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Ben Hornsby Ben Hornsby
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La-Mulana' is definitely better than everything you like

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'La-Mulana' was originally released for free in Japanese in 2005, and the remastered commercial version was released in Japanese and English earlier this month. There's a translation patch for the (fantastic-looking) original if you poke around. You can buy the new one at playism-games.com and, right now, nowhere else. I don't like writing paragraphs like this, but hey, this isn't gonna show up in a commercial or on Steam's frontpage.

So. 'La-Mulana.' It's pretty much the best. The guys that made it knew exactly what they were doing all the time, which is remarkable because frankly that's just not it usually goes. It is pushing as hard as it can in every direction and it is almost totally successful.

It's a 2D platformer with an eye towards 'Metroid' and the bigger, mappier 'Castlevanias.' You can jump and whip and you can get some other weapons. There are puzzles everywhere, which involve items and switches and all kinds of things, and they all sort of rise organically out of the game's lore and backstory, which is cobbled together gracefully out of bits of various global mythologies and plenty of original stuff.

It seems like it's going to be press-a-switch-to-open-a-chest puzzles, but only for literally the first 30 seconds; after that things begin to ramp up along a curve so eccentric I don't think I could approximate it. Everything gets more and more complex as you continue, and as the lore uncoils into a mountain you have to keep digging back in to find the pieces you need. It's a good thing, then, that the writing is usually pretty great and that all the little stories succeed in being mysterious, ominous or bizarre.

The game's combat mechanics are economic and beautiful. Each jump requires a mental commitment, and the weapons are designed to work so tightly that I think you're probably supposed to have a headache while you play. There's a second-to-second weight and strategy that feels something like the slow chunk of... hey, 'Castlevania' again.

The true success of 'La-Mulana' may be that there is virtually no waste whatsoever. Every screen is a level design lecture. Study the locations of the enemies, the ways so many different jumps are layered into each space without ever feeling cramped, and the number of items and designs on the walls that may or may not be offering solutions or mysteries, and you'll find yourself learning lessons about more than game design.

Besides following the huge arcs of the puzzles and the challenges of navigating the expanding webs of interlocking mazes, the game is punctuated every few hours by really fantastic boss fights. The puzzling parts of the game are taxing enough that you don't expect the large-scale battles to match, but man, there are at least half a dozen times I thought that the battle I was trying to win might be impossible. Every tiny piece of health, every dollar spent on an extra shuriken that finds its target, and every blow landed without taking one in return is a triumph. The major bosses have their own over-the-top set-pieces, too, filling the walls of a room or trying to come up under you as you careen down a river, but the game always admirably adheres to the steely little tic-tac-toe of jumping and swinging a weapon above all else.

There's a big secret in this game's design: 'La-Mulana' can afford to be how it is because it was made for people who will love it. There are no concessions to anyone anywhere in the game, which, combined with the fact that it was made by a tiny number of people who are all probably Actual Geniuses, makes nearly every element unimpeachable. It's really clearly a work of love, and it's really staggering how well all of its pieces fit together.

I only have so many words. What else? Oh yeah: The music is fantastic, too.

four stars out of four

Ben Hornsby is totally going to beat this game.

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