There’s never been a better time in history to push for diversity in the stories we tell and experience. Thanks in large part to a growing advancement socially and politically, consumers are asking for a chance to see more from creators than the typical status quo, especially in video games. Enter Mexico-based developer Lienzo, bringing the rich history of the Tarahumara people to the forefront of its latest venture, Mulaka. While on its surface the game touts itself as a third-person action-adventure experience, the team had a clear and strong passion to school us on a community that hasn’t been given its time in the spotlight. And that’s Mulaka’s greatest achievement: using the platform of a video game to immerse a player in a real-world history lesson they may never had experienced otherwise. However, when it comes to every facet of what a game is supposed to offer, it doesn’t succeed as much as it tried.
Of the two years it took to develop the title, Lienzo spent six months visiting the real Tarahumara people of Chihuahua, gathering fables, true-to-life accounts, and cultural customs to inject into Mulaka. You play as the Sukurúame, which is the Tarahumaran name for a shaman, who must travel across various locations throughout northern Mexico (which we now know as Chihuahua). Seeking the aid of the demigods, it’s up to the Sukurúame to gather their powers to plea to the gods to not destroy the current world. As it surely may seem, the overall plot is fairly straightforward, but the connections the development team made with Tarahumaran lore and in-game mechanics takes everything to a much deeper level.
Players visit several areas of Chihuahua, such as the Samalayuca desert, Paquimé market, Resó Rekubí, and Arareko lake, which are all still around today. As the Sukurúame, you gain abilities that help with traversing perilous landscapes and interacting with as many of the people as possible. With the Tarahumarans’ strong connection with the spiritual world, believing the dead can still be contacted, one such skill is Sukurúame vision, allowing you to see ghosts in a mechanic that feels reminiscent of detective mode from the Batman Arkham series. With it, you not only interact with characters in the spirit world, but also to see certain enemies hidden from the real-world. The Tarahumarans also had a deep respect for certain animals, like the bear, which is translated into gameplay as a transformation for Sukurúame. You can transform into the mighty beast briefly to bypass certain rock formations or use the powerful slash attacks in battle. Overall, the spell offers several uses, while also teaching the player of its cultural significance.
While these are just a few examples, the detail put into making the Tarahumara culture come alive is unprecedented here. Instead of simply telling the player about the thoughts and feelings of the people solely through cutscenes, they get to experience the lore first-hand. All aspects to Sukurúame as a playable character are dripping with rich history, even down to the fact that he has three health bars, known as souls in-game, because the Tarahumarans believe men have three souls. In addition, much like the bear, Sukurúame can transform into three other animals of significance: a puma, bird, and water snake. Players must use all these other forms to successfully travel across the different areas, making their contribution to exploration vital. In turn, Lienzo took the opportunity to use gameplay mechanics to get players to see what the Tarahumarans honor and respect and why.
Unfortunately, when it comes to how the battling works, this is where the overall package starts to lose its luster. While I easily picked up the hack-and-slash mechanics of battle, as Sukurúame’s main means of offense come from a fast and heavy attack with his spear, the simplicity became frustrating once several types of enemies were introduced. In the opening areas of Mulaka, you only go up against lesser creatures and spirits, providing a balanced bootcamp to try out combos with the fast and heavy moves. However, not too far into the journey more enemies are introduced and thrown at you, often in groups, which often resulted in a glaring problem that occurred repeatedly.
Most of the creatures come with a unique defense that requires a specific maneuver to overcome, such as the bull-like rock monsters that can charge at the player. The only means of causing damage is to time a dodge appropriately and let the enemy rush past, exposing its weak point on its back. On the flip side, there are some baddies that use shields that can only be overcome with a heavy attack, followed by a quick combo of the fast attacks. While these examples only scratch the surface of enemy variation, having to execute several different offensive maneuvers in one area proved to be downright impossible at times. For example, there were many instances where I would try to set up a heavy attack against the shielded animals, only to be bashed by a bull-rock because I wasn’t able to dodge during my attack setup. Essentially, the game was wanting me to stand my ground while also moving as much as possible, which just doesn’t make any sense. Again, this is one example of two types of enemies making a battle more than cumbersome, but when put together, a majority of the other monster types gave me similar issues.
I can applaud the developers for wanting to make each encounter more than just a repetition of mashing the fast attack button, but there has to be a fair way of overcoming any obstacle. It by no means has to be easy. In fact, complexity in battle systems should equate to practice for perfection. However, losing should come down to the player’s faults; not design flaws. Sadly, this same oversight bled into another core mechanic of battle: healing and taking damage. As previously stated, Sukurúame has three health bars, or souls, that leave his body after taking a certain amount of damage from enemies. Thankfully, one of the four spells he can learn can return a soul if the situation gets out of hand. Much like the battle problems, though, there are apparent design issues.
When Sukurúame loses a soul, an animation occurs that lifts him into the air for the player to get the full effect that he’s lost a portion of health. As the moment is involuntary, leaving him open to attacks, you might think Sukurúame would be immune to taking damage, but that’s not the case. Monsters can still harm him, making several infuriating instances where I would be waiting for the animation to end, only to have another soul close to being lost. The same strange problem happens with healing, as returning a soul triggers a similar animation. By the time the soul returned to Sukurúame’s body, creatures had hit me enough that the extra health was almost gone again.
Combining these two glaring drawbacks with multiple smaller issues started to grate on my experience playing the game. From enemy hits connecting with Sukurúame despite him being clearly out of the danger zone, to attacks not registering on creatures that were definitely in my spear’s reach, the negatives greatly outweighed the positives when it came to combat. Which was unfortunate, as the game’s mechanics for exploration were very intriguing and enjoyable, as was the overall story. All of the animal transformations were an engaging means of travel and platforming, making me constantly want to search out all the ways to search for bonus artifacts that unveiled more history of the game’s people. Unlike battling, they offered a manageable and diverse variety of travel options, as the bird helped me glide to new areas, the puma could pounce from tree to tree, and the water snake could swim upstream.
It was confusing to see so much effort put into creating a well-developed world that immersed the player in a real, true-to-life culture, only to have the ball dropped on arguably the most important aspect of any action-adventure game: battling. In turn, Mulaka could have been better off without any combat at all, instead using different puzzles as a way to progress. Of course, that’s not the game we have now, though, which makes recommending the game a difficult decision.
I was undeniably blown away by the attention to detail when it came to historical and cultural accuracy, as any game that makes me want to study and learn more about a group of people I knew nothing about is not an easy task. Exploring was engaging and interesting enough to keep me scouring every corner of the various areas, too. However, the core action gameplay was lackluster, if not unbearable at times. Unfortunately, the praise for Mulaka is not as universal as I had hoped, but there’s still enough attention to detail in the areas outside of battle to argue it’s worth trying out.
Lienzo’s Mulaka is an equally engaging and frustrating experience. The action-adventure game excels in its efforts to teach players unfamiliar with the Tarahumara people about the community’s culture through a beautiful narrative and exploration mechanics. However, the action aspect needs to be completely overhauled, as it offers enough issues to turn off prospective players.
T – Teen
|Mulaka is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Lienzo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|