For a long time now, we’ve known that indie developers are great at filling the demand for games similar to long-dormant franchises. Axiom Verge filled the demand for a new Metroid game. Fans of the difficult, fast-paced racing game F-Zero got Fast RMX. Recently, fans of traditional 2D Zelda games got Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King. And now, fans of traditional, semi-linear 3D Zelda titles get Mulaka.
Mulaka is an action-adventure game with some elements of platforming and puzzle-solving. The developers at Lienzo, based in Chihuahua, Mexico, set out to not only create a fun action-adventure game harkening back to the earlier days of 3D Zelda, but also to highlight the rich culture of the indigenous inhabitants of northern Mexico known as the Tarahumara. Many aspects of their culture are baked right into the gameplay mechanics, that definitely give the game a unique atmosphere. Much like the other aforementioned indie games, Mulaka wears its inspiration for 3D Zelda on its sleeve, and more often takes the safe approach of not copying, but heavily borrowing from common Zelda tropes. Nevertheless, when you’ve got a familiar yet cherished format under a unique art direction and theme, you’ve got some perfect Zelda-style comfort food with a dash of cultural spice.
Mulaka’s story is based on real legends originating from the Tarahumara people. Unfortunately, a combination of sketchy translations and vague backstories make this slightly hard to understand for the layman uninitiated with Tarahumara culture.
What can be salvaged from the story is that you play as the titular Mulaka, who embarks on his quest to become a Sukurúame, a Shaman, by traveling across the land of northern Mexico to save the world from… evil? At the very least, an evil force is possessing many of the previously good or neutral beasts, and it is Mulaka’s job to stop them, helping people along the way.
The story is decidedly light, with each new area usually only containing a few choice lines of dialogue from various NPCs. A lot of the confusion stems from this dialogue, however, as the translation from Spanish to English isn’t a perfect one. While your next objective is always perfectly clear, multiple grammatical errors can be found in every few lines of dialogue, and some sentences are awkwardly phrased or just hard to follow. It’s certainly not the worst translation out there, but the finer details are sadly lost, making the overarching story a bit ambiguous.
But what can be learned about this unique culture is quite fascinating. Through talking with NPCs, observing various objects, and reading descriptions of enemies, Mulaka can be a bit of an educational experience, although never overwhelmingly so. My favorite piece of Tarahumara trivia was that some people would use sharp sticks to chase away rainbows, because they signified the end of vital rain! The Tarahumara people also have their own language, and the opening and closing cutscenes are spoken in this language by a native (with subtitles, of course). For anyone who loves learning more about different culture, Mulaka can be quite eye-opening, even if the message gets muddled a bit through the rough translation.
There are eight areas in total, with each one taking about an hour to get through without collecting everything. There are three red stones that you have to collect in order to open a door. Once that door is opened, there are usually one or two fights before fighting the final boss, at which point you will obtain the ability to fast-travel to the next area.
Of course, there is plenty of variation to be had within this structure, which is broken for the final two areas. Some areas are more linear than others, but most of them allow for some capacity of exploration, even if what you discover will largely be the same as everyone else, just in a different order. In some of the larger areas, getting lost is very possible because of the similar-looking terrain, but this is rare enough of an occurrence, thanks to Sukurúame Vision. This points to locations such as red stones, pots containing Korima, the game’s currency, and any other objects of note. Unfortunately, these markers appear only on the perimeter of the screen, instead of appearing exactly in the location’s direction, making it a bit difficult to follow them.
Many locations in the later half of the game require some level of platforming prowess. True to the athletic skills of the Tarahumara people, Mulaka can run at superhuman speeds. And once he obtains the power of each of the demi-gods, he obtains the ability to transform into different animals. When in bird form, Mulaka still can’t fly freely. Rather, he can soar at a gentle downward slope, catching gusts of wind to get to his destination and collecting magic orbs to be able to stay a bird, as all animal transformations consume magic at a quick pace. This takes a careful hand, as a slight misadjustment can send Mulaka crashing down.
In the overworld, all of the other animals can be thought of as “keys,” not really requiring any large effort to control. The puma is directly reminiscent of wolf Link from Twilight Princess, which takes control away from the player to have Mulaka jump from platform to platform until he reaches his destination. While it certainly looks cool, there is very little strategy or effort involved, even less so than the similar segments in Twilight Princess. The snake can cross water and freeze vines, and the bear can crush said frozen vines, as well as marked rocks.
A small handful of puzzles can be found throughout the world, all in the same style. You must guide water from its source to the end, sometimes multiple ends through branching pathways, just like a maze. You do this by twisting a series of shapes so that the water can flow through their indentations. While the early versions of this puzzle are completely elementary, the later ones stumped me for a bit, making me plan out how I would route the water to make detours so that it would meet all of the endpoints, not just a few. While not diverse in any meaningful way, these puzzles served as a nice distraction from the often taxing combat.
A large majority of your time playing the game will be in combat. While enemies can be found scattered across the overworld, they can mainly be ignored. However, there is a series of challenges in which a force-field will surround you and not go away until multiple rounds of enemies have been vanquished Mulaka has a surprisingly diverse set of enemies, considering its short length, and it demands that you understand each and every one of them in order to survive.
By the end of the game, I had fully mastered combat, weaving in and out of the way, using light and heavy attacks at the perfect moments. But getting to that point was an exercise in patience. In most action games, you are given time to breathe and get your bearings whenever you take damage, whether that be in the form of invincibility frames, the enemy jumping back, or some other factor to prevent you from falling into a chain of unpreventable damage. The biggest detriment to Mulaka’s combat is that it makes you wait for far too long. The split-second time when you have to stop and heal or craft arrows in a game such as Horizon: Zero Dawn is tense, yet fair. In order to heal in Mulaka, you must wait for an animation to play out in which you dance as your soul comes back to you (In Tarahumara, it is believed that men have three souls, serving as Mulaka’s three lives). This animation takes about three seconds, and you are not invincible during this time. In fact, if the enemy gets you too soon, not only will you take damage, but you will not get that soul back. In this way, Mulaka is a blast when you’re at your best, but the second you take any damage, it’s a battle of frustration as you try to find three seconds in which the enemy won’t attack you.
To carry on the comparison to Horizon: Zero Dawn, you can also find patches where you can harvest four different plants: health, offense, defense, and bombs. Offensive and defensive potions take the same amount of time to use, so they’re really only useful before stepping into the ring. Bombs on the other hand can prove quite useful in and out of combat, as they don’t require any long animation, do a good amount of damage, and can be fired from afar.
Boss fights are, surprisingly, generally less frustrating than normal encounters, as most are sluggish and actually allow you time to heal. These are easily some of the highlights of the game, pulling from some of the best tropes from 3D Zelda and doing something unique with it. One boss fight in particular took a somewhat unpopular boss from Skyward Sword and made some genuine improvements to it! On the other hand, the hardest fight in the entire game is found halfway through, and relies on finicky mechanics to do something that Ocarina of Time had perfected from the start.
It’s funny to think how such a seemingly small consideration such as the amount of seconds in an animation could spoil such an otherwise delightful system, but it goes to show just how important the finer details in game development are. Nonetheless, this annoyance can be overcome by memorizing enemy patterns, risking low health, or just plain “getting good” and being careful to not take damage. When it is, the true potential of this game’s combat is unlocked. While never quite reaching the highs of some AAA action titles, Mulaka, at its best, was able to lift me up to a zen state, demanding my full attention not with the threat of a swift death, but with something worse: a slow, drawn-out crawl, gasping for room to breathe until I became completely overpowered, not by having too many things to do, but by having nothing to do at all.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
The 2D realm is a much more comfortable space for indie developers. While making a game pretty is no easy task, pixel art has proven to have stood the test of time far better than the awkward polygons of the N64 and original PlayStation. Adding another dimension often means adding a lot of expenses, and so the comparatively few indie developers who choose to do so often integrate a unique art style to help combat costs.
While recent 3D indie games such as Yooka-Laylee and A Hat In Time were able to cut corners by using cel-shaded graphics, Mulaka combines this with a low polygon count to create a fragmented art style. Nothing in Mulaka can be seen in great detail, but this fragmented approach works well as a whole, selling the mystical tone of enacting a great legend. No matter how you slice it, Mulaka looks like it comes from the PS2 era with a higher resolution, but it’s stylized well enough that it seldom becomes jarring.
The soundtrack includes instrumentation from Tarahumara culture, but through a very poor synthesizer. While the soundtrack never quite becomes grating, it skirts that line very tenuously. Most annoyingly, a few tracks loop very poorly, with an awkward hiccup occurring whenever the piece “ends” and starts back up. This is not to say that the actual compositions are poor. While nothing particularly noteworthy, most of the tracks serve their purpose well, whether that be to amp up a boss fight or provide ambience in a dark forest. They’re not ruined by the synthesizer, but a better one would have gone miles to improve it.
On PS4, the game runs well, but not without its share of awkward glitches. I fell through the floor once or twice, and the one boss that I praised earlier had some pretty hilarious errors with computing what I could or could not walk on. However, the game did not crash, freeze, or otherwise cause me to restart it due to a bug once, which should be highly praised in a 3D indie game.
Without the big board meetings, multi-millionaire executives who care about maximizing profits, and a team of over 200 people, indie developers are given a lot more artistic freedom than many AAA studios, and some of the most innovative and unique games have arisen from this freedom.
Mulaka is not particularly innovative or unique, but there is something to be said for simple fun. There is no “easy” way to imitate a series as well fleshed out as The Legend of Zelda, and that Mulaka was able to provide an experience similar to it is commendable. Aside from a few choice moments, Mulaka doesn’t offer much beyond the basic structure of bite-sized Zelda gameplay with a few platforming segments thrown in, but the cultural backdrop goes a long way into differentiating the games thematically. Anyways, if you’re going to imitate another series, you could do a lot worse than imitating one of the best and most influential series of all time.
|+ Faithful imitator of 3D Zelda||– Poorly synthesized soundtrack|
|+ Displays fascinating culture of Tarahumara||– Shoddy translation from Spanish to English|
|+ Precise combat with a select pool of options||– Healing animation takes too long, leading to unnecessary damage and frustration|