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.
I couldn't beat 1 or 2
The puzzles were just too hard for me and combat was tricky but man was it still fun playing and listening to the music.
Back when playing the steam version I got to what I assume was decently far into La-Mulana 1, some kind of fire cave area, but for whatever reason I just stopped playing after that. As far as action games go the game was awesome (But goshdarn is it hard) and the soundtrack was top notch, I'm very much looking forward to revisiting La-Mulana 1 and trying the sequel for the first time too.
With this game, I just had to swallow my pride and consult a guide frequently. Personally, this didn't cheapen the experience, and I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. One of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory, in fact.
Im awaiting when 1 and 2 go on a decent sale, both look and sound great
Tried to play last year, found it a bit too cryptic for my tastes. Platforming is good but the excessive amount of backtracking isn't.
No mention of performance or enhancements vs previous versions?
Alright, I’m sold. This sounds great. OK, it’s going on the backburner for now, but I love a puzzly Metroidvania. Also, I like the art style. Reminds me of the excellent Traps N Gemstones on iOS.
I love a good puzzle game (even completely hands off ones like The Witness), but this just sounds miserable. I've never appreciated esoteric game design, personally.
@gaga64 Yes - if I still have my copy on WiiWare, is there any need to purchase this (besides portability)?
This is a good game, but I'm disappointed to see that it might just be a straight port of the WiiWare game - right down to the 4:3 aspect ratio. Hope I'm wrong.
I don’t think guides will diminish the fun of this amazing game (and its even better sequel). I like to look at it like this... if you play with a guide, it is the equivalent of Indiana Jones using his fathers diary to find the Holy Grail. If you play these games without a guide, than it is more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Jones discovers clues to the Ark on his own. Both great experiences and guides definitely don’t negate them
Might be pretty good. I’ll put it on the wish list and try it out at some point
Cryptic puzzles work better when the game is linear. I hate free exploration in games like this since I can't know if I've learned what I need to know for the current challenge. Am I at a dead end or is this somewhere I'm supposed to be? No way to be sure.
Also, cryptic puzzles are fun. Hard action-platforming is fun. But when you mix them, it's just aggravating. I wanted to like this game but ultimately I walked away annoyed.
I have the physical and it is a beautiful package.
@Expa0 I felt that way the first time through Dark Souls. We were both only a third through the games...
I've been wanting to play them for a while now and was even considering the physical, but all this talk about how maddening some of the puzzles can be has kinda got me worried...it's not that I'm afraid of puzzle-solving or old-school controls, heck, that's what attracted me to the games in the first place, but this sounds like it might be borderline annoying, rather than challenging, but fun...
For those afraid of jumping into the game due to the cryptic puzzles, in addition to guides not being detrimental to the experience as I mentioned before, most of the puzzles have some connection to the game's lore as well. So they're not all pointless hurdles, and they do build the story and the world.
I bought this game on NLs recommendation way back in 2012 and it absolutely consumed me for several weeks. I've played loads of great metroidvanias over the years but I've never quite lived in one the way I did for La Mulana and it's sequel. Both games are masterpieces despite their flaws. If you like lateral puzzle games like Myst or the Witness absolutely give this a shot.
The cryptic exploration turns me off a bit,I hate having to use guides multiple times to beat a game.Might still get both games when they go on sale.
I tried playing this when it first came out on Wii.
Relatively quickly I went through some one-way door and was trapped in a small area with only two large bosses to go to. I had no way of knowing how much stronger I would need to be in order to defeat them, and grinding the enemies in the small area was far from adequate for any meaningful advancement in the first place.
You could say I got "casual filtered" and possibly that I just had to "git gud". But after being stuck there for an amount of hours, getting my butt handed to me by either boss a few dozen times, I stopped playing. I didn't have the energy or interest in starting over, if something like that was liable to happen around every corner.
This game legit made me angry. The first time I played it, I put myself in a situation where (I thought?) I was game-broken stuck and started over from the beginning. The second time, with the help of a guide, I got much further, but I still couldn't beat it. I'm surprised the review didn't go into the borderline-cheap bosses of the game...
And yet, I really loved my time with it. I'm tempted to give it another try, and play the sequel...when the price goes down.
We get it, people: you don't like hard games. It's not your fault, but it's not La Mulana's fault either.
@Deliesh To me that is a huge turnoff in this day and age. It wasn't so bad back in old days of gaming but these days I really expect developers to make their games easy enough to figure out on your own. If it is cryptic to the point where I need a guide to figure out what to do that makes me think they messed up.
Straight 10/10 game for me. Joyous, marvellously designed masterpiece.
@JayJ The problem there is that the devs wanted it to be a tribute to Maze of Galious, and Maze of Galious was just as cryptic and difficult to move around through.
Me too. Almost exactly. It lost its fun to me really quick and I stopped playing.
Hmm.. I’ve been thinking about giving this a try. It sounds interesting.
I thought Hollow Knight was hard and had to pull up a guide to get me started but the difficulty didn’t keep me from playing because I found the world intriguing.
I thought Cuphead was hard but I couldn’t bring myself to keep up the torture once I realized I didn’t much care about the characters or the world.
So I suppose the real question- does the story/ character/ world justify the difficulty?
Started playing #1 again, and yes, it's difficult and definitely demands your full attention in a way most games do not. But it is really addictive once you get going and clearly lovingly made. I do highly recommend, if you played Alot of old-school nes games back in the day and/or like that sort of thing.
Personally, I explore an area, solve what I can, then consult maps and guides to get it all sorted.
There is just SO much that is interconnected and puzzly, that even with maps and such, the game is still very challenging and very fun.
I'd say, don't hesitate to take the help, you'll be running in circles even with the help. You'd just get stuck forever without it later on in the game.
If you can clear the game by any means, you are a god and fully deserving of the bragging rights afterwards.
You're exploring ruins, of course you need a handy annotated map. The connections between areas alone is Alot to keep track of, even with on-line maps.
@JayJ I wouldn't say they messed up with the difficulty here, but rather that the game demands your time and consideration to a greater depth than most others (think Fez, for example). It was a calculated decision by the developer, and this game isn't intended to be accessible to everyone. I personally liked this, even as someone who's average at best with puzzles. But I don't blame anyone for not finding the idea of this game appealing. Unlike Hollow Knight, I don't know that I would recommend this to just anyone, even if it is in my top 5 games of all time.
@mjharper basically it's functionally a port of the Steam/Wiiware game with the subtle visual tweaks (but not the monster encyclopedia) from the Vita version.
The game is not just hard.
It's a confusing mess that allows players to get themselves stuck without knowing it, and subsequently waste many hours before realizing they have to start over.
Can someone shed some light on whether this version has the infamous "Hell Temple"? I remember that the Steam version has it, while the WiiWare version left it out.
@Excalibur_120 From what I can find online, the Hell Temple was only excluded from the Wii version due to file size limitations. It was, however, offered as a DLC, so I would think it would be included here. (I can't find a definitive answer to your question anywhere, though.)
Honestly the main issue with LM1 is that you don't get the holy grail immediately, as you do in 2. I think a lot of issues people have with La-Mulana can be attributed to being lost and confused at the start, which the Grail and the resulting structure addresses.
If anyone has difficulty with the game, but wants to give it a fair try, I absolutely recommend at the very least following a walkthrough for the Guidance Gate area.
@Excalibur_120 Hell Temple is absolutely in this version, yes
Ah, this game! Still considered one of the hardest games I've ever played (Earthworm Jim?), and never got even close to beating it; got to that giant, Golem boss, died 20+ times, threw my arms up and yelled "Done!" It ironically brings back fond memories, even if they were maddening AF at the time. As mentioned, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone (honestly, no 'gamer' I personally know), but it's far from a 'flawed game.' I never got stuck and forced to restart the game, but I didn't make it very far myself and believe such a thing could happen having played to my quitting point. A classic worthy of adding to ANY collection, but beware: become comfortable with the reality of never beating this game despite the 'XX' hours put in OR have consistent access to a Guide (and even then...).
Good news that the Hell Temple is included in this version. When I played La-Mulana on Nintendo Wii for the first time, I found it very difficult to beat the monsters, but I only learned later that I played the "hard mode" that I unknowingly activated (those of you who played it know what I mean . So if you found it very difficult, maybe the same happened to you.
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