GAME NAME: La-Mulana EX
DEVELOPER(S): Pygmy Studio
PUBLISHER(S): Rising Star Games
GENRE(S): Action-adventure Exploration
RELEASE DATE(S): March 3, 2015
The story of La-Mulana can be a confusing one. I’m not talking about the in-game story; I’m talking about how the game came to be itself. First it was made to appear on PCs in the mid-2000s, but since it was a tribute to 80s MSX games, it looked like it came out 20 years ago. Then a few years later, development started on an upgraded version with better graphics, sound, and gameplay improvements. But the original western publisher pulled out, only to be picked up EnjoyUp Games for a WiiWare release in 2012. Fast-forward two and a half years where Rising Star Games has taken over to publish the newly titled La-Mulana EX for the PlayStation Vita.
La-Mulana EX is a side-scrolling action-adventure game in the Metroidvania style. You play as an archeologist college professor investigating the strange goings-on in the La-Mulana ruins with your trusty whip, leather jacket, and hat. So basically you’re Japanese Indiana Jones. You’ll be navigating a gigantic world filled with monsters and puzzles and magic. Thankfully there is an in-game map system that you acquire pretty early on, but it is just a basic collection of squares, without any details on what the rooms contain or where they lead (until later in the game).
Even with this map though, it’s a common thing to not know where to go. That’s because the secrets and puzzles in this game are crazytownbananapants. There are tablets spread throughout the ruins that offer hints and tips on where to go and what to do, but most are obscure and not terribly helpful because half the time you don’t know what the hell it’s talking about. For example, in the second main area of the game, you could read a tablet that tells you how to proceed in the 7th world of the game. Granted the game is non-linear so there really isn’t a “2nd world” or “7th world” per se, but you get the idea. Stuff is confusing.
That said, how all the puzzles tie together is downright brilliant. Having never played any of the previous versions of the game, I was expecting an experience similar to the original Metroid. But what I got was a game that now rivals Fez for most “how in the bloody hell does this tie into this that ties into …..OOOOOOHHHHH!” moments. Now most of these puzzles you’re going to need to consult a guide to figure out, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I did plenty of that. This might be a turn-off for some, but when you solve one on your own, you’re going to start organizing your smart person awards ceremony right then and there.
While the tricks are trixy, they are fun to get to. The gameplay is straight up SNES-era side-scrolling action. And it’s awesome. You’ll be jumping around platforms and whipping monsters with reckless abandon as you search for the next treasure or weapon upgrade. The gameplay takes place in individual rooms connected together, sort of like original NES Zelda dungeons (minus the top-down view obviously). The monsters are varied enough in their attacks, but yet familiar to fans of the genre. And the giant boss guardians you fight are equally as fun.
This isn’t an easy game either. You’ll be challenged quite often as you avoid spikes and traps and sometimes even invisible enemies. It’s not helped by the unique health system. Instead of collecting little health packs, you have to collect enough XP orbs to fill your meter, which then fills back your health meter, but only after the XP meter is full. This can make for some tricky situations as you balance collecting the XP for when you really need it. Thankfully there is a hot spring you can also regain your health at. But during boss fights, you’re pretty much on whatever health you can get to the room with.
Another problem some gamers may have (especially those not skilled at platformers) are some imprecise controls. While movement is fluid and responsive on the ground, jumping isn’t as precise as I would have liked it. A lot of times the floaty jumping would move me to far if I moved right away after a jump. Other times he would barely move if I jumped straight up first. While this may be more true to actual real-life jumping, it was harder for me to adapt to then usual. Some wall grappling sections get a little tricky as well for how the controls are laid out for them.
There are multiple save points around the ruins, with one in each world. You have to work pretty hard to find them most of the time, though. Lots of backtracking was done when I couldn’t quite get there before the monsters and traps overwhelmed me. But once you find one, you can fast travel to and from any of them (provided you have the right software for your in-game laptop). There are 20 total worlds, each containing 20 rooms, so you’re going to use that fast travel often. My game file shows I’ve played around 15 hours, and I still have some optional obscure things to explore. And this is with puzzle-solving help. The fastest speed-run trophy available is for beating the game within 10 hours. Point being, there’s plenty here to keep you busy for a long time.
While the gameplay is straight out of the 16-bit era, the graphics and sound are…straight out of the 16-bit era. The enhanced sprites and pixel art are fantastic throughout. Even though you are inside ancient ruins, things are colorful as you get deeper and deeper. Some of the lighting and shading effects in later levels are fantastic. What really stands out though are the boss designs. These hulking creatures usually take up most of the screen as they lay their vengeance upon you. You can tell lots of care went into crafting these models and they were a joy to fight (when they weren’t completely kicking my ass, that is). One thing that may throw off some gamers is that the game is displayed in its original 4:3 format. That means that the sides of the screen are taken up by your choice of artwork textures from the game. I can understand not wanting to stretch out the perfect game boards so I’m fine with this choice, but it did take a little getting used to.
The soundtrack is equally as good and nostalgic. Driving advanced chiptunes make the musical portion of the game very enjoyable to listen to and it made me want to actually listen to the game while playing instead of my own tunes every time I booted it up. I’ve even caught myself humming some of the songs as I walked to and from work.
Regarding the EX in the title, the game was revamped some from it’s original PC remake. Some puzzles and clues were made a little more clear and things were made more accessible to new players. Veterans of the game will find most things just as they were, but some item locations and tasks to complete (especially at the end of the game) are in completely new spots. In addition to the main game, there is also a boss rush time attack mode to test your meddle.
I enjoyed my time with La-Mulana EX quite a lot. The art style grabbed me the first time I saw it and despite some minor control issues, the gameplay that came along with it does not disappoint. You’re going to need a lot of help or a huge giant evolved alien brain to solve all the puzzles and make it to the end, but it’s well worth it to take up this journey and tribute to games of old.