanics, but is generally fun and reasonably expressive. Apart from that, it's one major problem is that the fights eventually get really fun and engaging, but not until you're halfway through the game and you've got fights that require shield breaking and world switching. As with every game (but especially beat 'em ups), you need to sell your coolness as early as possible! Luckily for Guacamelee, it's got enough charm and sensibility to carry purists like myself to these points. I don't have a whole lot more to say as its a pretty straightforward offering that a lot of different people should be able to enjoy. It is thoughtfully designed, completely beautiful to look at, very accessible, and generally just a solid offering of a game, and that's not just in the combat department. That's all for now; go buy a copy now so Drinkbox Studios can keep making games. :)

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