levio's La-Mulana (PC) review

Awkward combat and illogical puzzles make this game a chore

La-Mulana (LM) is a Zelda style dungeon-diver where the protagonist roams through variously-themed catacombs to collect weapons, tools, keys, and upgrades to steadily progress through the dungeons, solving puzzles and hunting monsters along the way. LM differentiates itself from Zelda and Metroidvania games by employing "environment" style puzzles; instead of encountering a series of contained puzzle rooms, a dungeon of 20 or so rooms will have many linking objects and components so that the entire dungeon setting must be considered when deciding how to solve a puzzle. The game also uses story tablets to detail hints about the world which don't point to specific objects to interact with but instead explain how a dungeon environment and all the dungeons fit together. This leads to a lot of real "outside the box" puzzle solving which occasionally I had a real joy solving.

Unfortunately, LM is bogged down by so many terrible design choices regarding the platforming and combat, that I spent more time frustrated by the mechanics of the survival aspect than I did enjoying the exploration and puzzle aspects. Here's a short list of the incredibly annoying elements of the platforming and combat that really ruined the game for me:

  • the character's jump is the type where it can only barely be controlled once in the air. More realistic, I suppose, but terrible for combat and platforming (and this game has plenty of death pits). also, enemies knock the character around like he's a balloon...
  • enemies very often attack from positions from which they cannot be attacked by the player
  • enemies occasionally attack in ways that are unavoidable
  • enemies drop "health drops", but they are rare and cannot be used towards healing until an absurd amount is collected, and the player cannot (realistically) control when this healing occurs and consumes all of the health drops
  • the only convenient place to heal is in town - which can easily be teleported to - but teleporting back to the dungeon will usually leave the player 5-10 minutes from where they last were
  • enemies will often knock you off screen, causing the entire screen of enemies to respawn
  • bosses require many attempts to learn their pattern, yet the nearest save point is usually 4 minutes away (aka corpse running)

By late game however, the gameplay actually changes considerably, though not for the better. The monsters become increasingly easier to combat as the game progresses with only the bosses posing significant challenge, but then the puzzles start to become more and more absurd. Many of the later puzzles involve solutions that make no sense even after they are completed. Also, a lot of the hints left throughout the levels feel like they lost meaning when translated from the original Japanese to English.

But the real problem with the puzzles is that the player will have hundreds of rooms available to them in the late game and have no idea which rooms contain puzzles they can solve with their current items and which require future items. Certain bottleneck puzzles are absolutely required to progress at points yet there is no hint that they are the sole puzzle available that is actually solvable, so the player might spend hours working on other unsolvable puzzles intended for later parts of the game. The game also includes plenty of red herrings which may distract the player from the actual puzzles for the entire game. This did not make for fun gameplay in my experience, which is unfortunate because the production values were otherwise very good.

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