(Free-Game Friday is a new weekly feature in which a writer from the GamerLimit staff looks at a completely free game and discusses their experience with it. Since there is no absolute structure or checklist for writing about one’s experience, these features are not necessarily reviews.)
La-Mulana is a brutal experience; the kind of gaming experience one could only receive from a non-commercial game (commercial games that try are generally shunned). The game is not nice, it’s not helpful, and it makes every attempt to thwart you for treating it like an everyday gaming experience.
So, what does La-Mulana expect from its gamers? Well, the title is about an archaeologist – Lemieza Kosugi – exploring the titular ruins of the game. It’s never explained exactly why, but much like Indiana Jones, the game seems to treat the occupation of archaeologist as little more than a professional thrill seeker. He arrives at the ruins with a whip – not a firearm – so he’s clearly looking to spice things up at least a little bit.
Lemieza eventually enters the ruins of La-Mulana, and realizes that the entire ruins seems to be made to thwart anyone seeking to explore it; monsters and ghost inhabit the ruins, mechanisms in the ruins attack anything which disturbs them, and simply progressing farther into the ruins necessitates the solving of complex riddles, made no easier by said monsters, ghosts, and deathtraps.
There is one strange way that La-Mulana is unfriendly, though, which is perhaps the game’s biggest folly: La-Mulana is completely unforgiving to someone who wants to start the game, be it a newcomer to the genre or even a seasoned veteran of gaming. For example, before players can even save their game, they have to buy an item from a shop. The item isn’t that costly, but if you don’t know you’re supposed to buy it, you’re just SOL.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Do you want to ever solve the puzzles of La-Mulana? You’ll need to be able to read the riddles left by its old inhabitants, so you’ll need to buy a Glyph Reader. You’ll also need a Shell Horn – and item that simply lets you know if you’ve even solved a puzzle or not. Do you want to get around in a timely manner in the expansive ruins? You’ll need to make sure you get the Grail, which allows you to teleport outside, or to the various areas inside the ruins.
This is the most baffling part of the experience for me, and it’s a completely unnecessary one. While it’s true that the game is a deliberate throwback to the times of old MSX games, where things probably were just as obtuse as they are in this game, do we really need to bring back every last convention just for its own sake? Did anyone stop and think, “Is this going to make the experience more immersive? Or will it alienate people who might have enjoyed the game, despite its cruel and unusual difficulty?”
Only those who are truly intrigued by what La-Mulana has to offer will even make it past these initial hurdles, and I honestly can’t blame them – I almost quit the game, myself. It was definitely rewarding to stick with it, though, so I’m glad I did.
Lemieza, the professional thrill-seeker that he is, refuses to be beaten by the ruins, and if you’ve pledged to follow him, be prepared for a bumpy ride. With every new section of the ruins lies a new set of puzzles based around some sort of concept or cryptic riddle. By solving the riddles, Lemieza finds new items that help him explore the ruins – artifacts that allow him to jump higher, run faster, and even breathe underwater and withstand the heat of magma.
This is the type of intense challenge that is truly thrilling. Forget about the artificial challenges of having to waste tons of time buying items just to start the game – what makes La-Mulana stand out in the face of other, similar “Metroidvania” games is just how exciting it is to explore. In games like, well, Metroid and Castlevania, exploring consists of little more than simply covering new ground. If you can’t reach a new place, you fight a boss and get an item that conveniently lets you continue to explore.
Conversely, La-Mulana is entirely based in its puzzles. Whether or not you can travel to a new section of the ruins (and survive within that area) depends entirely on whether or not you can solve the puzzles to reach your new destination, and find the items you need (by solving puzzles and riddles). It’s nice to see a Metroidvania game – a genre which seems to put a large emphasis on exploration – and have it actually focus on the exploration instead of the action (just how many times can you play the same Castlevania game, anyways?).
That being said, you should know that La-Mulana is extremely difficult, and it comes with the added hassle of having to do laborious tasks in-game just to get the ball rolling. If you think your Metroidvania experience are missing a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ (or even if you don’t), you owe it to yourself to give La-Mulana a shot – the exploration element really gives you a thrill that no other game in the genre – nor any campy Indiana Jones movie – ever could.
Lastly, if you find yourself really enjoying this game: it’s being released on WiiWare very soon!
(To download the game and English patch, go here: http://agtp.romhack.net/project.php?id=lamulana)
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