Game feel is everything. In a release schedule where every other game is pure magic, the quality of what you’re playing is just as important as how different it is. For those who may be confused, game feel is the way a title sparks the player’s sense of awe. The music, visual and audio feedback, and focus on design are central to all games. Leaving out how good a game feels can be a big mistake for developers, and in the case of Mulaka, game feel is central to the reason the game misses the mark so badly.
This new action game from indie developers Lienzo delves straight into its roots, and by this I mean the Mexican mythology which is cast upon the world so heavily, and I loved it. The music combined with the very different story makes Mulaka feel like a very different game from anything offered on the market right now. Whether it be other action games or any other genre, games don’t have the uniqueness in narrative that Mulaka holds. Sadly, the innovation stops there.
Upon entering the world of Mulaka, I noticed two immediate differences between it and other action games, one of which was that Mulaka, as in the character you control, feels terrible. The quickness at which he dashes leaves little space for intricate movements to be made. That’s fine when you’re traversing large swaths of land, but when facing the many monsters found in the game, it can often make the difference between hitting and getting hit. Speaking of, you’ll find many of the monsters in Mulaka to actually be pretty interesting in terms of design. Nothing that is especially unique, but enough to make Mulaka feel a little varied in terms of combat. Mulaka himself carries a spear with which you can perform quick and heavy attacks, as well as throw the spear to get some ranged damage. Along with this, his defensive maneuver, a dash move that effectively lets him escape enemy attacks, make up Mulaka’s arsenal to use on the varying enemies you’ll encounter. The nuance here isn’t what’s important, instead Mulaka asks you to simply be efficient at doing those four basic combat moves. This leaves room for discovery and exploration but also leaves room for boredom to quickly settle in.
The second aspect of Mulaka most will notice right away is the graphical fidelity. Yes, low polygonal art direction is both aesthetically pleasing and cheap to create, but the way Mulaka uses it means it gives up a quality feel. When combined with the regularly occurring fast gameplay, Mulaka felt and looked like a PS2-era game. That saddens me because of the potential of its world. When you’re initially let loose, you come to tiny open spaces that eventually give way to even more tiny spaces. Going further in Mulaka’s journey requires figuring out how to progress through what I would call giant environmental puzzles. It’s these puzzles that made Mulaka feel really off pace.
Whether it was finding keys to a new gate or trying to maneuver giant towers, Lienzo’s use of game logic meant I often suffered from agonizing guess and check methods of solving fairly obtuse puzzles. For instance, the very first gate sees the player having to run around and hit little ducks for three keys which will see you through to the next part of the game. These ducks were in no way explained further, and even more, the three keys weren’t all the same solutions. This meant not only did I have to basically guess that I should hit the ducks in order to move along but also that I had to find some other weird clue somewhere in the world to progress further. This unexplained duck chase felt more akin to an old LucasArts adventure game rather than a modern action game. With how far this genre has come, Mulaka takes a few steps back in terms of smart design.
That also goes for the AI. Though monsters are generally different from one another, but their AI is not very different from other those we’ve dealt with in other action-focused games. Giant crabs that could only be damaged by heavy hits, charging beetle creatures that could only be hit from behind, and swarming scorpions were among some of the most common enemy types. Dealing with each one felt as easy as learning their weaknesses and repeating everything you learned every time after that. Though there are beasts aplenty, they don’t feel that different in totality. To make this repetition worse, boss fights are also pretty simple, albeit scaled to a gigantic size. You can tell this is where Lienzo spent most of their time and resources. These multi-tiered boss fights were simple, but they were put on a grand scale. So much so that I would much rather face the same boss ten times rather than face the same ten henchmen. In short, if the same amount of time and effort was put into every other enemy in Mulaka as there was with the bosses, the game as an overall experience would have been much better.
While I recognize Lienzo is a small independent team who want to tell a very different story form most western games, I also recognize that scope and scale are some of the most important aspects of designing on a budget. I would’ve taken a smaller world, fewer enemies, and half the textures if that meant the quality of all of those things was much better. That brings me back to game feel. Tightening this scope and honing in on what makes Mulaka a great game (the diverse narrative) would’ve created better game feel because Lienzo could have more time to concentrate on the tiny details. Focusing on what makes Mulaka special is, to me, more important than trying to compete with ambitious competitors in the action genre. A story of Mexican mythology told through mechanics and simpler gameplay interests me a whole lot more than a copy and paste action game whose story was just thrown on top. I would love to see Lienzo make that game, and I would hate for other developers in the action genre to repeat the mistake of making a game too big for their own good.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 27th February 2018 (PS4, PC), 1st March 2018 (Nintendo Switch), 2nd March 2018 (Xbox One)