Mulaka Review

By Mark Delaney, 6 months ago
Often the greatest appeal of an independent game is witnessing the vision of a small team unaltered by publisher or investor influence. The purity of such an end goal often means a game made by fewer people is allowed the comfort to not appeal to the masses. Many of recent history's greatest indie video games have arrived at the conclusion of such a path. Add one more to those history books. Lienzo's Mulaka would already be a good action-adventure title, but it's made much stronger by its personal story, historically rich setting, and overall sense of culture that feels like the singular vision of this particular cast of creators.

Mulaka

Mulaka is an action-adventure title that employs genre tropes quite often but places them around a core experience oozing with culture and personality. Players take on the role of Sukurúame, one of the Tarahumara, an indigenous people from Chihuahua, Mexico, known for their long-distance running ability. Throughout the game's 6-8 hour story, players will face down many different enemy types, including several bosses, explore lands both corporeal and ethereal, and take on the form of various animals, all while learning of the Tarahumara's history and values. The game is presented in a semi-open world where you'll travel region to region, interacting with the land's people and completing various objectives. Its central gameplay loop consists of platforming, puzzling, and combat. In all of those respects, Mulaka performs well, although not exceptionally well.

In combat, it can often be too easy to unleash a flurry of attacks at no enemy in particular. It seems a lunge mechanic could have aided Sukurúame in staying on target with his attacks. Provided you do land your hits, the game's combo system offers several different attacks, none of which you haven't seen before, like heavy and light hits, jumping and dashing, and special moves. As for platforming, the game smartly helps you land some of the tougher jumps using Sukurúame's shadow, as many good platformers do. An early ability to transform into a bird helps keep the platforming fresh, as do the other later animal forms in different gameplay areas.

Bosses greet you at the end of every region and they range from the cliché tiered battles seen in countless other games to more confusing setups that will give you pause while you figure out the enemies' weaknesses. They are a welcome change of pace at the end of each section, but they aren't the highlight here. Even where many of the other gameplay elements can be quite fun if too familiar, the boss designs are sometimes especially tired.



It's worth really driving home the point that Mulaka doesn't break new ground for its genre in any way involving its gameplay. That emphasis is crucial because it reveals just how special the rest is in order to make the game so memorable. From its music and visual art, to tone and its usefulness as a learning tool, Mulaka is a must-play. Low poly art is a favorite for developers working with the Unity engine, so it's surprising how refreshing the style is made to look for Mulaka. Clouds, architecture, and terrain all look lovely when you add in the game's regionally appropriate color palette, and there are more enemy types than you may expect in a game of this size.

The original soundtrack is varied and substantial, providing authentic flavor to the Mexican experience while offering a touch of retro style that helps draw the Zelda comparisons a bit more. From start to finish it’s well composed and a few tracks are especially atmospheric for when you're out in the unforgiving sun, aiding your people and exploring the beautiful but often dangerous lands.

If you're the type to appreciate the recent educational mode in Assassin's Creed Origins, Mulaka has a lot to offer in a similar regard. Every person you meet, enemy you fight, and region in which you arrive bring with them a lot of culture blatantly designed with great care from their creators. Not knowing the Mexico-based studio well, it's still obvious no other outfit could have made this game in this way. It is the culmination of their passion for the subject and a dedication to their nation's rich history. They've painted the entire experience in vibrant colors and engrossing lore. It's truly a joy to play Mulaka for this reason above all else. While it's a good genre title, it would be left just at that if not for its intimate setting and story brought to life by an indie game house with their hearts behind every detail.

Mulaka is brimming with passion for its culture and setting.Mulaka is brimming with passion for its culture and setting.

This sort of approach fulfills the promise of small studio creations, where individuals or small groups can achieve their fullest vision for a project free from the chains of mass appeal direction or publishers carrot-and-sticking their purses. Few games feel as crafted with love and appreciation as Mulaka. Compared to other storytelling media, there are so many points on the world's timeline yet to be explored in the relatively young medium of video games. It feels so rewarding that this story was told and this piece of history exists in this way forever.

If you're in it for the achievements, Mulaka won't stand in your way too strongly. It offers a small list of 14 achievements in total. A few will come naturally with story progression whilst others will demand you get them at somewhat specific moments, like defeating any boss with the bear transformation. For most of them, you can return to regions later as the game is designed to have you do anyway, and pick them up rather leisurely. The one to which you'll need to pay close attention is to beat the game losing no more than eight souls total. On Xbox Live, just under half of those who have beaten the game have achieved this (and two-thirds on TA), so it's not as daunting as it may sound, but it will require a full replay if you miss it.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Action-Adventure Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

This is a game worth celebrating. Although its gameplay suite offers only tried and true mechanics, it's engaging enough to keep you around for the real highlight: the culture with which the project is imbued. In some hugely important ways, like music, visuals, and its ability to not just engage players as gamers but teach them as students, Mulaka is worth playing for most everyone, rather ironically. It's not a game designed with mass appeal, and yet because it's ultimately so authentic, so intimate, and so beautifully personal, it's easy to appreciate. For most players, Mulaka will be a familiar gameplay experience structured around something wholly new and enriching in every other way.
4.5 / 5
Positives
  • Memorable, authentic soundtrack
  • Engaging world design imbued with a sense culture
  • Stands as a monument to a seldom-explored part of Mexican history
  • A worthy alternative to Zelda for the Nintendo-less
Negatives
  • Boss battles can feel unclear or button-mashy sometimes
  • Introduces few new ideas to the genre
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 7 hours exploring the lands and history of the Tarahumara, learning a lot and fighting different beasts along the way. He collected five of 14 achievements for 380 Gamerscore. A review code was provided by the ID@Xbox team and the game was played on a standard Xbox One.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.