Mulaka (Playstation 4 Review)
You are Mulaka, a Tarahumara shaman warrior – Sukurúame. Armed only with your spear and the gift of second sight, you must commune with the five great animal demigods, face off against some of Northern Mexico’s most fearsome mythical creatures, and stand up to a growing evil. With little warning, you begin your pilgrimage, doing good deeds and collecting Kórima along the way.
Mulaka feels at times like a love letter to the great PS2 action-adventures of old. Rendered in a low-poly graphical style that is both plain and beautiful, Mulaka uses vivid colour to stand out from the pack. As for the gameplay itself, the title character traverses through seven different themed stages, solving simple puzzles and completing tasks in each to collect three keystones that unlock the way to the stage boss. Each stage entered or boss slain grants Mulaka a new ability to use, whether it be a new type of potion or animal familiar to shapeshift into, to help him with future obstacles. So far so standard. That should be just enough to scratch that nostalgic itch.
The great strength of Mulaka is its theme. The Tarahumara culture of northern Mexico is woven through every aspect of the game. Standard details like character and map design, the mythology inspired plot, and overall art direction show a surface-level influence. While it’s the small touches that give it extra life: giving NPCs voiceovers derivative of the indigenous dialect, having unlimited stamina to reflect how the Tarahumara are known for their great running prowess… Even the belief that men have three souls is reflected in giving Mulaka three lifebars. It’s all these aspects that prove just how much all at Lienzo care about preserving this little-known culture for the rest of the world.
For me, though, there are parts of Mulaka that sorely lack any sense of enjoyment. What infuriated me most in my playthrough was how basic the combat felt for a game so intent on focusing on it. Every few minutes I’d be thrust into an arena battle at a chokepoint, fighting waves of enemies with different quirks and attack patterns in order to advance, with only the most basic of combat controls to help me. Light attacks with Mulaka’s spear can combo up to four hits, and heavy attacks up to two, with no variation therein. Throwing spears and bombs becomes an exercise in minute joystick adjustments in the heat of battle. Some enemies are what other games would sprinkle in their environments as background setpieces, so damage comes out of nowhere. Healing up said damage is a chore in itself, as everytime I use a health potion I have to sit through a painfully long song and dance.
I could have gotten over these flaws if they weren’t accentuated by the headache that the sound design was causing me. I really appreciate the traditional instrumentation, but each background song sits in the ‘uncomfortably high’ frequency range, and loops during long stages with little variation. Coupled with the fact that Mulaka himself has a grunt or sigh to accompany literally every action he takes, I had to mute the game and take some serious painkillers before I went on any further.
That said, It’s not all doom and gloom. Mulaka still has moments of fun. One of the more useful gameplay features is Sukurúame vision, a filter (and accompanying irritating hum) that shows hidden details in Mulaka’s surroundings. So useful, in fact, that there’s no reason any player would never want it on – the gauge it consumes when it’s active restores itself so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be any point in not having it on full-time. With Sukurúame vision, some additional platforms can be reached, and while the puzzles and platforming won’t have anyone stumped, they do well to break away from the messy combat. Jumping sections do feel a little basic, though, as Mulaka will jump to the same height no matter how hard the button is pressed. Animal transformations later on in the game inject a bit more excitement in to the mix, but don’t exactly increase the difficulty. Except for when a fight breaks out, it’s quite an easy ride.
It feels maybe a little harsh to nitpick so many details in a lovingly crafted indie game, but I can’t help how I felt coming away from Mulaka. Each minor flaw accentuated another. Every time I felt determined to solve the next puzzle or defeat the next wave of enemies, I felt equally annoyed at the tools I was given to do so. I wanted so desperately to love Mulaka for what it represents. Publisher Lienzo should be praised for their dedication to the representation of Tarahumara culture in a modern way, and for their drive to explore new themes and settings in video games. With some extra polish, Mulaka is the kind of game that could really sit high in the ranks of nostalgic action adventure titles.