La-Mulana 2: The 0th Body, The 9th Spirit sees Japanese developer NIGORO return with another relic-hunting, whip-cracking adventure. Dave Cook plays it, gets killed loads then speaks with director Takumi Naramura about what’s new.
When I was a kid I was absolutely bat-shit for Core Design’s Rick Dangerous series on Amiga (above). It had everything a young Indiana Jones fan could want; boulder traps, perilous caves, shiny relics and tons of enemies to lay out with Rick’s whip. Core would later go on to create Tomb Raider, a franchise that expanded on that format to an incredible degree.
Years later, Spelunky and La-Mulana happened. Both games took the cave exploration template back to basics before building on it in compelling new ways, and it’s interesting to draw comparisons between both games and Rick’s classic adventure today. There are clear thematic similarities, and if – like me – you enjoyed Core’s series, you’re probably thankful for the fact.
The original La-Mulana was developed by Japanese outfit NIGORO and saw considerable success on Steam. It wasn’t a random rogue-like, but it still delivered a great deal of ambiguity regarding what exactly players had to do. Therein lay La-Mulana’s appeal; that often-gruelling process of searching the world, overcoming hazards and trying to figure out its cryptic messages and various puzzles is both engrossing and intimidating in equal measure.
Figuring out how to bypass a blocked route or obtaining new information is incredibly rewarding, and comes after significant effort on the player’s part. Sorry to sound like a skipping record here; but it reminded me of Dark Souls.
I like Dark Souls… perhaps you’ve heard? Interestingly; the original La-Mulana came before From Software’s opus.
Anyway; NIGORO was kind enough to send me a Kickstarter-funded La-Mulana 2 alpha build and I have to admit that right away I became lost, scared and frustrated, but also utterly addicted. When I say it was frustrating, I don’t mean that it was to the game’s detriment. It’s one of those enjoyable challenges that gets you so pissed off you want to overcome it, as if proving the game wrong somehow. It’s a total sod, make no mistake.
Set five years after the original, La-Mulana 2 stars Lumisa Kosugi, who happens to be the daughter of the first game’s protagonist Lemeza. She explores the depths of Eg-Lana to defeat a series of monstrous bosses and stop a mysterious wave of monsters pouring out of the ruins. Like the first game, you’ll have a computer and other gear to help you bypass traps and stay alive that little bit longer each spawn.
It’s familiar but fun stuff as you jump over spikes and pitfalls while whipping a range of enemies to death. You’ll find treasure chests containing relics you aren’t quite sure how to use, and cryptic headstones with strange, veiled clues as to what you need to do. I found the Holy Grail early on and to this day I’m not sure what it’s for. Still, it looks good to hold, right?
Admit it; you just played the Zelda treasure jingle in your head.
I’ve died playing this game so many times already. I’ve been impaled on spikes, eaten by bats, crushed by boulders and zapped by lightning. I even got knocked off a lethal drop by a creature resembling Pikachu. It’s a positively odd title that doesn’t dole out checkpoints generously, and as such there’s definitely an element of trial-and-error here. But the more you poke and prod its many perilous chambers you’ll start to get your bearings.
Intrigued; I spoke with the NIGORO director Takumi Naramura over email about La-Mulana 2 development and to get a handle on the series’ distinct flavour. “I love games that make you figure out the game’s system yourself,” he told me. “I grew up playing difficult games like this, without the kindness and simplicity of modern consumer games. Reading a thick explanation guide, and then playing a game as you remember the complex mechanics was the norm, but it seems that this generation, it has become the norm to play games without ever having read the instructions.
“This applies mostly to Japan, but around the PlayStation generation, 3D games became much more popular, and apparently people who made 2D games and graphics faded away. Time has passed, and games have gotten so big, that 2D games are being re-evaluated, but there is no one left who knows how to make these games. Can you believe this?
“The difficulty of La-Mulana 2 allows you to achieve a feeling of accomplishment when you pass a difficult situation or solve a puzzle. If the difficulty is lowered, the addictiveness of the game would decrease. Since we want as many people as possible to enjoy the game, the start and beginning may require slight guidance to help people to get to the point where they will enjoy the game. The ideal situation would be making it easier in the beginning, but ramping up the difficult as players get further in.”
Naramura’s not wrong; it really doesn’t take long for that, ‘just one more try’ mentality to kick in after a few deaths. Though you may curse yourself after failure, you’ll likely jump right back into the fray after restarting at the last checkpoint glyph. It’s a similar experience to the original La-Mulana off the bat, so I asked him what he wanted to achieve in the sequel.
He told me that while NIGORO doesn’t want to be known as ‘the La-Mulana studio,’ the team was keen to give existing fans a new experience within that world. There was also a desire to push the boundaries of what it means to be a 2D platformer. Resorting to a 3D perspective was never an option however, as Naramura feels it’s fraught with potential problems – such as gauging attack ranges, jump distances and so on.
“This applies mostly to Japan,” he added, “but around the PlayStation generation, 3D games became much more popular, and apparently people who made 2D games and graphics faded away. Time has passed, and games have gotten so big, that 2D games are being re-evaluated, but there is no one left who knows how to make these games. Can you believe this?
“If a player is used to the previous game, then they might be able to figure it out much more quickly. However, like the last game, if a player is trying to figure out the game all the way to its core, it will not be easy. I’m sure it will be difficult to clear alone, so please feel free to collaborate with other players online.”
“The knowledge of those who made classic 2D games has not been carried on. Director Kojima, Mr. Inafune, Mr. Miyamoto who paved the way are powerful as expected. The indie developers – in not just Japan but foreign countries as well – who continue to create 2D games must be [from] the generation that grew up playing wonderful 2D games. There are also people who wish to play those 2D games, and there is a certain fun that can only be enjoyed through 2D games. Regardless of generations, there will always be people who think so.”
It’s true that there will always exist an appetite for 2D platform games and there’s no secret that Steam is rammed full of new, interesting platforming concepts. La-Mulana 2 will be one of them, and even from the short alpha sample I played, those fond memories of Rick Dangerous and the other platform darlings from my youth lingered in the back of my mind. That’s a great feeling, even if I simultaneously want to plant my foot through my laptop’s screen in frustration.
On that note; I asked Naramura to discuss what he thought of the Dark Souls comparison. He stressed again that La-Mulana came first, but added that he’s a fan of letting players actually play his games, rather than watching cut-scenes or scripted events. He wants you to dig deep into it and even collaborate with others online to help overcome its many brutal challenges.
“If a player is used to the previous game, then they might be able to figure it out much more quickly,” Naramura added. “However, like the last game, if a player is trying to figure out the game all the way to its core, it will not be easy. The game is made for people who were fascinated by the first game, so it will not be easy. I’m sure it will be difficult to clear alone, so please feel free to collaborate with other players online.”
The collaborative element is certainly appealing, given La-Mulana 2’s ambiguity and devilish puzzle elements. It’s one of those games that will likely reveal its secrets long after launch. I for one can’t wait to get stuck into the full build, work myself into a rage-lather and toil through it to the best of my abilities. Clearly; I’m a sadist. What about you?
Disclosure: to assist in writing this article, NIGORO and its partner Playism sent Dave a PC alpha build of La-Mulana 2.