“[W]hen I’m thinking about the connection of the maps or walkthroughs, the map tends to have less traps or lava. Therefore, every time I realize these crucial oversights (which happens periodically), I do a thorough check of whole map and add the most important elements, “death traps” so that players can die a lot. This is how LA-MULANA is made. ”
Already during development of the La-Mulana remake, Nigoro were hard at work sketching out maps for a sequel. In January 2014, they took to Kickstarter to fund it as La-Mulana 2: The 0th Body / The 9th Spirit. (Yes, the unwieldy subtitle would be dropped before release.) In their pitch, they reiterated their belief in the 2D platformer, and in the future of Japan as a cornerstone of the game development world. Overall, they didn’t feel that their work was done with La-Mulana, and they wanted to continue with more of the same, but better. A trailer showed an early build of the game, showing off the first field of the game, with a little selection of puzzles, mini-bosses, and death-traps. Nothing too different from before, but it was clearly something people wanted to experience again – the campaign raised $266,670 of its $200,000 goal.
Five years after Lemeza Kosugi defeated the Mother and essentially destroyed the La-Mulana ruins, Elder Xelpud has transformed them into a garish tourist destination. When monsters begin to emerge from the supposedly dead ruins, Xelpud writes to Lemeza for help, but his daughter Lumisa shows up to help instead. She retraces her father’s footsteps through La-Mulana, under some restoration efforts, and comes upon a gate to a new set of ruins, Eg-Lana, teeming with hostile children of the Mother. She sets out to plumb the depths of Eg-Lana, uncover the source of the monsters and the secrets it holds…
Lumisa is immediately easier to control than Lemeza. The infamously stubborn jump momentum is now much more forgiving, so you can usually bail out of a bad jump when you need to. You can crouch and crawl, giving you more options for dodging and attacking. You can also jump onto ladders and start climbing them at any point, and drop off of them. And most fortunately, you can walk at a reasonable speed from the very beginning, without needing to collect boots. (There is still an item that increases your movement speed, but it is hilariously uncontrollable and will generally stay unequipped until you absolutely need it.)
The game looks pretty spectacular, as well. It is now in widescreen, so all the rooms of the game can fit a little more action in them. The game’s switch to an underlying 3D engine means the game makes limited use of some polygonal environmental elements, like smoothly rotating platforms. This recalls the polygons-in-2D effect of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, among other 2D games from the PlayStation and Saturn era. All of the important gameplay elements are well-lit and distinct on the screen, and the enemy designs are charming as always. But the NPC portraits are particularly outstanding. The first game’s manual and promotional art had incredibly detailed, dramatically-lit full-body portraits of the major characters, but they would only appear as small sprites in the game itself. La-Mulana 2 gives this lavish full-body portrait treatment to every NPC in the game, from major characters to lowly hint-givers.
La-Mulana was based on a collection of different archaeological ruins, but the fields that make up Eg-Lana draw their themes from the world’s mythologies. The first few fields of the game make up the upside-down World Tree Yggdrasil, which makes up the world of Norse mythology. Here, the tree stretches downward from the introductory Roots of Yggdrasil through to Annwfn, kingdom of the fairies, through the massive labyrinth, Immortal Battlefield, down to the Icefire Treetop, a field with alternate sides of frozen pillars and poisonous magma pits.
Several areas serve as branches to this tree, each one holding a particular race of Mother’s children. These races have fought within themselves and split into multiple tribes, and in Eg-Lana the tribe who lives in the front-side has emerged victorious, imprisoning the other tribe in the back-side. One branch holds the Gate of the Dead, an Egyptian field full of gravity-flipping doors, as well as familiar faces like Isis and Horus, here as members of the Enneads. The backside holds the Dark Lord’s Mausoleum, a sinister tomb full of spike traps and narrative logic puzzles, also home to Ra and Set, of the Amarna tribe imprisoned there by the Enneads. Another branch is home to two Greek tribes, and another holds tribes which continue the Norse theme from Yggdrasil. Overall, Eg-Lana’s structure is not quite so straightforward as La-Mulana’s, which had ten areas with clearly opposed front-side and back-side themes. But Eg-Lana is constructed more deliberately as a hierarchical and organized world with a firmer basis in the series’ lore, and that makes it fascinating to explore.
The set of items in Eg-Lana is largely the same as in La-Mulana, which is a bit disappointing. Some cool new items include the Mjolnir, a hammer which allows you to absorb the Lightning of Judgment and release it upon enemies and the environment, and the Vajra, an accessory allowing you to perform combo attacks with any weapon. A new weapon, the Rapier, has a very long forward reach and is generally delightful to use, especially after collecting the Vajra. Many new non-usable items act as simple keys to activating a certain puzzle or unlocking a certain area, which is a little disappointing. You still go through the typical Metroidvania process of getting mobility upgrades, stronger weapons, and ways to protect yourself from deadly things, but many items you collect to solve a puzzle have no effect on your abilities.
La-Mulana‘s densely interconnected puzzles make a return here, but are a bit clearer and more streamlined this time around. Tablets that give you crucial information for a puzzle are usually closer to the relevant location, and often have detailed illustrations that are easy to recognize once you reach the right place. It’s still important to keep notes as you read tablets and learn more, but early on you can acquire the TextTrax2 app, which allows you to save tablet and NPC text and refer to it at any point.
A typical puzzle: in the Ancient Chaos, an NPC instructs you to offer three prayers to Anu. There are three murals throughout the field, each with a prominent illustration of someone in a particular pose. To offer the prayer, Lumisa must be in that same pose in front of the mural. But since Lumisa has such a wide variety of spritework, the actions to enter those poses are not immediately obvious, so figuring out exactly in what circumstances you’ve seen those Lumisa poses before, then getting back into those circumstances in the confines of this very hostile dungeon, presents an interesting challenge.
One of the better puzzles in the game is the Seven Gates of the Underworld, in which you must pass through seven doorways in a specific order, each one temporarily taking away one of your key items. The paths between the gates are fraught with hazards that require some combination of the items that are taken. You can discover the correct order in a number of different ways: you can piece it together from a few NPCs throughout Eg-Lana which offer hints, you can gain an understanding of the space of the Underworld and which gates are accessible from the others which which items, or a combination of the two. Some combination of mastery of the world’s story and the world’s space are necessary to solve it. One final devilish detail: though there are at least seven gates accessible to begin with, one of the necessary gates is not even present to begin with – it must be uncovered through completing a side-quest which spans several fields and most of the game up to this point. Finally, if you enter the doors in the wrong sequence, you will be killed instantly. This has to be the quintessential La-Mulana puzzle.
A lot of puzzles rely on mantras, a series of ten different chants you can learn from scanning special murals. Each has a primary meaning, like “Sun” or “Wind”, as well as a hidden second meaning. Using the Djed Pillar, you can chant combinations of mantras in front of important locations to open up new locations or reveal new items. Since you can chant every possible combination of the ten mantras, these puzzles are generally impossible to solve by accident, so there will always be a tablet somewhere that tells you, to some degree of explicitness, to chant these three mantras in a particular location. The mantra meanings are even highlighted in blue on these tablets, so you can’t possibly miss them. In general these are not terribly satisfying, since it’s just carrying out rather obvious instructions, and navigating through menus for most of the process. It’s too bad that so many of the puzzles involve mantras, particularly later in the game.
There’s a larger focus on Guardians and mini-boss battles this time around, and in general they are visually spectacular but rather unbalanced. Progress is much more dependent upon defeating them than before – mini-bosses usually guard important items and puzzle elements, and certain doors won’t open until you’ve defeated a certain number of Guardians. This renders the game a lot more linear than La-Mulana, in which you could play a good portion of the game without touching a single Guardian.
A flaw in a lot of these combat encounters is that they’re very dangerous until you learn “the trick” for them, at which point they become trivial. And inevitably, there is some trick for most of them – some safe spot, or some sub-weapon which can be spammed to kill them in seconds. As of writing, the game has been patched repeatedly to make the bosses harder, so that the tricks have become more and more necessary to use.
They’re still pretty sweet battles, though. To fight Kujata, a massive bull covered in volcanoes, you ride in a fairy boat around to various cannons around its body, doding its lasers, erupting magma, and small flying sentry robots. Jormungand is an alien riding a Tron light-cycle who fires all sorts of guns at you, as the two of you race motorcycles around a circular track. Hel chases you around a room of ascending platforms with spear projectiles, and after her apparent death, her decayed form regains life, and her dismembered body parts begin to chase and attack you independently. They are solid ideas for battles, so hopefully further tweaks will help them to live up to their promise.
By this point, La-Mulana has established its own identity separate from the MSX-era games which inspired it. But Nigoro still wanted to pay tribute to these games in a non-invasive way, so they chose to illustrate all of the shopkeepers in the style of various classic game NPCs. Western players might not recognize most of the ones from Japanese PC games, but they’ll probably recognize “Megarock”:
Naramura’s sadistic sense of humor continues to manifest itself in the variety of cruel, yet well-advertised, death-traps throughout Eg-Lana. Beyond this, the stronger emphasis on NPC dialogue means the writer’s sense of humor gets expressed in other avenues. Everyone speaks in an extremely laid-back manner, and all-powerful divine beings swear pretty casually. Throughout the game you uncover a series of poems from the ancient and mysterious Annunaki, who combine lofty archaic speech with casual slang to great effect:
Foolish, puny little snake dumbasses.
Dumbass snakes crawling on the ground.
Die, ye puny snakes.
The game strikes a pretty unique tone, and punctuates its darker moments with strange lines like this to keep from taking itself too seriously.
La-Mulana had such a huge world with obscure puzzles, hilariously cruel traps, and tricky bosses – its fans would have been happy with simply more of the same, or a way to develop amnesia and play the game for the first time again. Nigoro did create something in La-Mulana 2 that will satisfy these veterans, but they’ve smoothed out the experience enough to make it palatable for newcomers as well. The strong focus on lore-derived puzzles sets La-Mulana 2 apart from the common indie Metroidvania, resembling something closer to the core of a text or graphic adventure game. The core of La-Mulana 2 is quite solid, but some unfortunate imbalances in the bosses and puzzles mar what should be its most spectacular moments.
Selected Shopkeeper Inspirations:
- La-Mulana 2 by Playism Games – Kickstarter
- La-Mulana 2 Online Manual – Official manual. Offers a few hints for getting started without spoiling anything at all.
- La-Mulana 2 Wiki – Unofficial wiki, thorough and full of spoilers.
- Steam Forums: NPCs that are references to other games – A thread collecting the shopkeeper inspirations.