There is a razor’s edge that needs to be walked in games that are trying to cater to the challenge seekers. To make a game too easy or too inviting is to drive off these calloused warriors, to make them spit in derision and walk away with a lot of unnecessary profanity. However, to make the game too hard or too obtuse is to move a game into a different category of murderware, which invites in reaction video players and people purposely being upset at your game. No, the fine line that has been mastered by groups like From Software and Team Ninja is a difficult place to be, but there is a fantastic indie development team out of Japan who live and breathe this ideology. They are fun loving. They are engaging and exciting to talk to about their craft. And they are absolutely committed to the best they can make, and they make it indeed. They are NIGORO, and, thanks to NIS America, their masterpiece duology has finally come to the Nintendo Switch.
La-Mulana 1 and 2 are a set of Indiana Jones type adventures that have you exploring the ancient, forgotten ruins of some pretty grandiose ideas. With La-Mulana 1, you play Lemeza, the archaeology professor who is chasing up a letter from his father that claims he has discovered La-Mulana, the birthplace of all civilizations, which is kind of a big deal. Once you get into the ruins, you quickly understand that there’s a lot at work here, including all sorts of monsters and incredibly complex lore that make up a multifaceted, highly labyrinthian temple. There’s a lot more to the story, and I have to leave it at that in order to not spoil a lot of the fun of the game. La-Mulana 2, by comparison, puts you in the shoes of Lemeza’s daughter, Lumisa, and an even more bizarre and exciting story. Lemeza is now missing, and Lumisa goes back to the now excavated remains of La-Mulana to look for clues. It takes only a short while to discover Eg-Lana, a sort of bizarro La-Mulana that holds its own secrets, including mysteries from the first game that weren’t exactly totally explained. In any case, Lumisa is certainly her father’s daughter, and she is more than up for the challenge, including using some moves that old dad wasn’t quite as spry to pull off.
La-Mulana 1 and 2 are both metrovania games, though the title almost feels a bit inappropriate here. For things like Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night, there’s usually a clear correlation as to how the formula should go. You get the super missiles, now you can get through the green doors, easy peasy to understand. With La-Milan’s (particularly the first game), there’s a lot that comes from almost understanding the character in a metrovania sense. You aren’t given many instructions when you start either game, and only the direction of “go.” Hell, when I loaded up the first La-Mulana, I spent close to twenty minutes wandering around in the over world, trying to figure out where to go before I “discovered” that I needed to put a weight on a pedestal to trigger the actual entrance to La-Mulana. At least I got a lot of practice with the whip and the coins? A simple query on the Internet will reveal a large number of pathways suggested by people who want to complete the game in different ways, and even more creative ones for people who like to create challenges in order to affect more replay value and more excitement. With the first game, you can seriously approach it from many, many different angles and have a grand time.
In fact, as much as I want to suggest buying the game in a two pack, you really should consider picking up the first one in some capacity first and playing it before you dive in, whole hog, to the dual pack. A few reasons for this. Firstly, La-Mulana is a love letter to the games of the MSX, a console that didn’t really get out of Japan (the NES was what caught fire in the West). The MSX was fantastic in the power and creativity it afforded, giving birth to a ton of memorable games and experiences in 16 bits of glorious color (this is seriously where Metal Gear and Puyo Puyo started). However, there are certain limiting factors that are nostalgic for those who knew them and frustrating for those who didn’t. The hit boxes were a bit wonky, so expect to get clipped by enemies who don’t seem to be close enough to hit you. The way that Lemeza handles is something you really need to get used to, and you can thank the MSX for that. You are very, very awkward with jumping, and you need to basically train yourself to understand how to control direction, anticipate arc or calculate the time when you need to jump over certain things (which you WILL need to figure out). Also, you need to figure out how to utilize buttons and controls that are mapped all over the JoyCons, with jump and attack being where they are but checking your email (very important for updates from the surface!) and toggling secondary items sort of all over the place. Time has shown that La-Mulana is not a perfect game, and players might be disappointed by how things handle.
Having said that, I absolutely think you should play the first La-Mulana game before the second. La-Mulana 1 is a delightful and empowering exploration that takes the players on a wild ride of diving, surfacing, and diving again. You need to gather up money to buy the important supplies from the small tent shops on the surface, and to gradually figure out how things work. Understand the importance of the buckler. Gradually work out the essential hand scanner to decipher the tablets all around the temple. Realize that there’s actually more puzzle work at play here than just attacking and unlocking through item collection. The game is SHOCKINGLY big, and there was actually a case of someone discovering a new room in the game about a year and a half ago. That means this game has officially been out since 2005 (with the remade edition launching in 2011), but people didn’t even have it fully mapped until 2018, and it still might not be complete! NIGORO has said nothing about the full map or size of either game, and they rejoice and delight in players discovering more for themselves. You aren’t really hurt that badly by monsters, only the boss fights, and the bosses themselves are gargantuan, asking you to work out the how and why of successfully taking them down through different strategies, items and even patience. The saves are few and far between (but not unfairly so), and you need to make a mental map of them.
Additionally, the story of La-Mulana 1 takes you on this wild, eclectic ride through different creation myths and lore that literally spans multiple continents and generations. When they say La-Mulana is the cradle of civilization, they aren’t exaggerating: you seem to run into remnants of all sorts of Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian and other cultures, and they all want to kill you. You piece together the story bit by bit, and the story leads you in the direction of facing even more bosses, finding characters who are inexplicably living in the ruins (and are directly related to the sequel), and overloading with amazing happenstance and creative exposition. It’s a freaking trip, and your first play might take you more than 15 hours, but it’s worth seeing. Plus, once you finish La-Mulana 1, you’re finally ready for 2.
La-Mulana 2 is everything that I love about the first one with such incredible improvements. The movement of Lumisa is tighter and more responsive, including better jumping and the absolutely life-saving ability to grab ladders in mid jump and let go in mid descent. The hit boxes are better adjusted (remember, this game is technically made more than a decade after the first and after a long, long Kickstarter dev cycle), and the response from the fan base allowed this to be more accessible to new players. You’ve got better direction from the get-go, with more frequent message updates and better explanation of ideas and concepts (though some of the writing is a bit more, ah, tactless, given that you are a female character this time around). You arrive in La-Mulana to save your dad, kick ass and get the hell out.
But when you realize that you’re diving into Eg-Lana, the Upside Down of this universe, the game truly and spectacularly opens up. This took, and I’m not exaggerating, about 25 hours for me to get through the first time. We’re talking five hours a day dedicated to this game. I haven’t watched tv all week. I’ve barely checked the news. I’ve just been putting it in, figuring out the how and why of where to go. La-Mulana 2 isn’t a supersized version of the original: this is the adult serving versus a kids meal. The number of unique enemies and sprites is astronomically higher than the original. The landscape toggles between so many different rooms and “worlds,” for lack of a better way to describe the game’s multifaceted terrains. You end up with so many equipment items, all of them versatile and useful, that I’m in awe that Lumisa doesn’t collapse from a telescoped spine within the first hour. These very important items don’t always reveal themselves as to how to properly use them initially (have fun figuring out the grappling hook!), but that’s just another facet of the game’s charm and forcing you to figure it out without making it impossible. It’s not QWOP, it’s a game that didn’t come with a manual and still believes you can make it to the logical conclusion in one piece. Lumisa believes in you. I believe in you.
But it all leads up to the gorgeous factor of La-Mulana 2, which are the boss fights. Holy Gods in heaven, the boss fights are unbelievable to behold. Alright, so La-Mulana 1 did a great job of nodding to the MSX but also implementing some modern takes on things, right? And they were still able to make larger-than-life battles with creatures that honestly should have murdered you into the ground on any given day, but you are able to survive. Lumisa looks at what her father did and basically scoffs aloud before tangling with multi-staged, multi-screened monstrosities that totally catch you off guard with there presentation and sound. While the monster of Eg-Lana fall in line with some of what we saw in the previous temple, the bosses somehow defy expectations of what you thought the game could deliver. Imagine opening up MS Paint one day and finding someone had done a 3D rendering of the Taj Mahal, and you just gape at it because you have no clue how on Earth they were able to create that, knowing what Paint’s limitations are. That’s the shock and awe that La-Mulana 2 delivers when you encounter the big bosses. You forget that NIGORO had access to some of the most cutting edge technology and software, same as other studios, and they carefully hid that fact because it didn’t fit most of the aesthetic, until it did. Even if you aren’t totally enjoying the game in the same capacity as the first (which I simply cannot fathom), you should make it to the first boss, encounter your first character in the ruins (of course more people are here!) and see what makes Lumisa’s journey similar to her father’s, but so very, very different and better.
This one-two punch of explorative puzzle platformers will give you hours, days, weeks of entertainment, exploration and exposition. La-Mulana 1 is the classic that lays the groundwork and shows you how to make it work, and La-Mulana 2 is the bombastic sequel that you make with money, time and fan support. It’s Terminator 1 and 2. It’s Star Wars, then Empire. It’s a freaking fantastic time that’s properly portable on the Switch, suffers no slowdown, loads and saves quickly and doesn’t take up too much room on the memory card. Oh, and Lumisa has additional outfits (because of course she does!), so you gotta make the time to play around and explore, enjoy and engage. This is what a real Indiana Jones game would be like if Doctor Jones had the cajones to deep dive into madness, wonder and monsters that would have eaten Short Round in a heartbeat. This is the true tale of the birthplace of life and powers that we cannot understand. This is LA-MULANA.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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La-Mulana 1 & 2 Hidden Treasures Edition Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
A twin spectacle of amazing exploration, patience-testing puzzles and some of the best damn level design you’ve seen in a metrovania, bar none.