You could say that La-Mulana has been something of a white whale for me. Long ago, I purchased the Steam version of the remake and set about trying to conquer it without any outside help; that is to say, without looking at any sort of guide or walkthrough. I failed. Steam has me clocked at 53 hours, and while I’m too far removed from that period of my life to speak of the validity of that number, suffice it to say that I spent a long time going nowhere.
No, I got somewhere in the vicinity of the endgame and ran out of willpower. However, I did back the sequel on Kickstarter… then never touched it after release.
Now, with the release of both games on the Switch, I have new motivation to try again. This time, I’ll be less proud and deign to look at walkthroughs to get to the end. Don’t judge me too harshly.
THE SAD MEMORIES OF THE GIANTS ARE CONTAINED WITHIN
Whether you look at a guide or not, only the brave need apply for La-Mulana. I don’t say this lightly, but La-Mulana is one of the most difficult games I’ve experienced. And that’s not merely because it features difficult combat or devious bosses, no, it’s because it’s as cryptic as hell.
At its core, La-Mulana is an explore-’em-up much like everyone’s favourite example, Metroid. However, it is significantly less linear and much more heavily puzzle based. It lets you loose in some ruins, then it’s up to you to figure out how to push forward, gradually unravelling the mysteries as you go.
Let me be upfront; La-Mulana is ridiculously obtuse. It throws hints at you left and right, but whether those hints are pertinent right away or require some additional clues to be comprehensible, heck, that clue might be talking about something in a completely different part of the ruins. It might just be cryptic flavour text. The solutions are usually very simple, but finding out what is expected of you can be extremely difficult.
ABOVE THE SUN IS THE SPRING IN THE SKY
La-Mulana is not for everyone. Progress can be very slow and difficult, and its obtuse design means that periods of walking in circles can be too common. Even the combat can be extremely harsh, especially against the game’s bosses. It has Castlevania style knockback which can cause complications and the hit detection is absolutely merciless. Getting through combat is sometimes a case of having to backtrack to find power-ups that were missed, just so you can more easily brute force your way through it.
This may sound cliche, but it is rewarding to figure things out and slowly take the game apart, piece by piece. It’s daunting to reach a new area and not even know how to begin exploring it, and that’s a feeling that never goes away. Through incredible atmosphere and aesthetic, it has a habit of putting the fear in you. Eventually, as you’ve explored areas, you’ll be confident in revisiting them, but those first moments tend to be packed with nervous progression.
THERE IS A GOD THAT CONTROLS DEATH. THERE IS A GOD THAT ABSORBS LIFE.
However, I don’t think it’s the rewarding exploration that makes La-Mulana special. Rather, I find it to just be a beautiful game. Not aesthetically, though the ruins are sometimes a wonder to behold, but in the way it presents its story.
There isn’t much in the way of cutscenes in La-Mulana, and for that matter, dialogue is used sparsely. A lot is instead divulged through signage in the ruins and environmental queues. The lore of La-Mulana mixes real world mythology from many different cultures while putting its own spin on things.
The main concept that’s put forth early on is that there were a series of races that were created by a great deity to assist her with returning to the sky. However, each had its difficulty, and over time they all died off. It’s a sorrowful tale of people who lived for a single purpose and died when it couldn’t be fulfilled. We’ve seen plenty of games that plumb ruins of lost civilizations, but this one is presented in such an alien and poetic way that I can only regard it with awe.
THEN WE DEPARTED, FOR THE SAKE OF THE MOTHER’S DREAM
It’s mixed in with some lighthearted dialogue. Despite the depth of the game’s mythology, it still finds time to poke fun at itself, and even in regards to the art style, it presents itself cartoonishly; a wonderful juxtaposition. There are few characters, but the ones that you do encounter are generally weird in their own way. The wiseman who seems to have just discovered technology for the first time and the hint-giving Marbruk are particularly standout.
There’s a warmth to the whole package, even if the underlying themes are dark and melancholy. Somehow it all works together like whipped cream on hot cocoa. It’s obvious that it wants to provide something with depth while also encouraging you to have fun with it. It’s not afraid to turn dark, and the soundtrack maintains an adventuresome sound, but it’s balanced out by its sunny exterior.
THE REMAINS OF DREAMS DESTROYED, WISHES NOT GRANTED
It’s a hard sell, really. I can completely understand why someone would absolutely hate La-Mulana and everything it stands for. I can preach about the fulfillment one gets from completing the game, or the satisfaction of figuring out one of its puzzles, but for some, that’s just not going to be the reality.
For me, on the other hand, I absolutely love La-Mulana. I think it’s a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed game. I think it’s cruel, but it only really does it to try and provide a meaningful experience. Of course, I cheated and used a guide which kind of tarnishes the experience a bit, but I’m not sure I would have seen the end without one. I plan on tackling La-Mulana 2 with nothing more than my wits, my notebook, and my map-making skills, but I maybe shouldn’t be so proud to cheat there either, if it means finding a connection as deep as I have for the first game.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.