If there’s one element that it feels modern game design has largely left in the past, it’s mystery. There are some bastions of it still around today, such as the delightfully esoteric Dark Souls series, but most games these days just aren’t made to have impenetrable secrets. By that, we mean of the sort that can grind progression to a complete halt unless you get down to business. Just think, how many times in recent memory have you had to use an actual notepad to keep track of what’s going on in a game? How many times has a game really stumped you? A lot of games these days are too quick to give a solution to the flailing gamer. La-Mulana is not one of them.
La-Mulana will beat you. La-Mulana will laugh at you. And, most importantly, La-Mulana will not give up its secrets as easily as you’re used to. You will curse this game’s name many times over as you traipse through its maddening maze, all on a quest for a vague McGuffin of a treasure that you’re not even sure you really want to find. You’ll despise the difficulty, yes, but you’ll also find that it’s nearly impossible to put La-Mulana down once it’s got its hooks in you.
The plot of La-Mulana is kept to a minimum in the forefront, with a lot of the real ‘story’ happening behind the scenes. You play as the intrepid explorer Lemeza, who has come to the titular tomb in search of the secret treasure of life itself. Lemeza isn’t alone in this, however; he’s in a desperate race to get to the treasure first before his devious father gets there. The tomb holds a lot of history, however, acting as a sort of nexus point for several ancient civilizations, and your delving will soon reveal that there’s a much larger story concerning the ongoing fate of the world. Though La-Mulana might not be winning any awards for the cinematic nature of its storytelling, the underlying narrative proves to infuse the constant exploration with a refreshing sense of purpose, often acting as an incentive to keep you pushing on when your own internal sense of motivation has given out.
At its heart, La-Mulana is a Metroidvania. You explore a complex 2D map, packed with enemies, upgrades, and secrets, using what you get in latter sections to unlock new things in earlier ones. And yet, to call it a Metroidvania seems overly reductive. The upgrades, enemies, and platforming all ultimately act as window dressing for the real game, which is one enormous puzzle. It’s a puzzle comprised of countless sub-puzzles, which are themselves made up of even smaller ones. All of which can be solved by cross-referencing information you’ve picked up along the way in your adventure. That cryptic message you read on a tablet early on might not be relevant for several hours. And even then, it might require information from several other tablets to get the full meaning. Some puzzles will be as simple as placing a weight on a raised platform to reveal a secret room. Others will require you to use a seemingly useless item in a nondescript place in a ‘random’ room.
As referenced in the intro, you’ll probably need a notepad to get through La-Mulana. You’ll need to be thinking about certain puzzles in your daily life, when you’re away from the game. It’s just par for the course here, and though you can always look up answers online, the overall experience is more effective when you submit to your confusion. The key thing here is that all the puzzles in La-Mulana are doable if you put your mind to it and exercise some patience. That ‘aha!’ feeling of finally solving a puzzle that stumped you for hours is unparalleled, if only because it feels like a genuine accomplishment to have overcome the challenge.
Still, much of your experience will also be spent engaging in more traditional action platforming antics, and this is where the wheels come off a bit. To really sell the retro, MSX-style vibe the developers were going for, aggressive level design and hokey physics are the norm. For example, much like Simon Belmont in the original Castlevania, lateral jumps have a pre-set momentum and direction can’t be changed mid-air. So, if you’re going through a room with perilous leaps over spike filled pits, every single jump you make has a certain level of anticipation and anxiety behind it. We can appreciate the old school aesthetic being attempted here, but it feels in many ways like it artificially adds difficulty to a game that’s already plenty difficult enough. And though small things like air control might not seem like a big deal, it’s annoyances like this that can tend to grate as the hours wear on.
Lemeza begins his adventure with nothing more than his trusty whip to fend off all the monsters and creatures lurking within, but diligent play soon sees his inventory expanding substantially. His whip can be substituted for stronger variants or a more traditional weapon like an axe or sword, while he can also equip a series of sub-weapons – like shuriken or bombs – that expend consumable ammo. All of these are fine in filling various niches, though the enemy variety seldom feels challenging enough to warrant the expansive arsenal.
Still, the variety is certainly welcome, and the extra wrinkle that combat adds to the mixture of puzzle-solving and platforming is a plus, even if it clearly isn’t much of a focus. Special mention also needs to be paid to the various software programs that you can pick up along the way and install on your laptop. Much like the puzzle clues, these can be delightfully obtuse in communicating to the player what’s actually being gained, but buffs like stronger attack power and longer i-frames can be created by combining different software. You’re limited by ‘memory’ with how much you can have installed at any given point, however, which introduces a soft sense of strategy to how you proceed in your adventure. More i-frames is always nice, but so is having a map you can refer to. Making key decisions along the way as needed, then, is critical to your success.
From a presentation perspective, La-Mulana manages to satisfy, even if it doesn’t exactly impress. The artists manage to get a lot of detail out of the 16-bit style graphics, infusing each area of the temple with all sorts of fascinating art and architecture that might or might not be valuable to solving a puzzle somewhere. Though all areas ultimately conform to the same grimy, weathered stone temple, kind of look, each segmented area is instilled with its own visually distinctive look and colour palette, which goes a long way towards keeping the graphics from getting too stale. Spritework for most characters is kept pretty simple, but the bosses are gorgeously well designed, easily standing out as the highlight for visuals.
Though brilliant in its design, La-Mulana is definitely one of those games that will only appeal to a dedicated few. This is not a game you can casually play every once in a while, and expect to get a great experience; it demands a little more of its players than that through its peerless puzzle design. If you do give it the time of day, however, La-Mulana proves itself to be one of the most intricately-crafted Metroidvanias in recent memory. We’d give La-Mulana a strong recommendation, then, but with the caveat that you come into this one expecting to be frustrated and stuck often. Don’t be scared off by the daunting difficulty, this is one for the ages.