Thanks to NIS America for the review code
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 03/17/2020
In this action adventure game, you take control of an explorer named Lemeza, who sets out after his father by going into the dangerous La-Mulana ruins. Despite the basic outline, there actually is a ton of in-game lore to discover on your own, which makes the story and background a lot more indepth than it has every right to be, but it also leads to fun setups for the sequel.
La-Mulana is a remake of an old freeware game, one which was an MSX throwback that paid tribute to that console’s color and sprite limits, with its own chiptune soundtrack. Previously released on Wiiware, PC and Vita, this version of the La Mulana remake is based off the Vita version, but without the EX features such as the bestiary or online leaderboards.
Thus, this means that the Switch port retains all the sharp 16-bit sprites from that version, alongside the remastered soundtrack and differing border options. The remake has still held up remarkably well, looking great and sounding pretty outstanding, but this switch version actually added a few tweaks that not even the Vita version had, which makes this a weird hybrid.
The biggest one comes from the option to switch to the original chiptune soundtrack, which is a huge addition considering how these original tracks are of godtier quality. The remixes sound great too, but the chiptunes have so much more charm and passion to them that I’m honestly hoping the developers release this version of the OST for purchase, since every single track in this OST is worth listening to and is a must if you’ve previously played this before.
Another change comes from general quality of life improvements, and the biggest one that relates to the visuals, come from the addition of foggy walls to indicate teleporation throughout later parts of the game. Considering how previously, finding a teleportation spot required blindly jumping into certain walls, this minor tweak is a huge help for the later half of the game, where the game gets a bit more cryptic than it normally is.
La-Mulana is a metroidvania game where the main objective is to defeat the eight guardians scattered around the ruins, and awaken the core of the ruins in order to obtain the ultimate treasure of life. Starting out with only a whip, you don’t get much info to go on, and after entering the ruins, you’re pretty much on your own, relying on the hints within the ruins themselves and getting the freedom to go mostly anywhere you can physically access.
Find a ladder to the fourth area of the game? Go ahead and take it! Discovered the ankh jewel to awaken the boss? Hold onto it, solve the boss puzzle in another area, and then you can sequence break a bit. Find one of the weapons and subweapons to use? Go back to older areas and see if it solves a new puzzle.
Likewise, you may find a tablet that details information about a puzzle or lore about the ruins, and if you save the info with the in-game text saver (or use the switch’s screencap feature), you may be able to pull that out later in the adventure to solve a puzzle in the ruins, even one that could be four to six hours later! It’s a pretty weird and cryptic way of progression, but the open-ended nature of the game is what makes it so fun, even for newcomers.
You see, while you could go out of your way and sequence break, (especially if you’re like me and remember what to do) you can also stay confined to the first few areas for the most part, since everything within the first two areas will allow you to beat the first two guardians without much extra exploration or puzzle solving. It isn’t until the third area where the game kicks off the more cryptic puzzles, and introduces the mechanic of the alternate worlds.
Yes, not only do you have eight traditional areas to explore, but each of those have a “backside”, which tie into getting items and solving puzzles that will lead to unlocking the main area’s ankh. This means that beating the guardians isn’t really as easy as moving to the next area and focusing on those puzzles, since in the case of the final main area, you have to go all around the in-game world, hunting for items in order to even progress without the minibosses respawning infinitely. It’s pretty darn genius, and gradually teaches the player to use all their skills in order to unlock and conquer this final area.
Speaking of minibosses and bosses, those are easily the highlight of La-Mulana. Not only are the main guardians each a formidable threat, requiring some careful planning to finally take out, but the minibosses provide a decent challenge as well, usually rewarding the player with access to a major weapon or item upon doing so. Some of these bosses even pull crazy stunts, from suicidal desperation moves, to instant-kill attacks and traps.
Combat in La-Mulana is really smooth, and while the jumping is more fixed than I may like, it does work well in the long run, especially as you gain more weapons and upgrades to have to combat the tougher enemies in later areas. But not only do you have enemies to worry about, but the biggest gimmick of the La Mulana ruins are the many, many, many traps that lie around in wait.
From eyes that will strike you with lightning if you try to damage a forbidden wall, to spikes and fake floors, the ruins are filled with plenty of traps, and while they can definitely be deadly, not many of these felt cheap to me, and usually with trial and error I was able to avoid them. Not to mention you can easily warp to an area’s checkpoint with the press of a button, so you can even escape total danger if you must, though not in the case of the final main area, which requires you to stick with it until the end!
Granted, another big part about La Mulana comes from its sheer difficulty. While everything felt fair and well-balanced to me, some of the bosses can be really tricky, and if you don’t want to shell out for expensive items such as the pistol, they can require a lot of trial and error to take out. Combine that with a few areas you may resort to using a guide in order to solve, (including the irritating Mantra side quest, which feels like this game’s version of Zelda’s Triforce Quest in the sense that it’s unneeded padding right before the final boss, though this uses the Vita port’s simplified version of the quest, and not the more out-of-the-way locations from the Wiiware original) and this game does still have a few frustrations, but thankfully this version fixes up the biggest one, and that comes from how Bosses now allow you to respawn right before the start of the battle if you die, a huge quality of life improvement, especially considering the distance from save points to bosses grow really long by the last few bosses of the game to the point that constantly retrying those can become a huge chore.
Last but not least, comes from the game’s time attack mode. In this fun mode, you can tackle certain amounts of minibosses and guardians with a limited amount of items from throughout the game, and while there’s unfortunately no online leaderboards like the EX version, this is a good side mode that I am glad to see here, and it’s a fun distraction, even if it is a bit gimped from how it was on Vita.
In conclusion, this version of La-Mulana is a very well made one. Combining every good element about the PC version, with some of the minor tweaks from the Vita version’s campaign, (though not the bestiary or leaderboards) along with some huge quality of life improvements that remove a few more of the barriers that can make this challenging game a bit on the crazier side, La Mulana was a wonderful game to return to.
What intended to be just another few hours of playing this before jumping to La Mulana 2, turned into over seventeen hours of me beating the main game all over again, and cherishing every second of it. From the god tier chiptune soundtrack now being an option, to quality of life updates I can’t imagine playing this game without, to having a fantastic sense of challenge that doesn’t go overboard, (with the exception of the Hell Temple, a bonus area that’s so absurdly broken in difficulty that you basically need a guide in order to even discover the darn place) this version of La-Mulana on modern platforms is easily the best one.
Newcomers and fans of metroidvania titles, or the old days of going through games like the original Metroid without a guide and finding your own path need to owe it to themselves to check this adventure out at all cost. Either through the physical bundle with 2, or the standalone $15 eShop method, this is a no brainer pickup, and is in all honesty, probably my new favorite metroidvania to ever grace this earth. Do not miss out on this adventure of a lifetime, and I do hope when I spend more time with 2, that lives up equally as well!
I give La-Mulana a 10 out of 10.