How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Metroidvania Fans will love the huge world to explore, and the combat is also top-notch in terms of challenge. However, this is in many ways a puzzle game first, and most of your time will be spent solving riddles rather than scouting for the next power-up.
Primary Challenge: Riddle-Solving Puzzles
Time to beat: ~30 hours
Buy La-Mulana if you like…
- Writing down clues and solving puzzles
- Using a guide when you get stumped
- Quirky Japanese humor
- A variety of visual locations, bosses, and events
- Challenging combat and tricky platforming
▼ Review continues below ▼
I’m going to be open up front; La-Mulana fills a very narrow niche. You first need to be a fan of Metroidvania platforming and high challenge action combat, because unless you can get good at both of those, you will die a lot. Then, you need to be a fan the hardest kind of 90s adventure gaming; games like Myst, or figuring out where you are supposed to go in Ultima 2. This game has an achievement for beating the game under 40 hours. I can say that without a guide, I think that making that time goal would indeed be an accomplishment. If you just want a game where you can relax and have a bit of a challenge, La-Mulana isn’t for you. If you don’t like a game for using frustration as a tool for building up a sense of accomplishment, then La-Mulana isn’t for you. If you’ve played other Metroidvania games, imagine the methods to get the secret endings, or secret bosses in those games – I’m talking about the ones where you might think “There’s no way I would have figured that out without a guide.” Now imagine that every step of your progress through the game was like that. That’s what La-Mulana is like. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then La-Mulana isn’t for you.
But if you’re in that niche, La-Mulana is a masterpiece.
The puzzles are obtuse and sometimes downright insane, but even when I gave up and reached for that increasingly enticing guide, I usually found myself face-palming for not realizing the solution. The jump controls are initially awkward, but once you get used to them they become second nature. The bosses are large and intimidating, but they follow set patterns, which makes them like puzzles in themselves. While traversing the maze traps, enemies dial up the tension since there are no potions or E-Tanks, and venturing into new areas may mean you haven’t found that checkpoint for a while. However, if you do fail, distances are deceptively short and it’s easy to pick up and try again. With all of the muddling clues the game throws at you, the lack of scrolling through the game’s grid-like map makes it easy enough to at least know where you are, and you get the ability to teleport between areas early on. The dungeon is dangerous and confusing, but it’s fair.
Not to say the dungeon doesn’t have its “Gotcha” moments. In this instance, I feel that those kinds of traps are proof that no design decision in a vacuum is inherently bad. In La-Mulana, it’s a mechanical method of establishing the treacherous circumstances you have to wade through to unlock the secrets of the ruins. No game captures the feel of being an Indiana Jones character solving riddles in a tomb full of death traps quite like this game. And I don’t think it could capture that feel, without the death traps.
However, one area where it might have captured that feel a little bit better is through the lore and story. The catacombs are a hodgepodge of ruins from all the cultures you’d imagine for archeological adventure tropes; one moment you’re in ancient Central America, and the next you’re in Egypt. The old sage that helps you along is a video game addict with a penchant for nosiness. Mummies run shops and sell bullets, shurikens, and most absurdly, video game software for your Archeology laptop. It’s all very silly and light-hearted – but this isn’t necessarily a criticism. One interpretation of this approach is that it serves the purpose of comic relief in an otherwise oppressive game. I could claim that it detracts from the authenticity of the experience, but it’s part of what I found entertaining. And, even with its weirdness, unlocking the mysteries of the tablet texts still managed to include a cohesive mythology; all of it leading up to the final secret of the ruins, which taunts you with its exciting challenge.
La-Mulana is a very hard game, maybe the hardest and most uninviting I’ve ever played while still feeling like I was in control. But it’s special. I could argue that it’s at the pinnacle of the Metroidvania genre – and I will, at least for what it does best. It’s the best puzzle Metroidvania that I’ve played, and I think that it’ll be difficult to dethrone it. But it’s not a game that I recommend to everyone. I recommend it with a warning, but also a confirmation that it’s deliciously satisfying to solve.
Difficult fights using some simplistic but effective tools
Unusual platforming mechanics take some getting used to, but not difficult
Figuring out where to go next is half the battle - but very rewarding
Nearly every single screen has some mystery to be solved
Cohesive lore in spite of borrowing from a variety of ancient mythologies
Beautiful 32 bit style spritework including some incredible background work
Catchy music that will likely haunt you for days after playing
Hard Mode plus a metric crap-ton of secrets to find
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