Review: La-Mulana

Way back in the mid-noughties, the concept of the “indie” genre was known, but not very common. In most cases, independent games usually took the form of flash games; simple but entertaining games that are played in your web browser. However in 2005, the concept of independently created games was shattered forever with the appearance of many say is THE indie game; Cave Story. It sits in what I personally call the “quartet of indie” – four games that managed to set the tone for near enough every indie title nowadays:

Cave Story – the paragon of story (see also: Bastion)
I Want To Be The Guy – the paragon of insane difficulty (see also: Super Meat Boy)
La-Mulana – the paragon of exploration (see also: VVVVVV)
Minecraft – the paragon of sandbox (see also: Terraria)

Today, I’m reviewing the third of this group; La-Mulana. Created by Nigoro in 2007 by a three-man team on the PC, the original La-Mulana paid homage to the MSX, a console only released in Japan and featured a host of classic Komani games (including Metal Gear and Castlevania). The game was famed for being huge, an explorer’s dream and also very unforgiving. It reintroduced ‘Nintendo Hard’ for the newer generation. And also, most importantly, it was a lot of fun.

In 2011, La-Mulana was released in an all-new format on WiiWare. However, due to export problems with Nicalis, Nigoro couldn’t initially release it outside of Japan*. So instead; they went back to their roots – they released it on the PC. And in 2012; it appeared on Playism, GoG, Desura and, eventually, Steam in 2013. For those that played the original, they changed enough to make this a whole new experience. And for newcomers, it can offer a unique gaming experience that can, initially, be very daunting.

The story is a simple one. Professor Lemeza is an archaeologist, who has recently received a message from his father, also an archaeologist. He claims to have found the remains of an old civilization in some ruins called “La-Mulana”. And according to legend, a mysterious treasure resides in these ruins to the person who clears them. Not wanting to be outdone, Lemeza heads off to La-Mulana to try and claim this treasure before anyone else. Little does he know about what La-Mulana really is…

La-Mulana is a Metroidvania type of game, requiring you to explore, grab items, explore new areas unlocked by those items, beat bosses and so on. You start off with basic equipment – a whip and your MSX computer. But by buying gear and solving puzzles, you eventually get sub-weapons (such as Shurikens), special equipment (such as the warp-activating Grail), software programs (including the software to read all the glyphs in the ruins) and upgrades (such as a double-jump).

Of course, it’s not as easy as you might think. The puzzles are fiendish and can span across the many different sections of the ruins. A glyph in one area might hold a clue for a puzzle in the other, so it’ll pay to write down EVERYTHING you see, much like in the adventure games of old. This game is tough and can cause a lot of frustration. But it’s part of the charm – it’s tough but fair.

Well, until you get to the bosses. You see, to uncover the truth of the ruins, you need to “awaken” the guardians by finding an Ankh Jewel and revealing a boss Ankh. Then the terror begins. You see, most enemies and sub-bosses go down with skilled use of the sub-weapons and dodging skills***. These bosses usually fill the whole screen, have immunity to certain attacks and are generally a pain to beat. But again, that’s part of the fun and they will go down eventually.

A thing that might make the bosses a tad easier would be the control scheme. It’s a huge improvement to the classic game, but still takes a little time to get used to. The best way I can describe it is that it’s akin to Simon Belmont in the classic Castlevania. It doesn’t lend itself greatly to the keyboard, but with some practise, it can eventually get better. There is the ability to customise your controls, so that’s useful if you ever need it.

Visually, the game is a delight if you love classic 2D design. The update offers a much more modern graphical take than the original, but still keeps the simplistic charm. It’s never too busy and the problems from the original (such as bats being invisible over blue backgrounds) have been ironed out. The bosses also get a massive graphical boost, making them more imposing and more deadly. The music gets an upgrade too, making the tunes more grand and epic, but still as classic as the original.

If you’re concerned that the game sacrifices originality with the length of the game, I’m happy to say that this game offers a lot. It’s saying something when a game considers a completion time under 10 hours as “fast”. There are 18 central fields to explore, 8 guardians to topple, a Hard Mode (yes, this game can get even harder), 12 time attack challenges and the infamous Hell Temple**. This is one game that offers a grand and absorbing experience.

Personally, this is one of the greatest indie games created. It’s grand, it’s entertaining, it’s hard (but mostly fair) – this is what I look for in actual mainstream titles. It might not be to everyone’s cup of tea due to its genre (Metroidvania opposed to FPS or Sandbox) or its difficulty (this IS a tough game). But if you persevere with it and get lost with its tale, you will find a gem of a game.

Just don’t blame me if you lose your sanity in Hell Temple.

Lovely graphics that hark back to the 16-bit era. A great improvement to the classic and solves errors with the original.
The soundtrack maps the different aspects of the ruins perfectly. A few less-than-great tracks here and there, but you’ll definitely find one you’ll love.
The biggest fault of the game, but that’s due to its roots. If you don’t mind slightly restricted jumps and unique weapon arcs, you’ll cope with this.
This game offers a lot. The central story should take between 15-20 hours (if you’re good), and a lot more time with Hell Temple and the Time Attacks. If you stick with it, you’ll never get bored.
This is only with the Steam version, and it offers 64 achievements. These range from easy (enter the ruins) to hard (clear the game in under 10 hours), from the lengthy (get every email) to the bizarre (eats curries!). Oh and you’ll LOVE those “Welcome to La-Mulana” achievements…
It’s hard, but it’s very rewarding. If you put up with it, you’ll be rewarded with a game that is fantastic and a lot of fun.

* It was later released in 2012 under a different publisher, but without the Hell Temple DLC

** What is Hell Temple? Well, let’s just say that Hell Temple is Hell…And I’ll leave it at that.

*** Also known as luck.

T.A Black

Author: T.A Black

Currently LMC's resident reviewer, I also take a huge interest in anything from Nintendo to Square-Enix, and beyond. My interests are certainly random, as are the games I review and enjoy.

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