I just finished these in the same day so might as well combine them. Guacamelee 2 starts off weak but gets back to the first game’s muted glory by the end, while The Messenger starts off strong but stumbles during the second act. Both are overall good games I think, but they did leave me wanting more.
The metroidvania elements are wasted on a linear structure, the difficulty goes back to 0 even though the mechanics are almost the same as 1, much of the player moveset doesn’t complement the rest very well, and it’s overall at best masocore one-solution platforming combined with some combat infused with lock-and-key design – which is some decent fun, just not enough to warrant a sequel with minimal changes. It’s very much a rethreading of the first game, I don’t care much for the story but visually it’s so much of the same, not even many new characters let alone new areas and other art. The music is the worst of the bunch, Guac had some really catchy tunes but this directly reuses most of them I think, not really offering anything new. If they had made some changes to the formula it would be much easier to forgive a slow start, like making it a fully realized metroidvania, or doing something new with the combat to reduce how most of the challenge is akin to a rhythm game thanks to the ability requirements to damage enemies. It’s also longer than the first game, though maybe that’s just because I haven’t played the Turbo Championship edition.
Sadly, a lot of the changes are for the worse: the additional abilities are shallow or on the side without interacting with the rest of the kit, shitty gimmicks in the name of variety, special throws that are both awkward to execute and have to be unlocked, and bosses are a huge step down until Jaguar and the final boss (while in the first game the ones I remember are 2 great fights, one good but easy, and then the final boss was a mix of gimmick and solid challenge). The upgrade system is cool and I like that they removed Intenso again, but the customization was already there in 1 (characters/costumes were dope even if they didn’t matter much until Turbo Championship) so that’s also not an improvement. Then there’s the controls, which I feel are worse – it mostly comes down to buffering and how you have a turn rate during your basic combo so you can spam attack and hold a direction and you will never turn around to face that direction, just keep attacking the same way. I didn’t realize it was a new thing until going back to 1 for the endgame challenges. There’s also more of a delay on wall charging I think, and cancelling actions into special moves isn’t as smooth.
Now, I do want to include some positivity because it’s got its good parts and copying a good game isn’t strictly a bad thing. It progresses the powerups nicely, Y is a contextual combat grab so it can’t be used as any other button, a contextual grapple point for platforming works even if it’s not as good as other abilities. The chicken form is fleshed out to be a worthwhile part of the moveset, with two abilities of its own and flight that unlocks before the final boss and makes for some cool platforming challenges. I think if I played both of these games without playing the other, I would like this better. But when they already did 3 versions of the first game and commit to a proper sequel finally, I do expect a bit more.
The first part is a great action platformer, with cool moves, tight game feel and gradually more interesting/challenging content except the last (Underworld and its boss are cool but not as good as the two last areas or bosses). Timekeeper is the high point, it kind of forms a bell curve in terms of quality to me, Cloud Ruins that comes right after that boss being my favorite area. The music is really nice, feedback, game feel, all that stuff is solid, and the cloud stepping in particular is a neat mechanic that is utilized constantly, in more and more interesting and challenging ways. It isn’t perfect though, mostly due to the save/hp/currency system which is a small but persistent downer. The devs have no confidence enforcing punishment for your mistakes, Quirble goes away after like half a minute passes or if you just quit the game and load back in (takes 10 seconds), health doesn’t fully restore on checkpoints which is fair, and intentionally dying gives you the same amount of hp back (so it’s not as stupid as Shantae where it’s beneficial to die every time you get to a checkpoint), but again you can just quit out and for no reason have full hp again. Most of the time there are health potions next to gate checkpoints but this goes for all checkpoints, and even some pre-boss gate checkpoints don’t give you a potion. It’s such a non-committal approach and very disappointing when everything else is well designed and fits together into a great Ninja Gaiden tribute.
The second part of the game, what is supposed to be what makes it a metroidvania (it doesn’t feel like one for me because it’s still linear with a very limited amount of things to do out of order and no new impactful abilities), is forced backtracking through fetch quests. As if that collection of words isn’t damning enough, the new content is also largely a decent step down from the “linear” portion of the game (i.e. the part that doesn’t allow you to get lost and waste time chasing dead ends). The return to the cloud ruins is great, but everything before that doesn’t really challenge you any more than the first part of the game. The bosses (Demon King and mothbat) are more basic than all but the first bosses in the game (they are a small step up from Golem I think, but if I were to replay them Golem has more interesting attacks and more variety in how you can play the fight if you’re optimal, so I’m not even sure about that). There’s just too much of a reliance of gimmicks here, the first portion of the game has a strong sense of progression and escalating the challenge and complexity, but then in the second act it stops entirely and there’s shmup sections, rockets, spitting plants, water walking, lever puzzles etc. instead that don’t build upon or utilize the established game mechanics to create new, interesting and more challenging content. There’s plenty of decent content in there but it’s spread thin, and even the high points (the final boss and return to cloud ruins) aren’t higher than the ones in the first half.
In terms of structure, there’s a bit of freedom in which order you do the notes, but the note navigation only makes up half of the game – and even if that’s satisfactory to make it a metroidvania, the notes don’t give you powerups that affect the rest of the content. It could technically qualify, but when the sequence breaks you can do don’t even matter it certainly doesn’t feel like playing a metroidvania. If it had some cool sequence breaking and an interesting structure there that gave this part replayability, and continued with the levels and bosses mostly escalating in quality and challenge, I’d be ok with the tedious backtracking (which itself could be fixed so easily by letting you change time at will outside of certain areas). But it has neither. I played the linear part of the game again and that was more fun than most of the last 8 hours or so of mucking about finding music notes.