Not quite edutainment, but I did learn things.
Much has been said on the capacity of games to hold deeper significance. In many instances we see inverse proportionality between things like gameplay, story, and art. In other words, a greater focus on one area of a game demands the lessening of another. A game that relies heavily on gameplay often lacks a complex narrative. A game that is visually and artistically satisfying may sacrifice gameplay responsiveness to achieve this. Mulaka from Mexico-based developer Lienzo seeks to buck this trend by offering a game that is both culturally and socially significant, while also offering a legitimate gameplay experience.
Mulaka is based on the real world history and lore of the Tarahumara tribe of Northern Mexico. You play as Mulaka, a sort-of shaman warrior responsible for fighting back an encroaching evil that is corrupting the world. To do this, you’ll earn the respect and aid of various demigods, each of whom grant you a new ability. While for myself the mythos of this world felt entirely alien, the core arch was accessible enough that I didn’t feel too intimidated stepping into this world. While your entire journey is built on the oral history of the Tarahumara tribe, the story never goes out of its way to force that history on you. It’s there should you wish to seek it, but in general you simply experience it around you. It is a method of historical preservation through active engagement that is really only possible through a video game.
As far as actual gameplay goes, Mulaka is an action platformer with a strong focus on combat. With each deity that you win to your side, your repertoire of abilities expands. These come into play as you explore the large open environments of Northern Mexico. Ultimately each environment you explore serves as a sort-of dungeon. Each area contains three keys that need to be used to open a boss door. These are earned through combat, exploration, helping people, and puzzle solving. Every environment is unique, both in terms of challenges and visual design. I would have appreciated a greater variety of puzzle types, but given the game’s primary focus on combat and platforming, the simplistic puzzle design didn’t get too tiring until late in the game. While Zelda would serve as an easy comparison, Darksiders might be a more accurate one given the fast-paced combat Mulaka employs.
Early in the game, combat plays out simply with buttons assigned to fast, strong, and ranged attacks as well as dodging. As you progress you also learn to concoct potions with herbs to aid you in battle. These have a variety of effects, ranging from raising your health to creating throwable bombs. The abilities you gain from demigods can also be used in combat to unleash powerful attacks. Boss fights in particular make great use of combining different abilities to create unique effects. These boss fights made up some of my favorite moments of the game, save some poor collision detection on a late game boss who you literally had to climb on top of. The game also crashed on me after I died on one boss fight, causing my wife and I to both yell “If you die in the game you die for real!” but according to Lienzo, this is a known bug that will be resolved in an upcoming patch. Overall however, combat plays out well, though I would have prefered a more robust lock-on system rather than the auto-targeting present in the game.
A huge variety of enemies and new enemies are introduced right up to the climax of the game. Each enemy also comes with a short bio that not only gives you insight into potential weaknesses, but also an optional look at the real world lore behind them. The cultural influences of the Tarahumara people are everywhere in Mulaka. Even the low-poly art style was influenced by their geometric artwork. Visually the game is quite striking, with environments that call to mind the early days of 3D graphics on Super Nintendo and Sega 32X. It’s a look I’m very fond of, and right off the bat a perfect fit whether playing portably or docked. The game runs great docked, with only the occasional frame rate drop during busy combat scenes. Handheld mode suffers from more consistent frame rate drops, but is still very enjoyable. Topping off the presentation is some fantastic sound design complete with culturally accurate music.
Lienzo has excellently implemented their cultural source material into a video game, without sacrificing the video game. Set in an original world Mulaka would still be a fun game, but the love and creativity brought about by the Tarahumara culture permeates the game in a way that makes it something truly special. While the game isn’t perfect, its ability to preserve a culture through an active medium while still being an enjoyable gaming experience is a trend I hope Lienzo and other are able to continue in the future.