Review: La-Mulana (WiiWare)

WiiWare's last big game?

La Mulana's WiiWare release has been a rocky road. It was first announced by developer Nigoro in 2009 and suffered several delays before finally hitting the service in Japan in 2011. Of course, most were expecting it to be released elsewhere soon after, but that didn't happen. It was eventually cancelled by its old publisher Nicalis earlier this year, before then immediately being picked up by EnjoyUp Games and finally seeing a western release a few months later. Has it been worth the wait?

This version of La-Mulana is a remake of a freeware PC game with the same name, originally released in 2005. Heavily inspired by the MSX system, which was very popular in Japan, and especially Konami's Maze of Galious which was released on it, it can most simply be described as a Metroidvania game with a large emphasis on puzzle solving. The original freeware version featured MSX-like graphics and sound, but this remake has visuals on a level comparable to Super NES, and almost CD-quality music.

The game has a plot which might not seem all that important, but if you pay close attention you'll be able to find lots and lots of information scattered around. The basic premise is that professor Lemeza has decided to venture into the ruins of La-Mulana in order to find a long lost secret treasure before his dad — who is also his rival — can lay his hands on it. Things start off simple enough, with an outside area called the Surface, where you can get a grip on the controls, stock up on supplies and talk to the strange village elder, who tends to give you hints whenever you find a new item and show it to him.

The controls are fairly simple. You can of course run and jump around, as well as swing your weapon, but you'll quickly also be able to use a sub-weapon, as well as a usable item, all of which are mapped to different buttons on the controller. Jumps are of the classic "can't control your momentum" type, so if you jump while moving right or left, you'll keep going right or left. A sneaky way to get around this is to stand completely still and jump straight up, not moving until you start coming back down — this will give you full control while falling and can come in handy during a lot of sections.

Although La-Mulana is fully playable with every single controller type available (including a USB keyboard!) and the controls are fully customizable, we recommend not playing with a sideways Wii remote as this will force you to use the A and B buttons, which can be slightly annoying when you have to use them while moving.

After messing around on the Surface for a bit, you'll venture into the ruins and things will immediately increase in scope; the first area alone has connections to three others right off the bat, and you can do something in every one of them. You'll eventually have access to nine main areas, as well as nine "backside" areas which are essentially counterparts to the main ones. They're not mirror images, as they have completely different layouts and puzzles. Thankfully, the very first area contains an extremely helpful item that'll let you warp to any area in which you've located a warp tablet, so there's no pointless backtracking.

Despite the graphical and musical updates, La-Mulana is still very much a game for the hardcore and skilled gamers out there. Several things are not really explained, there are plenty of breakable walls and blocks with no indication of something being behind them, you can run into instant death traps, there's no way to heal aside from filling your XP bar or jumping into a hot spring, and the puzzles can range from incredibly simple to incredibly ridiculous. These puzzles are always fair, however, because the solutions always make sense and every single one of them has a related hint somewhere in the ruins. It might not be in the next room over, but it's out there somewhere. A nice feature the developers have added for this purpose is the ability to record pieces of text, so you can carry them around with you and pull them up when needed. Of course, the storage space for these is limited, so be sure to delete ones that you've already used.

Despite this though, you are almost guaranteed to get stuck eventually. Aside from boss battles, just running around and exploring is usually not really that difficult, but even with the correct hints the puzzles can be very, very hard to solve. Don't be ashamed if you can't figure out a solution, because there's likely to be many, many other players who won't be able to get it either. Either run around some more until it hits you, or just look up the answer — we wouldn't blame you!

Like any good Metroidvania game, there are also plenty of items to collect. There are five primary weapons, from a good old whip to a katana, as well as 8 sub-weapons (which have limited ammo and require you to buy or find more) such as shuriken and caltrops, plus three different shields which can also be used in the sub-weapon slot to block projectiles. On top of that there are several usable items which, aside from the scanner used to read bits of text, are generally only used very rarely: treasures which grant you passive abilities, and seals which allow you to open up several puzzles and hidden places.

That's still not all, because there's also a detailed "software" system. Professor Lemeza has a laptop with him at all times and can, once he's found them, install several programs on it in order to enable specific features, like displaying a map on the pause screen, allowing you the aforementioned ability to save text, or receiving emails from the elder with further hints.

This system gets even more intricate later, as there are several hidden Nigoro games (not actually playable) scattered around the ruins which only grant you a special effect when used in certain combinations, such as longer invincibility time after being hit or increased whip power. Only three pieces of software are actually necessary to beat the game, but collecting them all can be a great help to the less experienced players.

Two real highlights of the game are the graphics and music, which as mentioned earlier have a Super NES vibe. The 2D graphics have a lot of charm with detailed sprites and backgrounds, and the soundtrack is incredible, with a variety of long, high quality tracks, a different one for each area and each individual boss. You'll find yourself remembering at least a couple of them, the likeliest being the Surface and first area themes.

La-Mulana is a massive game, with lots of areas to visit, tons of puzzles to solve, items to collect, plenty of enemies to defeat and... well, you get the idea. Depending on both your action and puzzle skills it can take anywhere from three to over twenty hours before you finally see the credits roll, which is quite a feat for a WiiWare game. Unfortunately, while Japan was able to purchase some DLC which added a Time Attack mode and a secret super hard bonus area from the original game, Nigoro was unable to include this in the western version and it was, supposedly, part of the reason for the delay. To make up for the wait though, we're able to get the game slightly cheaper than in Nigoro's homeland.

Conclusion

It's been a long wait, but WiiWare fans can now finally get their hands on this lesser known indie classic. Beating it can be an incredibly daunting task for less experienced players, but despite all of the difficult puzzles and fights there are lots of features that make the experience much less frustrating than you'd think it would be. With this title's significant size, if you can't beat one area you can just go to another first, so there are always options to progress. The lack of DLC is a bit of a disappointment, but the basic game is still, in a word: perfect.

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