Every so often an independent developer will take one of its passions and create a game that aims to both teach and entertain. Of course, this has been made possible thanks to the rise of independent gaming development, which has allowed for greater freedom and increased creativity. As such, we’ve received games like Never Alone — which managed to marry a memorable platformer with themes and lessons pertaining to Inuit culture — and Mulaka, which comes bearing a similar approach.
Developed by Chihuahua, Mexico’s Lienzo, Mulaka is a passion project that is centred around the mythology of the country’s indigenous Tarahumara. These native people, who are also known by the name Rarámuri, possess a large population and inhabit the regions of northwestern Mexico. This unsurprisingly includes Chihuahua, where the game was developed.
Known for their long distance running capabilities, the Tarahumara eventually moved into the mountains and canyons of the Sierra Madre area, where they’ve resided since the 16th century. There, many still inhabit natural shelters (caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood and stone), and practice traditional lifestyles befitting their ancestors. Mulaka is inspired by their culture, their way of life and their beliefs, which include animal deities and relationships with the sun, moon and twilight itself.
Presented in the confines of an action-adventure game, Mulaka‘s campaign and storyline follow a young warrior (the Sukurúame), who must traverse the land and prove his worth to different animal deities in an attempt to save the world from the sun, the moon and twilight. Throughout his perilous journey, chances to help his people also arise, and it’s here where side quests and puzzles come into play. For instance, you may have to hit and align different parts of a water system in order to return use of a well to a community gone dry. Meanwhile, that same community is also under attack from creatures that are best described as grasshopper people, and must be saved. It’s things like this that you’ll find yourself taking part in as you make your way through what is a several hour long narrative mode.
A large portion of the game, though, involves platforming and familiar action-adventure combat. Players must run and jump their way around dangerous locations, including valleys and caverns, and must also solve puzzles in order to raise water levels and things like that. Other times, you’ll be tasked with looking for eye-like rocks, which change the landscape when hit. The good news is that the Sukurúame has a special type of vision that allows him to see where his next objectives are. This vision can also be used to find secondary quest items, as well as collectibles that dot the landscape.
Where Mulaka suffers most is in this platforming element. Although it should be easy to traverse these regions and jump from one platform to another, the main character’s platforming abilities aren’t up to snuff. There were times where I became so frustrated that I yelled at the screen, because no matter what I tried I’d keep missing the rocky platforms and slide off of them.
One specific segment involved using the bird summon to fly across a small patch of water before landing on a piece of jagged rock, prior to jumping onto two more of increasing heights. Sometimes it’d let me turn into a bird before immediately turning me back into a human being, and at other times I’d make it and then fall into the water. There were also attempts where I’d land on one rock and not make it to the next. Needless to say it was annoying, and is a problem that hurts an otherwise interesting game.
The combat, then, is handled through a system that incorporates light, heavy and thrown attacks, as well as combos. It can turn into a bit of a button masher at times, but strategy comes into play when you need to get past a blocking enemy’s natural shield, or when you’re swarmed and have to deal with multiple types of enemies at one time. This can mean the aforementioned grasshopper people, flying creatures that shoot stunning purple rays, boar-like beasts that can only be attacked from behind when dazed and more.
Mulaka‘s combat is at its best when it’s kept simple, and it’s just you against a few enemies in an open space. Hell, it’s even not that bad when tens of tiny scorpions swarm you at once. Things can become problematic and slightly annoying during scripted segments where the Sukurúame enters a ring of stones and must then do battle against waves of baddies before being able to leave. Usually, these encounters are part of the main quest and alter the landscape when finished, often by opening up a doorway and allowing the human to progress.
When there’s lots to deal with, combat can become frenzied, and the mechanics suffer at these times. Multiple land-based enemies may be attacking or coming towards the player, while a couple of cherub-like flying creatures continually spam stun rays from above. The idea here is that you must press a shoulder button to quickly throw a spear at the aerial bastards, which is all well on paper. However, in practice, it can be difficult to quickly aim and throw a spear properly, meaning that most attempts will likely sail wide. This is the only real issue with the combat, and it’s because the spear throwing isn’t as precise or quick as it needs to be. When enough time is given to properly slow down, aim and then throw, it works better.
There are boss battles, most of which are against exaggerated natural beasts like a massive scorpion whose eyes and legs must be taken out. These battles tend to get better as the game progresses, and also show a good attention to both boss design and detail. They’re fun to fight and require some thought. The same is also true of the game’s healing system, which involves praying to the gods and calling down a new spirit to fill one of the Sukurúame’s three spirit meters. If done at the wrong time, it can be interrupted by an enemy’s attack.
In addition to his warrior abilities, the hero can also harvest plants and use them to create potions. One is for healing, but others bestow you with other options, such as the opportunity to explode weak rock facades. This can also be helpful during combat, and complements a system that already lets you turn into a bird, a bear and more in order to unlock and access new areas.
Generally speaking, this is an ambitious passion project that is simply rough around the edges. While Mulaka certainly has issues, they don’t prevent it from being a pretty good game, or from deserving praise for what it attempts to do. It’s simply flawed, and has the odd bug, which happens.
One thing that this project deserves commendation for is its presentation, which marries a unique, stylized and very colourful 3D art style with music and sound effects that fit its nature-focused tale. This is a game that pops off the screen, and does a good job of presenting its characters and its narrative in an interesting way, despite a bit of slowdown and the odd rough edge. It helps that, as you progress, the different locations — which include a mountainous area, a red rocked cavern, a small village and a colourful valley — regularly improve and continually show quality art direction.
At the end of the day, Mulaka is a game that won’t be for everyone. Those who decide to give it a chance should go in with an open mind and be willing to accept some shortcomings in favour of a rich, interesting and unique tale. What this game lacks in polish, it makes up for in presentation and its willingness to be different. Plus, learning about a historic culture is always a plus.
**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**
- Unique and interesting subject setting, subject matter
- Neat art style; quality presentation
- Full of care and passion
- Rough around the edges
- Platforming has issues
- Combat can become difficult when swarmed by multiple types of enemies