Review: La-Mulana

Ever since I heard the term in one of my university classes, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of remediation in a digital age. This refers to the way that the limitations of older-technology lives on through the design decisions they forced developers to make.

La-Mulana, now available on the Vita (courtesy of Pygmy Studio and Rising Star Games) as La-Mulana EX, is a fascinating example of this – using the powerful game design tools of today to capture the spark of yesteryear.StoryLAOriginally developed by Japanese Indie Game outfit Nigoro, La-Mulana EX sees you take on the role of a whip-wielding archeologist named Lemeza Kesugi as he delves into the depths of the titular underground labyrinth.

Though there’s plenty of reading that fleshes out the history (and mystery!) surrounding the ruins, the storytelling in La-Mulana EX is pretty light-handled – though there are some fun characters like Malbruk and the Village Elder Xelpud who lighten the proceedings with some quirky and comical dialogue.PresentationLAWhere the original La-Mulana featured a relatively rudimentary visual style, the WiiWare version brought with it a gorgeous graphical overhaul. As the latest rendition of the game, EX stands as the most technically-polished edition with several streamlined sequences that make you wonder where the designers drew the line. It also features a new ‘Bestiary’ function which tracks the enemies you encounter throughout the game – valuable to newcomers like myself (though I used it more infrequently the further I progressed).LA1The soundtrack plays a big role here, helping establishing the tone of each area and evoking a catchy-as-hell retro-vibe that kept me coming back to the game through its most frustrating parts. GameplayLAYet another non-linear platformer in mould of a Castlevania or Super Metroid, La-Mulana EX distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre by privileging puzzles and exploration over combat. This approach, combined with some truly superb level design, are what makes La-Mulana good – but it’s the ambitious systems that go beyond this mechanical trinity that make La-Mulana great and give it the ‘Dark Souls Meets Castlevania’ label it wears with such pride.

Like its whip-wielding inspiration, the labyrinth of La-Mulana EX is broken into a sprawling labyrinth of individual rooms. Unlike its idol however, La-Mulana EX has been designed in a way where multi-room puzzles are the norm rather than a rarity. Oft-times, you’ll find yourself facing a locked door only backtrack several rooms and read a riddle on a nearby tablet leading you to backtrack yet more screens to the relevant puzzle. It’s a sometimes frustrating process but one that the game employs to help you treat each zone as a single entity. LA2Though early sections of La-Mulana EX sometimes threatens to drown the player in complexity, these relatively short hours of treading water help pave the way for the late-game’s ocean of depth and complexity. It’s an approach that asks a lot of you as a player but it’s one that makes every little trial and tribulation the game throws at you a delight to overcome – even if it does occasionally lead to you missing a critical item more than once.

There’s also a LOT of reading involved. La-Mulana EX is littered with the previously-mentioned tablets and as well as as conveying the clues required to progress from room to room, they act as rosetta stones necessary to deciphering the game’s bigger mysteries. The Vita’s portability is a major asset here, letting you chip away at things one short burst at a time.

Though oft-arcane, there is a something compelling behind the game’s unique brand of logic and methodology. La-Mulana EX is a game that expects a lot from you as a player and bestows high penalties upon those who would attempt to bypass its puzzles and stray towards the path of trial and error. LA3Different areas of the ruins borrow architectural inspiration from various ancient civilizations and offer up different design challenges for the player. One area might play with invisible enemies while another might set you against illusions that throw traditional level design on its head.

Though not the game’s major focus, combat does play a considerable role in La-Mulana EX. Over time, you’ll find different weapons and later even upgrades that make you stronger against specific enemies. There’s a considerable variety in the shape, size and attack patterns that define your foes, and this applies even more to the game’s bosses – even if one or two of them falls too far on the frustrating side of things. That said, it helps that La-Mulana EX manages to strike a great balance between keeping thing constantly challenging and giving you the tools to make things a little easier.ConclusionLAI think the key to enjoying La-Mulana EX as a newcomer is to know what you’re getting into and to be willing to seek help if/when you need it. Accept that it’s going to be a 20-40 hour investment of time. Accept that it’s going to be hard-as-nails and seemingly arcane at times, but nonetheless rewarding.
Nigoro are far from the only indie developer caught up in the remediation of gaming’s past, but they are one of the few thus far to have gotten it so very right.

Enormous Scope
Great Puzzle and Level Design
Retro Aesthetic
High Difficulty Curve
Perma-failed Puzzles