Played on: PlayStation 4
Release Date: February 27, 2018
Played with: DualShock 4
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Myths and legends are frequently the basis for elements of games, be it their plotline, characters, setting, or some mix. However, these are usually components cherry-picked from a larger narrative, serving less as a means of introducing the audience to the original piece, and more as scaffolding to support the world created by the developers. In contrast, nearly every element of Mulaka feels like it was designed to honour and bring attention to the traditions and culture of the Tarahumara people. Yet rather than being little more than an elaborate Wikipedia page, Mulaka sucks you in with its vibrant world, and does everything it can to keep your attention until after the credits have finished rolling.
Things begin as they frequently do: with the world about to come to an end. As the titular Mulaka – a Sukurúame (Tarahumara shaman) – you’re tasked with traveling the world, defeating powerful foes, and befriending an assortment of demigods who will aid you in your final battle against the evil Teregori. To put it simply: it’s The Legend of Zelda by way of indigenous Tarahumara culture. Exploring new areas will bestow new abilities upon Mulaka, which in turn will aid him in beating the level’s boss and progressing onward. Hell, there’s even an achievement that lightly chides the player for thinking that all the rules of Zelda apply here.
That being said, to write Mulaka off as a simple Zelda clone is to ignore what makes it special: its deeply entrenched passion for Tarahumara culture. The enemy variety is impressive, and defeating each a certain number of times will yield bio entries that give insights into their origins in Tarahumara legend. Mulaka himself is carefully designed to act as a sort of deified representation of the Tarahumara people; for instance, his unlimited sprinting ability exists as a reference to the Tarahumara’s reputation for incredible stamina and endurance. Herbs like aloe and chia can be collected and crafted into an assortment of magical potions for use in combat and exploration. The low-poly visuals somehow manage to feel organic and hand-crafted; almost like a cave painting come to life. And the colours, oh my word, the colours. While certain areas take place under cover of night, the ones that are situated in lush jungles and energetic towns are truly a sight to behold.
On the other hand, the animations tend to feel a bit…off. I’m honestly not sure how else to describe it, but it frequently felt like the game was running at a slower (sub-30 FPS) framerate. By the end, I concluded that the animations were meant to be a bit jittery – perhaps to go with the simplistic visual style. Either way, it’s an odd issue, and while it certainly doesn’t make Mulaka unplayable, it meant that every time I jumped back in, it took a few minutes for my eyes to readjust to the game’s pace.
Traversing the world is a breeze, thanks to Mulaka’s sprint that would make a certain hedgehog jealous. Despite some occasionally finicky jumps, platforming also has a nice flow to it, gradually moving the player from traditional run-and-jump challenges into ones that incorporate quick thinking and the use of several of Mulaka’s demigod abilities. In fact, perhaps Mulaka’s strongest point is the way that it flows. Sure, levels are enclosed areas that must be warped between via a world map, and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll run up against several invisible walls as you traverse the Sierra. Despite this, the way each map is set up manages to make them feel open and full of possibility without losing the player in a mess of non-linearity. At first, I found myself lamenting the lack of an area map and relying heavily on Mulaka’s Sukurúame Vision (think of “detective vision” from the Arkham games); by the end, I only touched the latter while in combat to check enemy health and reveal invisible foes. Exploring a new area simply came down to just that: wandering until I found something interesting or interactable, which would almost inevitably reveal a secret, the path onward, or both. Plus, outside of mandatory combat arenas, you can usually just sprint past enemies if you don’t want to fight, ensuring that backtracking is a breeze.
When you do engage in combat, you’re frequently rushed by all manner of enemies. Certain combinations can be a huge pain to deal with, but thanks to a quick dodge move, the aforementioned sprint, and combos made up of light and heavy attacks, Mulaka is more than capable of holding his own. Plus, landing enough hits will charge up a special attack that pretty much kills everything in your immediate vicinity. It’s good stuff, though it would have been nice if there were multiple unlockable specials. Additionally, while potions can obviously be incredibly useful while fighting, they take so long to use that there’s frequently no point in trying. Seriously, Mulaka, I get that you’re grateful for the health, but do you really have to do your little dance while a rock monster’s fist is rapidly approaching your head?
If there are two bits of missed potential in the combat, I think that it’s the spear-throwing and demigod abilities. Spear-throwing is encouraged against certain flying enemies, but the lock-on for it frequently snaps to things you don’t want to target; considering the often-frantic pace of Mulaka’s combat, this is anything but desirable. As for the demigod abilities, they’re pretty much only good against the bosses that are designed to incorporate them. For instance, there’s no reason to use your woodpecker transformation to fly around the battlefield when running from opponents is way faster. Despite using your entire magic gauge (which does refill quickly over time), the bear transformation deals bear-ly (I’m sorry) any damage to enemies. It’s frustrating to have the platforming and boss fights constantly evolving as the game progresses, while the basic combat remains static throughout.
Mulaka is far from a perfect game, featuring a couple of (thankfully, not game-breaking) bugs, some platforming that only escapes being maddening thanks to generous checkpoints, a woefully underutilized upgrade system that only includes the most basic of additions (e.g. more health, more damage), and platforming mechanics that never quite mesh with the combat in the ways one might hope. It’s also fairly short, clocking in at around 7-8 hours, though returning for collectibles that give background on various Tarahumara traditions is always an option. Lastly, it’s a surprisingly simple game, with players being given such a generous amount of health that I never hit a single game over.
Despite those gripes, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely engrossed in Mulaka’s world from start to finish. Each level lasts just long enough for familiarity to set in without outstaying their welcome. Performed on traditional instruments, the soundtrack is at various times minimalistic, fun, and energizing. New enemy types are drip-fed at a regular enough rate that combat never becomes a chore, despite being a bit formulaic by the end. Plus, the boss fights cap off each area in truly impressive fashion, with each requiring unique approaches and quick thinking from the player. There’s a lot to love about Mulaka, and while it may fall short of being as legendary as its source material, it comes really darn close.