La-Mulana is a good one, somewhere in the realm of Castlevania, but with obvious Zelda influences, too. It’s a challenge-oriented game that avoids handholding, but it’s not really so rough, at least as long as you’re not going for some extreme no subweapons, hard mode, speedrunning achievements. You can tank through most bosses’ attacks and kill them without really learning their patterns, and the most physically challenging element in the rest of gameplay is in mastering how to time your jumps when you can’t remaneuver yourself in midair, in knowing how to avoid losing your momentum when you step off platforms, and so on. Jumping works as intended; it was designed to take a bit of practice to pull off a jump of the exact distance needed to land on a platform, but the controls are reliable. Not being able to quickly release from ladders or grab them mid-jump can be annoying if you’ve played other sidescrollers in which you can easily do those things, but is also a deliberate and defensible design decision.
I’m not so sold on swimming, though, which can be incredibly frustrating. If you’ve been hit just once, you can really get Mario Karted by plumes of volcanic rock and your own backwards momentum.
The movement controls are a great fit for the way the stages are actually laid out, but I did at times feel it would have been in La-Mulana’s favor if it had prioritized the “joy” of movement, with faster, more dynamic jumps and Super Meat Boy wall-kicks. A few of the items seemed like they would have been a great opportunity to enhance general character mobility, but aside from the double-jumping feather, most are on the extremely situational end of the spectrum: the place where boring Zelda-esque lock-and-key inventory puzzles live. Also, having an item halve the damage I take is tremendously useful, but HP and defense are just numbers, and those stats are far less interesting than, say, reduced knockback, or an item that allows aerial momentum recovery after a second of flinch, or climbing spikes that prevent sliding on ice.
I also want to call some attention to the unconventional health pickup system, where players have to gather an amount equivalent to their total HP and then they get a full heal all at once, instead of getting it back piecemeal like they would with hearts in a Zelda game. It’s not too hard to suppose what the design intent might have been: this way, you can’t trade hits with random enemies and get the health back at the end of each little skirmish. But the heals are entirely unreliable, unless you calculate and grind out to just short of a full heal so you can get one off a skeleton just outside of a boss door, which is a silly thing to incentivize. An Estus flask or Zelda-style consumable fairy in a bottle might’ve been better choices, but also would automatic full-heals in front of a save point and no healing at all otherwise, since a player can warp around the world all they want at no cost. That stands out as an oddly friendly choice for an allegedly brutally hard game–free teleporting to save points is worth more than infinite free weights and subitem replenishments combined would have been.
Which brings me to a bigger topic: initially, when I started La-Mulana, I was determined to beat the whole game blind; no advance knowledge outside of knowing the basic tenets of gameplay, no guide lookups when I got stuck. I cleared out the first few bosses and then saved my game in a permanently unwinnable state, trapped in the Temple of Moonlight, without the warp item–which is actually a hidden item that becomes available not five minutes into the game and makes things a hundred times easier. I thought I was playing the way the game was meant to be played, but in googling around for the problem, I realized that my getting stuck was, to other people, a quaint hypothetical. After the warp item, the game didn’t seem too tough at all.
Fez was one of my best gaming experiences in the past few years, and I was hopeful that I’d see something like that in La-Mulana: fair, rewarding puzzles that are best challenged with patience and reams of graph paper. After losing a bit of progress in having to reload to that second save slot back in town–when you can’t warp or heal whenever you want, it’s natural to expect risk in keeping only one save slot, deep in a labyrinth with a finite supply of HP and the weights used to prop doors open–I was a little less determined to never check a guide again. I made it to the Gate of Illusion and then had to check a hint guide twice. By I’d finished the Chamber of Birth, I must have looked up a few dozen things that had only kept me stuck for no more than a couple minutes. I couldn’t tell that a texture was supposed to be interpreted as a climbable ladder, so I checked the hint guide. I couldn’t immediately tell which of my hundred notes from faraway levels applied to a puzzle I was dealing with, so I checked the hint guide. I didn’t want to run back to every area of the game in sequence to see what door opened up after killing a boss, so I checked the hint guide.
Ultimately, I think playing La-Mulana blind is a fool’s errand. I’m sad to say it, because I really enjoyed parts like drawing up my own maps (even though they didn’t always turn out to be spatially coherent), and figuring out how to read the La-Mulanese cipher when I had yet to find all of the in-game paleographies. It’s not a bad idea for new players to push themselves to try and get as far as they can on their own first, but ultimately, even the absolutely necessary, main-questline puzzles were prohibitively arcane. And no matter how strong your dislike of handholding in games is, that warp item should’ve been forced into the player’s inventory from the beginning–or should not have been included at all, if you want to be that much of a purist old-schooler.
Some riddling tablets were too far away from the puzzles they referred to; others were given too early; some were too vague to be useful, and only served to pour salt on my wounds when I finally figured the puzzles out by chance or perseverance. It’s not babying or patronizing to show players where a door has opened after they kill a boss or they weigh down a hard-to-reach platform. While I don’t think it’s ideal for a game to focus-test all its interesting edges off, as typically happens to big studio games, La-Mulana is on the level where even a few extremely dedicated friends of the developer wouldn’t have been able to figure certain things out if they took all week trying. My reaction to learning the solutions was too often “Well, that’s some bullshit,” and not often enough “Ohh, I should have thought of that!”
My gut says that some of this stuff was meant to be figured out by crowdsourcing the problem after the game’s release, and not by individuals–certainly, figuring out how to get inside the postgame “Hell Temple” was like that, and I didn’t even get around to doing the temple itself. But the problem with this approach is that an “online community” can only figure something out once–anyone who ever looks online hoping to do such a thing afterwards is really just “checking the guide”, without participation.
Esoterism aside, I can’t complain too much, and most people probably wouldn’t have been as stubborn as me. (My stubbornness seems to vary depending on how prepared I am to like a game, and its genre, in the first place.) The difficulty wasn’t brutal, but wasn’t entirely trivial either, and I had the option to enter hard mode if I ever thought otherwise. There were also some very ambitiously designed (not to say difficult) boss fights, good lore, funny jokes, catchy tunes.
Ultimately there were only a few design issues holding back something fundamentally great. It’s getting to be a bit cliche to say that a game is “not Dark Souls”, but you can hardly look elsewhere for an exemplar of more nuanced approaches to challenging gameplay, and of doing less to incentivize constant looks at the wiki. La-Mulana’s got a kickstartered sequel in production and I’d love to see it take a step in that direction. But what’s here now is certainly worth playing.