Every part of the world has its own history and legends that are ripe for examination, yet games typically stick to a narrow range of familiar cultures. It's why games like Mulaka stand out; they can open your eyes to concepts and themes that you otherwise might never encounter. Mulaka is a 3D action-adventure game that looks to the Sierra Tarahumara region of northern Mexico and channels its cultural heritage into a fascinating adventure steeped in mythology.
You play the role of the Sukurúame, a spear-wielding warrior shaman who can see both the physical and spirit world, and eventually transform into various animals. From the open desert to a thriving human city, Mulaka's landscapes have a magical quality that make it feel like an interactive trip inside a children's book. Your goal in each area is typically to find three magical stones that will unlock a giant door leading to a boss. Bottomless drops, deadly quicksand, water hazards, and precarious climbs are combined in entertaining and challenging ways to keep the action moving and diverse, as are the simple yet enjoyable puzzles throughout.
It can be fascinating to take in as you convene with animal spirits or battle fantastical monsters. The game utilizes its fairly primitive graphics style to give the game a classic look that fits its mythical themes, and the landscapes have a beautiful contoured quality. All the while the soundtrack uses native instruments to create an ambient soundtrack that fits the action, but stays mostly in the background.
The aforementioned civilization you engage with offers a slightly human touch to the mystical landscape, but Mulaka’s NPCs are disappointing conversationalists. They’re static characters who don’t do much except passively add to the atmosphere. And much like NPCs in classic RPGs, they only have one line of dialogue a piece.
Mulaka's detailed use of Sierra Tarahumaran mythology is the main here, since it provides a setting we haven't really seen before. Much like God of War used Greek myths to add compelling, otherworldly drama to its saga, Mulaka's setting adds a unique flavor to every aspect of the game. The presence of animal spirits leads to a set of monsters that are mostly grounded in the real world, but magnified to menacing proportions.
The themes of animal transformation lend themselves naturally to gaming. So moving from human to bird to bear forms in quick succession later in the game is a fast-paced thrill. Your character's spirit vision lets you see where objectives and key items (such as keystones) are, in addition to invisible platforms that are required to access specific parts of the world. The magic energy you expend to see these things extends to other abilities, such as flight. The multi-use resource forces you to balance your abilities on the fly, which can be a thrilling challenge during the game's more intense and chaotic battles.
Combat is near ever-present, and figuring out the best way to deal with the various enemies is part of the fun. Normal enemies, like giant frogs and basic mantis men, can just be wailed on, but many, including a creepy skull-armored spider, are shielded and must first be opened up to attack with a heavy strike. Other enemies are only vulnerable if you can successfully dodge their opening attacks.
Somewhat frustratingly, airborne enemies--from flying bolo-throwing mantises to balls of fire--can be especially hard to hit, especially in the midst of a full-blown battle between several distinct kinds of monsters. The issue stems from controlling your spear, which is especially problematic on Switch. There, the game insists on using motion controls, which don't behave as accurately as you'd hope. The target lock is also nearly useless, making it incredibly frustrating to hit moving targets.
Where things are at their are best are in the terrifically designed and imaginative boss encounters that range from straightforward battles to devious and clever platforming tests. So, in one fight you might be taunting a giant bug to run into towering rock sculptures and another requires you to use the wind generated by the boss itself to fly up to higher points so you can attack the boss's weak points. Seeing what surprises the next boss offers is one of the great joys of the game.
Mulaka is a simple game at heart with a lot of familiar traits. The open, low-poly landscapes and characters are reminiscent of Journey. The combat and puzzle elements are similar to Breath of the Wild and Okami. But thanks to the specific Tarahumara setting and characters, Mulaka still manages to have a personality and feel all its own. It offers an appealingly unique setting that makes it something more than a typical adventure game.
Editor's note: Our original review incorrectly stated that Mulaka does not offer an option to invert camera controls. The option exists, along with options to adjust camera sensitivity. GameSpot regrets the error, and has adjusted the review accordingly. -- Peter Brown, March 6, 2018, 12:30PM PT