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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: La-Mulana Ex (Sony PlayStation Vita)

I don't like games that are difficult for the sake of being difficult. If you're going to create a game like Bloodborne, then the difficulty makes sense - the rhythm of the game requires and in fact rewards players for failing.

But La-Mulana is the kind of game that is difficult for the sake of being difficult. It is deliberately retro, and there's nothing wrong inherently wrong with that, but this one doesn't try and update the archaic mechanics with features more appropriate to a modern audience. I know there's a certain audience that appreciates that, but after playing Rogue Legacy, and seeing that it is very possible for a game to appeal to retro sensibilities while also offering mechanics that are relevant to the modern audience, La-Mulana is at times leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Movement is clunky, for example, with jumps and attacks alike being unresponsive. This was clearly a deliberate decision, as there's a reliance on timing that adds to the difficulty level and requires significant skill on the part of the player to compensate. But modern platformers provide players with the tools to be active and dynamic in their movements, and have access to a far greater range of combat options than they do in La-Mulana. These games can still be difficult, but it's a difficulty in testing a player's skill in quick thinking and decisive movement, rather than their ability to compensate for the engine's deficiencies.

The game's theme is appealing enough as a mix of Castlevania and Indiana Jones. There's also the promise of a "Metrovania" style exploration where the map will slowly open up as the player acquires new items and opens up new areas. But there are problems with this as well. The theme is there, but nothing is done with it. While a platformer doesn't need to be an epic RPG, there needs to be some way in which everything comes together so that the theme is more than window-dressing. The Shantae games, for example, do a good job of imbuing the lead character, enemies, and environments with a personality such that there is a consistency of experience that is convincing. In La Mulana the spartan dialogue is amateurish, and while the little hero that you're in control of looks like a ruins explorer, there's no personality quirks or behaviours that take things further than that.

It's also not the most interesting world to explore. Level design is contrived and seems more interested in plunging players to their deaths than creating a convincing ruins to explore. There's also very little by way of signposting or direction to help funnel players over to their next objective. I know that, too, is the retro way to do things, but a tiny hint here or there to save players from the impression that they'll never find the next critical item would not go astray.

The PlayStation Vita port of the game isn't ideal, either. The original La-Mulana wasn't a widescreen HD game, so rather than rework it for the widescreen format, the developer has instead opted to stick bars on either side of the screen to maintain the original ratio. Text was never designed for a small screen, and is so ugly on the eyes, and the shunk down characters and environments don't help the game's personality.

Now, La-Mulana is still a game that is first and foremost made for fans of retro games, and is unapologetic about that. For those people, the criticisms that I have outlined above probably won't matter much. But that's a small audience. I would happily recommend something like Rogue Legacy to anyone, because it's a game that transcends its genre to become something special. La-Mulana never quite achieves that, so it's only ever going to be a cult favourite.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: La-Mulana Ex (Sony PlayStation Vita)
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