One of the most notable outcomes of the continued advancement of technology and software, and the greater affordability of more and more powerful computing systems, is the rise of the indie game developer/studio. Where for many years, giant companies with giant budgets largely served as gatekeepers for the titles that got funded and made, now virtually anyone with enough know-how can build a game and put it out into the world on Steam or another similar online distribution platform.
In recent years this has spawned an entire microcosm of indie games and gamers who thrive in the domain of Kickstarter campaigns and pre-release access, but this democratization of the business has had other much cooler results than the seemingly endless stream of nostalgic retro titles pouring out of some corners of the community. (Now, absolutely no disrespect to anyone who worships at the temple of pseudo retro games, but as someone who played the actual games in the actual ’80s, it’s a bit like the fashion of that era for me. Not the first place I’m keying up to revisit.) It has allowed games to bubble up from countries and markets that are not typically known for their video game output. And with this previously untapped cadre of writers, coders, and graphic designers comes an inevitable and exciting influx of new stories to play and new (old) mythologies to discover, as these creators look to their own cultures for inspiration.
Case in point: Mulaka (available now from Mexico’s Lienzo for PS4, Switch, Windows and Xbox One), a third-person hack-and-slash adventure with somewhat underdeveloped platforming elements that borrows its storyline and in-game locale from northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara, who are particularly noted for their prowess at running, and the mountainous Sierra Tarahumara region they call home. At the onset of Mulaka, your character, a Sukurúame (a.k.a. a shaman), is tasked with communing with and drawing powers from the demigods, which you then use alongside your fighting skills to force back the evil that is creeping into your territory. Like the game’s overarching mythology, the creatures you combat are mined from the same folklore (to learn more, browse the game’s extensive beastiary) – and each has specific defenses and weaknesses. Meaning: if you’re a button-masher certain baddies are going to mash you right back. Luckily life – in the form of herbs you pick – is readily available, as are herbs that fuel the various powers you unlock during your journey. For best effect, use enemy-specific attacks and clever dodging in the ringed brawls, which pop up far more frequently than you may want them to, and save your power-up attacks for the most annoying baddies (trust me, there are a few). If there’s one drawback to Mulaka‘s combat system, it’s the spear throwing. The small reddish-white reticle is tricky to aim and has a habit of blending in to the background, often allowing enemies to get the better of you while you’re still attempting to line them up your sights.
Mechanics aside, Mulaka‘s simple, friendly, cartoonish, and richly coloured semi-open world (in ochre hues, with vibrant splashes of green and blue in the grass and sky) is a pleasure to explore, offering up a variety of puzzles to solve and power-ups/quest items to acquire. And because your character has a special “second sight”-type sense that tells you where these goodies are waiting, things clip along at a good pace. Though, be warned, certain places can only be accessed after you’ve unlocked specific powers, so some back tracking is necessary. At the end of each area, you meet the requisite boss, requiring a combination of fluid combat and problem solving to conquer. For instance, figuring out which order to attack to a creature’s body parts in and how to use the arena’s environmental features to crack its armour.
Mulaka‘s English text is delivered via subtitles, so for the complete experience reading is required. However, for those who just want to get on with the searching and smashing, the dialogue and cut scenes can be easily skipped. While it might have been nice to see a little more detail in the faces of the folks you encounter in-game, the lack of definition is not a fatal distraction and somewhat forgivable given wider art design. The nicest part of Mulaka might just be that it yanks us out of all those dank and musty dungeons with their grim denizens and tells us a fresh, folklore-inspired, baddie-stomping story set under clear skies and the bright, bright sun. And let’s face it, we all need some vitamin D from time to time – and more exposure to cultures far from home.
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