I suppose I should give thanks to FromSoftware for producing Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. Firstly, for reminding the world that long, tough, involving action-adventures aren’t that small of a niche after all, and secondly for allowing me to make this comparison: Nigoro’s La-Mulana is like Castlevania: Symphony of The Night spliced with Dark Souls. It is long, it is tough, it is involved and it has puzzles that’ll make your brain bleed. It’s a massive singleplayer non-linear platform adventure. It is hardcore, full of traps and unapologetic about killing you over and over again. And that’s just fine.
La-Mulana was originally released as freeware about seven years ago. Heavily inspired by obscure MSX platform-adventure The Maze of Galious, it portrayed itself as a long-lost MSX release, complete with simple 8-bit graphics and sound and plenty of inside references. The version that we’re reviewing here is the modern remake, which hit WiiWare in Japan last year, and just got its official English-language remake on the PC via Playism today. Rather than just being a reskin, this really does feel like an attempt to update the game from the 8-bit era to something more akin to earlier Playstation platform-adventures such as Castlevania: SOTN. It’s still conspicuously retro in some ways, but it feels like a fresher, newer game – a long-lost PSX release, perhaps?
Stepping into the well-worn boots of Japanese-American archaeological adventurer Lemeza Kosugi (think Indiana Jones, but his dad is an ageing ninja), you’re on the hunt for the ancient treasure of La-Mulana, which may or may not be the true origins of all life on Earth. Armed with just a whip and a laptop PC (the MobileSuperX – see what they did there?), you start out in the small village near the forbidden ruins. Unlike most villages built atop cursed labyrinths, this one is full of friendly people who want to sell you essential gear that you can’t afford, and the village elder is an old nerd who wants you to beta-test his new one-way E-mail client. For all the difficulty the game is about to drop on you, it has a remarkably silly and easygoing sense of humour about it.
The game is a platform-adventure game at heart. The movement is precise and the jumping arc feels just right, although you need to be aware that air-control once you’re committed to a jump is very limited, and a fall straight down gives you no mobility at all. There’s some real finesse required in navigating the complex levels, reminiscent of the original Castlevania. Despite the game moving in flick-screen fashion, the levels themselves (approximately 19 of them) are enormous, multi-layered, full of traps and puzzles and hidden areas. Also non-linear. The game is even more open than your average Metroid game, with many areas accessible right from the start, although suicidally dangerous to explore without preparation.
While there’s a lot of running and jumping and whipping of monsters to do here, the game slowly reveals itself to be really quite intelligent. Each area hides a variety of smaller and larger puzzles, many of which you won’t even know about at first. By collecting upgrades and software for your laptop, you can use it to decode stone tablets for hints, get last-will messages from skeletons scattered around, get archaeological notes on the various monuments you find and piece together cryptic clues that might not even refer to things anywhere near your current zone. There’s plenty of deathtraps too, some more telegraphed than others. Navigation is aided somewhat by the first major relic you find in the ruins – the Holy Grail itself – which allows you to teleport between save-points as you discover them. Also essential to get yourself out of some traps, as foolhardy and aggressive explorers may discover.
That teleportation comes in handy, because La-Mulana is a very large game, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. A speed-run will take a good 6-8 hours, knowing the solution to every puzzle, where every treasure and secret room is hidden, the optimum route to completion and never dying in combat. A first playthrough is a massive endeavour, often taking players 20 or more hours to complete. The various levels are extremely varied, with everything from egyptian tombs to surreal dimensional rifts right up to bizarre ancient future-technological bases, and there’s no shortage of enemy types. There’s also no less than 18 mini-bosses scattered around the game, and 10 screen-filling main bosses that act as major progression milestones.
There’s a constant, reassuring sense of progression, despite the non-linearity. Each piece of gear and treasure lets you go somewhere new, fight a little better, explore a little further or solve a new puzzle. At the start of the game you’re a nobody with a whip, and your first trip to the ruins entrance is likely going to be ruined by random swooping birds. By the end of the game, you’re a nigh-invincible hero clad in a dozen magical artifacts and carrying enough enchanted weaponry to slay an entire pantheon of forgotten gods. All of this is visible too, via a rather clever paper-doll style inventory screen. Lemeza looks kinda silly wearing all the items you’ve found, but the difference is reassuring nonetheless. There’s a good range of main weapons to be found, each with different attack ranges and arcs, and several ammo-limited projectile weapons, and they’re all easily cycled through mid-fight.
For fans of the original freeware release, the remake is an upgrade in almost every respect. More puzzles have been added, while some of the most obscure, older puzzles have been streamlined to make them at least realistically solveable without resorting to an FAQ, and the game in general just flows better. New players are walked through the early stages of the game by Elder Xelpud, who gives you regular (but optional) hint E-Mails via your computer, and there’s two more helpful characters later on that’ll give you advice and guidance. The combat, platforming and especially the bosses have all been tuned up, and a couple of the major boss fights have been completely redesigned, now they’re no longer limited by 8-Bit style sprite sheets. The only part of the remake I’m not thrilled about is the music, which is still great in terms of composition, but the instrumentation is a little too MIDI-ish, losing the rougher edges of the chiptune originals.
The PC version of the remake also includes the DLC pack that had to be sold seperately on the Wii due to file-size constraints. This consists of a remarkably fleshed out Boss Rush mode (which offers three different ‘courses’ of bosses, plus three seperate difficulty levels on each) and a redesigned and updated version of the infamous Hell Temple bonus level. Those who played the original version to destruction know just how cruel and sadistic that well-hidden secret level was. Somehow, they’ve made it even nastier. While not required to complete the game, the Hell Temple offers a bonus challenge for anyone who wants a little ‘I Wanna Be The Guy‘ in their La-Mulana. Oh, and The Treasure That Must Not Be Seen? It’s back, and better than ever.
The last piece of icing on the cake is that the game is fully moddable, with all the graphics, audio and other bits being just laid open in easily-read formats for anyone to pick open and poke away at. The developers themselves have suggested that fans try porting the graphics and sound from the MSX-styled original to the remake, and ask that anyone who wants to produce an unofficial translation go ahead and try, as they want to see as many people as possible playing the game. While the levels themselves are in a currently unknown format, I doubt it’ll be long before fans have cracked those open and made an unofficial editor, so there should be life to La-Mulana beyond it’s already massive adventure.
La-Mulana is an excellent, complex, involved and difficult game. If you’re willing to try something with a little more challenge than most, it’s an easy recommendation. It’s polished and deep, and there’s some genuinely intelligent puzzling mixed in with the running, jumping and whipping bats out of the air. You actually need to think, read and act like an archaeologist at times. While there are some sticking points, there’s plenty of guides available out there, and if you’ve ever enjoyed Metroid, Castlevania: SOTN or Dark Souls then this is very much in the spirit of all three. At the asking price of $15, and with Playism’s excellent translation, it’s a must-have.
You can buy La-Mulana for Windows PCs now via Playism for $15, DRM-free. There’s rumors that the English WiiWare release will eventually go ahead via another company, but there’s no date set on that yet. You can also find the original freeware version here, although it really does pale in comparison to the remake.
[review pros="Huge, tough, rewarding and smart; Well-translated, and well-written; Great level design and some memorable boss battles; A genuine improvement on the original release; Doesn't talk down to the player." cons="Music can feel a little weak at times; Easy to get stuck and lost due to complex puzzles; Difficult and unforgiving." score=93]