[REVIEW] Mulaka (Switch)

Listen to the legend.

Collectively, the modern era considers ourselves to be the pinnacle of the human race; what, with our hydrogen bombs and striped toothpaste (as John Anthony West put it, who recently passed). Many believe the human story progresses in a linear fashion. The idea that we went from clueless cavemen for millions of years to only started building impossible monuments from the sudden change in behavior where arts and plenty of science such as astrology, chemistry and physics are present throughout many of the ancient cultures dotted all over the world. That some random spark in human consciousness to evolve happened in a blink of an eye. However, what if we are missing a chapter in the human story? Who’s to say there wasn’t a thriving highly advanced civilization that was completely wiped out by a worldwide cataclysm? An entirely long subject to which I digress. In fact, many of the ancient traditions across seas share similar depictions of the same idea that life may actually be cyclical. These global myths tell us the story of such cataclysmic events and yet we choose to ignore it. Technology as we know it today is only materialistic. Floppy discs wouldn’t survive a fallout to tell future generations what kind of people we were, but the secrets laid out in paintings and carvings in architecture from our ancient ancestors would survive, and still do to tell us just how important it is to be deeply connected with spirit. Based in the same country of Mexico that Mulaka‘s myth-dive into Tarahumaran culture is presented throughout, publisher and developer Lienzo has created a solid effort into shining more light on one of the ancient traditions that’s left in the dark, but still very much alive. The indigenous people of Sierra Tarahumara are indeed spiritual beyond mainstream belief.

Super Shaman

Low-poly-palooza

Mulaka’s graphical presentation glorifies geometry from distant mountains that practically look like smooth pyramids down to its polygonal water and chunky clouds. Simply put, there is no prowess here. What’s most important here is if the art style to go with its technical aspects delivers the message of the game. It is there where Mulaka succeeds in visual identity which had made it easy to put it behind me during my playthrough. If somehow PlayStation 2 and the original PlayStation had a baby and then ran it through an HD filter eliminating jaggies, they would probably have named it Mulaka. It’s not technically impressive by today’s standard, but gets the job done where ambitions are concerned. The small, barely-known indie studio from Mexico takes a massive leap in putting their region in the spotlight for video games. I can best describe Mulaka as an Okami lite; a game based entirely on ancient mythology, only shorter with cruder mechanics. Of course, to be shorter than Okami doesn’t necessarily mean Mulaka is a short game. I mean, Okami just goes on forever. Mulaka is about a good 10 hours for the average player to 100%.

One common misconception about hunter/gatherers is that they are out of touch. These people can dance and with purpose.

From the offset, players begin in a narrower portion of a desert level as the game guides them towards a larger and more open area. Animal statues will have a pop-up displaying controls as you pass by them essentially teaching you a mechanic you should be required to use for the first time in order to advance. Mulaka’s portrayal of Tarahumaran culture never skips a beat. The areas you visit and its people are based on its real-life counterparts. Enemies you encounter are based on the very same myth that has been passed down since eons. Interestingly, for every new enemy you encounter you have the option to learn more about its origins as told by Tarahumaran myth as well as a tip to defeat it. A model in motion of that monster can also be accessed at any time in the pause menu.

Mulaka encourages that its culture should be known, but never forces it upon the player. Cut-scenes may be skipped and additional collectibles which provide insight to the lore are completely optional. The areas in Mulaka are not interconnected, but rather accessed linearly via map. At any time, players may travel from one level to another if they so wish, but to appreciate the game in its entirety revisiting these separate world spaces will be necessary. New abilities allow previously inaccessible portions to reveal their secrets, such as real ancient artifacts and spirits, known as ‘fallen stars’, who tell their small story. Also, since players will likely want to upgrade their skills, it isn’t until the 2nd area where you discover a prominent Tarahumaran civilization where one is able to do such.

Collect that Korima, baby.

The first boss is rather telling.

Players take control of a Sukurúame, a powerful spear-wielding shaman capable of accessing entities on the spirit plane of reality that overlaps the mortal plane. The game’s currency, known as Korima, is earned by destroying rocks/objects and enemies. Players may find a gleaming pot of 20-50 Korimas to reward themselves by finding their way to them. These are only spent at one location for one specific need: become stronger. There aren’t unique skills to unlock here, but only to improve on what you’re already capable of. Unfortunately, improvements to attacks feel like they should have been implemented to Mulaka from the very start as even though combat is functional and unbroken, the hit detection doesn’t always feel precise. More than health and magic upgrades, I felt that I needed to spend Korima on combative skills first.

An attempt to bring back stolen spirits.

Every location you visit follows the same pattern of needing to acquire 3 specific stones by completing various tasks in order to unlock a gate. These tasks range from solving a particular puzzle adjusting tiles to direct water flowing to serpent statues as well as arena-like battles once you step foot (or be airborne) into a placement of stones which form a circle. While new enemies do get introduced, unfortunately the same puzzle is repeated with slight adjustments to the number of serpent statues needing to be filled with water. The gameplay is formulaic on a per location basis, but each environment is large enough to provide exploration and platforming opportunities. Locked behind those end gates, however, is a boss fight. These battles are quite fun in general and the mythical beasts you encounter range from twice the size of Mulaka to giants and up to what could be considered as colossi. More than a handful of these Zelda-esque bosses require use of your newly obtained skill. These abilities gifted to Mulaka from demigods themselves, usually locked away behind a boss, allow him to transform into the animal entity for a brief amount of time at the consumption of magic. The water snake allows for crossing rivers while the woodpecker allows for soaring the sky, for example. These abilities are best used creatively when looking for secrets on and off the beaten path. When it comes to your main objective it’s pretty straightforward otherwise.

Sukurúame is a savior really.

Locations are open and can be of decent size, but they’re never a chore to traverse. Most of this is thanks to Mulaka’s incredibly limitless stamina. Tarahumarans are actually renowned for their history of marathon runners, being able to reach high speeds for long periods. Tales of hunting down deer without the use of a weapon where eventually the deer is forced to give up due to tiring out from the chase. This bit of information also from one of the developer’s Tarahumaran insight videos for Mulaka which are a good watch for a few minutes a piece. With a press of the right trigger Mulaka can sprint across the land for as long as he’d like. I have to say I also like his running animation. The animations of the various villagers are pretty faithful and charming in general. The level design and player speed strike a balance that’s done well. The levels are open enough to be of respectable size, yet makes traversing it a breeze never bogging down the player’s experience getting from point A to point B. The developers really took a mindful approach in how this was designed and it’s appreciated. Like combat, platforming is fine as it is, but not smooth enough as I’d have hoped. It’s never unfair, but once again collision plays a big part in Mulaka’s overall feel. You may find out some slopes that look normal will have you slide off. I found myself seeing if I could reach areas not meant to be seen, only to be behind where I was supposed to be and see an endless background. This doesn’t detract from the actual experience, but the low-polygonal direction can make the player curious. There’s also no fall damage, but I’m rather indifferent to that as far as this game is concerned.

Enemies are mostly challenging when in numbers.

There’s a bit of stiffness in the overall gameplay, but it remains fun. Attacking with the spear is done by pressing Y, but a stronger yet slower attack can be performed by pressing X which is sometimes necessary for breaking a shield. There is a small dodge maneuver done by pressing A. This is fine for evading in general, but requires proper timing for particular enemies. The variants in enemy design do add different flavor to battles and when you get a few different types into the mix it does make these action sequences worth it. Mulaka can even fill up an energy meter to unleash a powerful area of damage to nearby enemies by pressing both Sprint and Power Attack at the same time. Players can save this move for when the time is right or use it right away. This will briefly slow down time a great deal allowing Mulaka to conduct it. Although, there was one time where I’ve gotten interrupted by an attack that had already been in motion to come in contact with me completely wasting it. Motion controls are put to use here, albeit optional. They can be used in junction with the right analog stick to aim spear throws (done by holding L). Throwing a spear requires the most precision and is done while carefully still, so don’t expect running and throwing spears as a viable tactic.

Strong culture vibes up ahead!

The everyday people can’t access the spiritual realm by regular means, but thankfully Mulaka can. Being a Sukurúame entitles him to enable a vision (pressing R) both in battle and in the environment. The spiritual plane is constantly overlapping the mortal plane, thus people in the latter can’t solve a problem that they can’t see. Enemies may activate a camouflage that can only be seen with this vision and all of the fallen stars (persons in the spiritual realm doing their pilgrimage) the same. Waypoints will also be shown. You can also reveal hidden platforms if you look in the right spot. This often provides an alternate way of accessing an area or platform in plain sight. Like the animal transformations, this vision consumes magic as well. It’s never a problem, though. Magic consumption for platforming uses a proper amount and when on ground magic refills in a quick manner.

Find time to dance. It’s good for the spirit.

Likewise with transformations, 4 types of potions are also learned gradually. New locations provide a different plant to be picked. You can harvest these, often a few at a time, and they’ll grow back sometimes within seconds. For example, harvesting 3 aloe plants will create 1 health potion. 10 of each potion can be held at a time mapped to each of the d-pad inputs. One potion is even destructive in the form of an explosive to be tossed. Performing a ritual dance only takes but a few seconds. This is nice as it shows there is actual purpose in gaining certain powers. This is fine for the majority of the game. I used health potions a handful of times. In the event of a boss battle, there is more risk vs reward, but mostly a challenge in just trying to regain health. There might not be enough time to do a 3 second dance to gain one full chunk of health (depicted by the 3 diamonds). An interrupted dance not only depletes 1 potion, but also gains the player nothing. This only happened on 2 different occasions. I don’t consider this to be a flaw, however; it’s a matter of efficiency and prioritization.

The game runs at 30fps for the most part. The soundtrack is decent and naturally feels part of the world. HD rumble behaves like standard rumble for the most part. I would have liked to see this be utilized more.

Summary
Mulaka is an ambitious title coming straight from Mexico. Lienzo managed to bring the long living Sierra Tarahumara culture into the forefront and created a solid game around it. All of the elements come together in a complete package that is fun to play. The only downside to it all is that some of those elements aren't fully realized. Still, I stand by calling this game Okami-lite. The painterly textures on humans and enemies, an ancient myth of demigods and saving the world, the Zelda-esque gameplay. For those seeking the tidbits of the Tarahumaran culture, it's a slight education; at the very least, an awareness worth the venture.
The Stellar
  • Beautiful Tarahumaran depiction in low-poly style.
  • Fun combat.
  • Good boss design.
The Lesser
  • Collision/hit detection requires a bit of precision.
  • Controls are a bit stiff.
7.9
Solid
Gameplay - 8
Visual - 7
Audio - 7.5
Value - 9

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