Review: La Mulana EX

Have you ever played a Castlevania game and thought it was holding your hand too much? Is getting Samus to take her armor off just not enough of a challenge for you anymore? Do you look at the platforming gauntlet at the end of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse and just yawn? If so, then you might be on the same wavelength as the certifiably insane folks at Nigoro, and their cult hit explore-em-up La Mulana EX might just be the game for you. If not, you’ll probably still get a kick out of the game… just don’t plan on ever beating it.

Lemeza Kosugi is a real man’s archeologist, willing to brave ancient ruins armed only with a whip, an obnoxious fedora, and (here’s where the team’s lawyers breath a sight of relief) his trusty MSX laptop. He follows his estranged father, Shorn, to the ruins of La Mulana, an ancient temple that some believe to be a remnant of the first civilization. Aided by Xelpud, a laid-back old sage with a crippling game addiction, Lemeza vows to solve the mystery of the ruins and beat his father to the treasure that lies within. Along the way he’ll tussle with ancient gods, and eventually come face to face with the source of all creation.

Before he can do any of that, though, he’ll probably die a few dozen times. Basically everything in La Mulana is designed to kill you. Activating switches is as likely to raise spikes out of the floor or drop some masonry on your head as it is to open a door. Even certain moving statues that are supposed to help you advance can kill you instantly if you’re not careful, awarding you with a “welcome to La Mulana” trophy. Monsters lurk around every corner, and if you manage to make it past them, eight devastatingly powerful bosses lie waiting in the depths of the ruins.

What’s more, there are no healing items anywhere in the ruins – the only way to recover from damage is to return to the entrance and take a dip in the nearby hot springs – a trip that can very easily kill you if you’re not careful. You can fast travel to make the journey a little easier, but It’s entirely possible to miss the item that enables it at the beginning of the game. La Mulana EX is as unforgiving of carelessness as it is poor reflexes.

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Like the best platformers on the NES, La Mulana is tough, but fair. Jumping feels tight and precise, but you might initially be thrown off by the exacting control scheme. You don’t have much control of your trajectory once you leave the ground (in this sense, it feels similar to Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?), and you have to be sure to actually jump before stepping off a ledge unless you want to plummet straight down. When you do fall (and you will fall) you’ll hit the ground with a satisfying thud, though you won’t take any damage unless you land on spikes. Of course, you probably will land on spikes, especially if you fall off-screen.

La Mulana is broken up into individual screens in a manner similar to Megaman, and moving from screen to screen almost always poses a risk. When you drop down there are almost always spikes waiting for you. Enemies are frequently positioned right next to screen entrances, necessitating split-second reactions whenever you walk into a room. Getting hit sends Lemeza flying backwards, which often means plummeting down a pit or being knocked back to a previous screen. Enemies respawn at each screen transition, so this can get frustrating fast, and you’ll want to be very careful about your positioning whenever you throw down with a monster.

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As the game begins Lemeza is armed only with a whip, and though you’ll find other weapons as you progress, you won’t make it to them unless you can master it. The whip has an interesting hitbox, damaging enemies immediately behind and above you before lashing out in front of him, which can be very useful if you find yourself surrounded by ghosts or bats. It doesn’t have the best range, though, and it won’t hit enemies below you, so at times you’ll be better served by a knife or sword. You can also equip subweapons like shuriken that allow you to fight at range, or even buy a pistol (though shops operate on a printer and ink model, charging an arm and a leg for bullets), but even with all these options at your disposal, combat is damn hard.

The most challenging aspect of the game might well be its puzzles, though. The ruins are littered with traps and ancient mechanisms, and you’re given very little guidance on how to get around them. Occasionally clues can be found on stone tablets scattered throughout the temple, but more often than not they’re hidden inside stories that serve double duty as part of the world’s lore. It can be very difficult to discern actual hints from meaningless backstory, but when you do figure out a puzzle (at least if you don’t use a walkthrough) it feels immensely satisfying, like you’re actually Indiana Jones deciphering ancient texts. This kind of puzzle design also cleverly encourages players to immerse themselves in well-written lore that they might otherwise gloss over.

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Closing Comments:

La Mulana EX is a fantastic throwback designed by a team with an intense passion for the retro games. It captures the spirit of old-school NES platformers, right down to the “Nintendo hard” difficulty, but also manages to forge its own identity. There’s no other Metroidvania quite this lethal or devlish in its puzzle design, and very few games of any era manage to strike such a strong balance between self-aware humor and genuinely interesting lore. Couple that with gorgeous retro visuals and music that is at once hummable and atmospheric, and it’s little wonder that this Japanese indie game has amassed such a cult following.