The mighty luchador Juan already had a devil of a time in the first Guacamelee, but that's nothing compared to his second round. Guacamelee 2 is the best kind of sequel, doubling down on everything that worked in the original. Though it's diabolically challenging, it always feels fair, letting its meticulously crafted level design and self-aware humor shine through.
It begins a few years after the original, with Juan, now married to Lupita (El Presidente's daughter), raising two precocious kids in a tiny house on the outskirts of Pueblucho. At least, that's what's happening in the good timeline. In the Darkest Timeline, one of dozens of parallel dimensions in--ahem--the Mexiverse, Juan actually dies trying to defeat the previous big boss, Carlos Calaca. A hulking meatslab of a lucha named Salvador is the one who finishes the job, and he hopes to use a sacred, arcane guacamole recipe meant only for the gods to merge the land of the dead with the realm of the living. That has dire consequences, of course, and Juan once again must mask up and trek all across Mexico for the power to defeat Salvador and his minions.
Though there are some new additions, the fundamentals of Guacamelee haven't undergone any sweeping changes. The clean look of the first game has been upgraded with some beautiful, evocative lighting effects, and the score has more variety, weaving hooks and catchy breakbeats with a wider range of Latin melodies, but that's about it, aesthetically. The atmosphere is still firmly in the realm of eye-catching and dazzling cartoon aesthetics, but even just those minor tweaks add just the right touch of looming dread to fit Guacamelee 2's intensity.
Structurally, Guacamelee 2 maintains a balance between Metroidvania and side-scrolling beat-'em-up, and it doesn't feel like either genre is being lost in the mix. Just strolling into a room to lay the smackdown on skeletons still feels big and brutal, the way a wrestler slamming an opponent into the pavement absolutely should. A split-second fiesta in the upper right-hand corner that rewards you for big combos is the chuckle-worthy cherry on top of a savage job well done. Hours upon hours later, it never gets old watching the numbers rack up.
The magic lies in how the deadly physicality of your moveset directly feeds into where and how you can explore. Every new move--a frog slam, a flying uppercut--is more than just a way to lay waste to the undead menace, but the keys to mastering your environment. Taking care of a stone barrier between you and the next room, where the solution isn't some key you picked up clear across the map but the overkill of a big, booming punch or a massive headbutt, is satisfying like little else--especially coupled with the innate Metroidvania joy of being able to backtrack into an area and open up a route you couldn't take before with extreme, gratifying prejudice.
Guacamelee 2 retains the physicality of the original, but it focuses more on letting you use your physical moveset as a means of traversal and staying off the ground. Along with Juan's punches, kicks, and grab-and-slam maneuvers, a new magical grappling mechanic can shoot Juan off into different directions, which, until you earn the ability to fly, is the primary way you get through vertical sections of the map or areas where the ground is a hazard. Juan is once again able to turn into a chicken, but what was a cute, occasional gimmick is now integral to gameplay and the touchstone of all of the most delightfully absurd elements of the plot. Chicken Juan now has a high-powered moveset of his own, including firing himself diagonally into enemies and obstacles, sliding through tight spaces, and floating through the air.
As it turns out, staying off the ground is a job requiring more finesse than fight, and finesse is a trait for far more lithe and wiry wrestlers than Juan. The challenges of traversal you face are demanding, but it can absolutely be done, and the greatest challenge of Guacamelee 2 is looking at every obstacle and determining how to execute each of Juan's abilities--only some of which were designed specifically for traversal purposes--to get to a very precise target. Later challenges even require you to change from lucha to chicken Juan and back again for the same obstacle. Guacamelee 2 will frustrate those who don't cultivate the skills, but the exhilaration of succeeding and opening up a giant chunk of the map as a result is a wonderful motivator.
While you can now access upgrades at any time--rather than only at checkpoints--obtaining upgrades isn't just a matter of having enough gold but also performing feats in-game. Want to upgrade your health? You'll need to have found and opened a certain number of chests. Want more power out of a certain move? You'll need to have killed enough enemies with the basic version first. The side effect is that you're given further motivation to explore your environment and engage with even the easiest fights. Gold is still needed to make the purchase, however, and things do get mildly unbalanced there as the game goes on--after a few key upgrades, you'll be able to earn more gold than you can spend just from getting into one fight with a low-level goon.
Straightforward hand-to-hand fights usually aren't terribly difficult. Every enemy has a weakness, and once you figure out what attack leaves them wide open, it's just a matter of you learning how best to capitalize. The danger comes from the placement. To the game’s great credit, no gauntlet of enemies in the game is unfair or unbeatable, they just require a keen eye for picking up the numerous, sly visual cues that tell you exactly what’s possible in a given area.
There is, however, another way to earn the enhancements you'll need to take the fight to Salvador: Challenge Rooms. These tricky, self-contained obstacle courses with a treasure at the end are numerous in Guacamelee 2. The challenges themselves are wickedly conceived and executed, often designed to get you bouncing off walls, flying across rooms, and barrelling towards the ground at maximum speed, just barely missing a fatal hazard. Typically, you'll need to use every single available move in your repertoire to emerge victorious--anything less than surgical precision and command over the physics and minutiae of everything Juan can do will get you instantly killed.
The issue with the Challenge Rooms is that the reward at the end can vary. When you survive a rough room, and you're rewarded with a heart piece that extends Juan's life, you can walk away knowing it was all worth it. Getting through a difficult room but only receiving 400 gold, can feel like a slap in the face, especially when money is no object.
Thankfully, with infinite lives and the game's generous checkpoints, you're never too far from where you started should you fail. You will scream and curse at the screen often, but there's no luck, glitches, or happy accidents involved in conquering Guacamelee 2's most stringent tasks; there's only deft, acquired, well-practiced skill.
But there's more than just steel-hearted challenges waiting in the dark corners of Guacamelee 2's world, and many of its secret areas hide the best jokes in the game. There's an RPG dimension where all of Juan's fights are turn-based and, probably the best of the bunch, a hilariously spiteful take on lootboxes where Juan must spend enormous amounts of gold to simply open a closet door in a poor family's home to get his reward for saving their lives. Choozo statues--calling back to Metroid's Chozo statues--are still where Juan gets his main powers, and the script consistently has fun with the idea that smashing each statue is smashing up Uay Chivo's private and precious property.
Everything about Guacamelee 2 comes off as smarter and more thoughtful than the first game, even while indulging in its self-aware shenanigans and Rick & Morty-esque dimensional hijinks. The game never stops finding new ways to hook you in, to the point that even the most painstaking and intensive playthroughs feel like they just fly by. Saving the numerous timelines in Guacamelee 2 is just as much about partaking in a marvel of devious, meticulous game design as it is about saving Juan and his family from peril.