First off, let’s get something out of the way: ever since its original PC release almost a decade ago, LA-MULANA has been categorized as an “unforgiving platformer”. That’s not so. This game is a hardcore puzzler where the platforming is a means to an end, 90% of the time. Yes, there are some platforming highlights, but the trial-and-error, pixel-perfect-jumping of 80s platformers is not there. Is that good? Bad? It depends on what you want from the game. Either way, I can assure you, both from personal experience and from what other people have written: you will die; you will get lost; you will get frustrated. And ultimately, you’ll come back for more.
NOTE: This is being reviewed as part of LA-MULANA 1&2, a two-game pack to be released by NIS America on the Switch, PS4 and XBox One.
Puzzle-platformers are notoriously weak when it comes to storytelling (aside from exceptions like the masterful Braid, and of course some entries in the Zelda franchise), but somehow, LA-MULANA does not conform to this stereotype. While the character development doesn’t evolve that much (you’re an adventurous archeologist, not unlike the star of a certain movie franchise), the world is amazingly complex.
You go to the ruins of LA-MULANA looking for your lost father (also an archeologist), and as you enter, you’re greeted with the kind of story that would make Nathan Drake salivate: giants, fairies, guardians, scrolls, seals and much, much more, all interconnected in glorious lore. As a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist (like many, many others), and the tale of wonder and history in this game tickles that fancy in such a profound way, I almost wish this was a book and not a game.
The more rooms you explore, the more you discover about this ancient world, a world full of fantasies created by a race of man still not ready to kill the illusion of deities with the mighty sword of science.
While the somewhat stagnant character development hinders what could have been a perfect story (I wish my character grew along with the world, the more I discovered), it isn’t enough to make me a hater. If anything, I think it’s time to apply to the Archaeology department at my local university. You never know.
Hard. That’s the word I’d use to describe the gameplay: Hard. The puzzles are tremendously difficult to solve (I had to resort to online walkthroughs in many occasions), many requiring more trial and error than actually figuring stuff out with clues. These are the lesser of the puzzles, in my opinion, as there’s much frustration when there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how you’re supposed to solve them. Even when you do solve them, as it has been a matter of luck and trials (many, many trials), there’s not even that satisfaction that comes from “out-witting” a well-designed puzzle.
The puzzles that do require figuring out by clues, however, would out-Cumberbatch even the Holmesest of the Sherlocks (apologies for the semi-obscure TV show reference… I just love that show), and provide satisfaction aplenty.
The general gameplay of the game can be described as a “metroidvania” formula: puzzles, platforming and RPG elements. However, as I mentioned before, the platforming takes a second seat to the puzzles, and item management becomes crucial even from the start.
There are shops where you buy equipment (some of it required to further advance in certain puzzles), healing rooms, bosses, you get the idea. All in all, a very solid, albeit frustrating, gameplay experience.
Expect to spend anywhere from 20hs to 50hs on your first walkthrough, and if you want to get all the trophies, well… I’ll see you at Christmas.
Most of it, though, is very hardcore. This is the gaming equivalent of those bondage dungeons you often hear about: tremendously punishing… which can be very pleasurable for some, and frustrating to others.
As a small side note: hit-detection, I feel, could have been improved. More than once I’ve felt like I got a cheap hit when I should have been the one dealing the damage. It’s not a huge issue, however.
While most people agree with me that one time with LA-MULANA is enough (it’s a bit like going to war), there’s plenty there for people who want to come back to it.
The addition of PSN trophies makes the Vita version the most definitive, as some puzzles are short and save-points are quite frequent (after an initial drought), and getting the 100% on LA-MULANA might very well cost you your summer vacations.
However, I doubt there will be people coming back to LA-MULANA to re-experience enjoyment. In this respect, this game is the antitheses of games like Minecraft, where you can freely roam and enjoy the environment as you please.
If you come back to the ruins of LA-MULANA, you come back for war.
A lot of people complain about the “retro graphics” games that the indie dev scene has been pushing out, and it can definitely feel a bit gimmicky if that’s the only thing the game has going for it.
That’s no the case with LA-MULANA, however.
We have to first remember that the original version of the game was released in 2005, 3 years before gems like Braid made it big on home console stores, and a full 5 years before Limbo. So if anything, this game was the grandaddy of the pixel-art renaissance.
It’s all very beautiful to behold, however, specially if you don’t find pixel-art gimmicky (which you shouldn’t if it’s backed up by a decent -or as it is the case with this, great- game).
The music is fantastic, a mix of the simplicity and fervor of chiptune and the grandiose feeling of filmscore.
I will definitely be buying the soundtrack.
All in all, LA-MULANA is not for everyone. To be honest, it wasn’t even for me as much as I thought it was going to be, or as much as I would have liked. But even so, I can be objective and say, in all honesty, that it is a fantastic, well done, gameplay-first, hardcore gaming experience.
And to people who consider the new age of gaming to have way too much ease and hand-holding, I tell you this: it will be hard for you to find another game released within the past 10 years that feels so much like the games you played when you were 10 years old.