Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: La-Mulana (Wii)

What lies within its deadly ruins?
La-Mulana is an intimidating game. Whenever I try to imagine what it would be like to play it in an age without the Internet -- without online friends to pester for tips and tricks, and whine to when I get stuck -- I shudder and remind myself that I’m playing it in 2012. I simply don’t have to make this journey alone.

La-Mulana is indeed a journey too. The scope of the title is massive and its universe is made to feel all the more enormous by the sheer amount of it that must be discovered by the player through exploration, perseverance, risk-taking and a whole lot of grinding. This is the first lesson I learned upon entering the game’s appropriately named starting area, the Village of Departure. The sign in front reads: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Yes, the developer certainly knows exactly what they've created, because nothing ever comes easy in La-Mulana's ruins.

The game is designed in such an alternately rewarding and infuriating fashion that abandoning hope will start to seem like quite the viable option the first time one goes exploring in the titular ruins. The good news is that what starts as a rage-inducing frustration of an experience, slowly starts giving way to
successful reconnaissance missions of the ruins, each filled with numerous narrow escapes from the deranged denizens that infest La-Mulana. Yes, all sorts of beasties are found in the ruins: undead skeletons, flying bats, slimy floating frog-like togs and even a few lion-ant hybrid Milmekoleos are found rummaging about down there and they offer up quite the challenge to wannabe spelunkers. While progress is always slow, each success rewards you with new maps, weapons and other untold treasures, making the effort to overcome La-Mulana's constant challenges ever the more rewarding.



Don't look behind you
Before you can start the vicious cycle of punishment and reward, you must first learn the ropes in the Village of Departure. While it functions as an essential tutorial for the basic mechanics and is a place you'll be forced to come back to throughout your adventure time and again, it is in many ways the most boring part of the entire experience. It mainly consists of shops, people to talk to, and low-level enemies from which to grind coins and weights (the latter of which are absolutely essential for exploring the ruins). This would be all well and fine if you didn’t have to spend your time there for no real reason.

The first time I booted up La-Mulana, I was reminded of when Shigeru Miyamoto said that “the first 30 minutes of a game is the most important,” and not in a good way. My first half hour spent with La-Mulana, well, lets just say that I could count that amount of enjoyable interactive entertainment I found there in seconds -- not minutes. I wasn’t really bothered by the fact that the intro gives you little to no direction, as that can often be part of the fun. What made me not want to continue playing the game was that my initial actions lacked any sort of meaning and the tasks I was required to complete before setting out on my expedition simply weren’t that engaging either.

Once I had spent entirely too much time revisiting the same areas to kill respawning snakes and birds in the hopes that the game’s code might take mercy on me and cause them to randomly drop a single coin or weight, I finally gained enough coins to outfit myself with a sweet set of archaeology gadgets. Between my trusty glyph reader and hand scanner -- which when used in conjunction can not only translate ancient engravings but also enable you to get hints from the skeletons of previous explorers who died searching for lost riches and treasures -- and map-reading PC program, I was finally ready to go exploring the deadly ruins of La-Mulana.

Fire breathing dragons vs. whip? Check

From this point onward in the adventure, the basic game flow when entering a new area for the first time is this: survey the land by reading some inscriptions, chatting up dead skeletons and tracking down a map of the place. You'll also want to hit everything that looks like it might be out of place with your whip, as well as setting weights on switches to try to open up some of those giant treasure chests scattered about. Of course, this is all genuinely more exciting than it sounds, to be sure, as there’s nothing quite like stumbling upon a mysterious, desolate landscape that appears to be positively brimming with secrets and packed full of detail. In fact, it’s so easy to get lost in this amazingly crafted universe that you might forget that you’re actually supposed to be doing something here, although the game is cleverly obtuse enough to never outright tell how to proceed. Instead, you must rely on the aforementioned inscriptions and corpses to help you accomplish anything. (Or, if you’re like me, some internet friends, such as my friend Adam, who claims he was more helpful than a dead person, seeing how the dead skeletons' final messages did nothing to help me solve a particular set of overly challenging puzzles.)

Exactly what sorts of puzzles are we talking about here? You see, I’ve been intentionally vague on this point thus far to avoid any potential spoilers, but allow me to shed the minimum of light necessary to understand how this major component of the game works. While one might not expect a retro action game like La-Mulana to be so heavy on puzzle-solving, lo and behold it is, and that's a very good thing indeed. Is there a treasure chest that won’t open, even after you’ve weighted all nearby switches? Are there pushable blocks that you can’t seem to move onto a pressure point? The answer to both of these questions (and many more) is to scour the entire map for any element that appears even slightly amiss and then trying any and every means you've acquired to affect them. This is the most basic method of progressing through the game, but it often worked for me in the absence of a guide or friend to ask for help. The slightly more intelligent, but equally rewarding way of doing things, is to continue following the information-gathering steps I outlined above until you come across a dead guy who mentions something about fake walls, for example, which will point you in the right direction.

For the first couple hours spent in La-Mulana, you may find yourself completely confused, frustrated, and lost. But, that’s exactly how the developer desires you to be. In doing so, they've expertly crafted a gameplay experience that can truly give you the feeling of what it'd be like to be an intrepid explorer of La-Mulana's ancient ruins. While La-Mulana might be an intimidating game, it's rewards always make the pain well worth the effort. Knowing that some gamers will beat this game without ever consulting a guide -- something I wouldn't dream about -- only alludes to how expertly Nigoro built La-Mulana's deadly ruins. Now that I think of it, I don’t think that the cold, unforgiving ruins of La-Mulana would have it any other way.

- Odnetnin





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