|February 27th, 2018
|PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
The epic action-adventure Mulaka features the titular Mulaka, a Sukurúame (a superhuman shaman) on a quest across Mexico to destroy the evil power threatening the Tarahumara people. The latest game from developer Lienzo mixes indigenous Mexican culture with a loving homage to action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Okami. It’s a largely successful venture that leads you down a sunny dirt road deep in Mesoamercian country.
The story in Mulaka is slight, serving chiefly as a device to pull you from one area to the next. While you’ll meet plenty of locals along the way to help with their problems, most of the story is conveyed via illustrated cutscenes where the hero meets special demigods who guide him on his quest and aid him with new powers. The loading screens do include small bits of trivia regaling you with Mexican mythology, while the various tribesmen and families you’ll meet pop with peppy dialogue.
The overall game world comprised of northern Mexico is divided into subsections you’ll visit, and each one plays out relatively the same. You’ll fight many colorful and indigenous enemies, locate three artifacts to open up a main-gate and fight a major boss, sometimes two per level, and then depart. Environmental puzzles are sparing, as most of your time will be fighting enemies within combat circles, so when it’s time to meaningfully interact, it’s with your powerful skill set you’ll unlock as you progress in the story.
If you’re afraid the opening desert area will set the visual tone for the rest of the game, there’s plenty of geographic diversity to keep things fresh and interesting. You’ll travel across desert towns of adobe, canyons, and ravine rivers. The various regions range from wide and sprawling to more linear with many hidden catacombs with secrets to find. Most important of all, you have an incredibly fast run ability from the get-go, and you’ll be running a lot to get across the game’s wide open spaces.
And you’ll never have to worry about getting lost in Mulaka, thanks to your trusty Vision ability. Like your conscience, it will always be your guide to the next checkpoint. While it makes the game more accessible, it has the side-effect of making it more easy. To keep you busy, there are collectibles littering the land and artifacts to unearth. Some of the collectibles are hidden from normal view, many others are well hidden, requiring immense exploration and attention to the landscape.
Mulaka‘s mechanics fit both the action-adventure genre and an ancient world that’s full of magic. You start the game with the basic essentials including a basic attack, a jump, a dodge move, and the ability to toss your spear long-distance. As you progress, you’ll obtain new items tied to the directional pad, including the ability to make potions, a shield, and toss bombs. All of these items are replenished from harvesting plants dotted across the area, so you won’t worry too much about running out. All of it comes at no cost, albeit with a ritualistic animation prefacing these abilities’ activation.
As in Tarahumara mythos, you can transform into four different spirit animals. The hawk has the most utility, letting you fly around and gain a quick height boost. The bear gives superpowered strength, useful in combat and unlocking clearly marked bear claw gates. Much later, you unlock a panther to reach new heights and a snake to cross rivers. Coincidentally, this key element has inspiration from the Tarahumara culture and by the Okami and Zelda series, where transformation is critical in both. Not only are the animal forms fun in Mulaka, they’re also thematically appropriate.
These transfigurations also play a role in combat, one of the major ways you’ll interact in Mulaka. Enemies start small with scorpions and rock creatures and ramp up to mantis soldiers and giant golems. Every move you have is needed to navigate the increasingly complex enemy designs. But the best skill is a finishing move that becomes available once your blue magic meter fills up, one which deals massive damage to all enemies in your vicinity. Transformations such as the snake play roles on certain beasts with clearly signaled weak points and strategies, while the bear is an all-around heavy hitter. Boss battles, which start small and gradually work their way up to enormous beasts that you’ll have to systematically take down, are a particular highlight.
Ultimately, combat isn’t as fluid or graceful as its immediate competitors. It’ll take a while to figure out how the lock-on targeting works and mastering enemy patterns. When things get particularly hectic, blows can feel cheap and unfair as you’ll get knocked to the ground repeatedly. The same irritation can happen when you’re trying to use your potions as enemies will cut you off mid-animation. Special mention goes to the hovering mantis enemies that throw purple beams at you, as they are the most irritating foes to deal with due to their fast movements and punishing moves. If you feel like you’re ever underpowered, most of your basic abilities, and stamina can be upgraded from early on in the game by exchanging the game’s currency.
Presentation may well be Mulaka‘s strongest point. Lienzo has set out to make the world authentic to the ancient Tarahumara culture, going so far as to work with anthropologists to get all the details right. Whether you know about the Tarahumara or not, the world feels believable, and their efforts are not ignored. Visually, the art style echoes a cross between Journey and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the cross of low-level polygon art with stark, cel-shaded color. It’s an art style that sticks to timelessness, as though it could fit in with games made in 1998, 2006, or in 2018.
The music is also captivating, capturing the essence of the region and the people who inhabit it. Musical tracks are dynamic, each track in the overworld and in combat unique to each region. The one thing that would be extra-nice to include would be a more detailed map for every area. Because the only map visible in an overall world map in the pause menu, a zoomed-in option would cut down on potential disorientation in the vastly larger areas.
Aside from combat woes, the camera can get erratic while exploring tightly-knit areas. But the one major issue with Mulaka as of this review is the number of glitches and bugs. In my playthrough, I fell through the game world more than once, sinking into the abyss never to return (in these cases, the only solution is to reload your save). It’s nothing a patch wouldn’t be able to fix, but it is annoying when the clipping glitch happens during a boss battle, which it did.
Lienzo makes a good second impression with Mulaka. A gorgeous art style, solid play mechanics, and a clear reverence towards Mesoamerican culture are only offset by some difficult combat spikes and glitches. An average playthrough will last a brisk 6 hours, but with scattered, hidden collectibles and a tantalizing 100% completion rate to meet, it’s worth the $20 price point. The world is captivating, the pacing is never too rushed, and the movement and your move set are unique and wonderful. For those looking for their next action adventure chaser, the world of Mulaka offers a coherent cultural vision and is rapturous to play. It just about reaches the aspirational heights of its inspirations.
Review code provided by developer