There’s something inherently special in recognizing video games as art. Most art forms are consumed passively. We look at paintings, admire sculptures, listen to songs, watch films, and so on. Video games are different. We interact with them.
Yes, we look at them, admire them, listen to their music and watch in-game cutscenes, but we also control the action as it’s unfolding, and oftentimes go so far as to create what’s happening on the screen itself. It’s for all of those reasons that Mulaka isn’t just a special game, but a piece of culturally relevant art.
Created by Lienzo, a game studio based in Chihuahua, Mexico, Mulaka puts players in control of a Sukurúame, a shaman of the Tarahumara indigenous people. With a gameplay style similar to The Legend of Zelda, players control the spear-wielding protagonist as he attempts to unite the demigods and prevent the world’s destruction.
What sets Mulaka’s apart from other game’s in the genre is that its story is based on actual Tarahumara religion and culture, with the demigods and environment having been thoroughly researched during the game’s creation. As players progress through the story, enemies ranging from simple scorpions to ethereal beasts will attempt to halt your progress.
The most basic enemies can be taken down with quick attacks from your spear, but others require more ingenuity and are only susceptible to heavy attacks or spear throws. Although not overwhelming, there are times when swarms of enemies can become a challenge. Light puzzle-solving breaks up the combat, and although they aren’t always difficult, there are some genuinely challenging platforming areas.
Each stage of Mulaka requires players to find three stones to unlock the boss area, which, in keeping with the genre’s style, offer a combination of combat and puzzle mechanics to successfully complete. Each defeated boss then yields to one of the demigods, who in addition to bestowing a new ability on you also delivers a piece of mythology.
That mythology is a major part of what takes Mulaka from being an ordinary action-adventure game and transforms it into something special. Gorgeous polygonal art, a vivid color palette and traditionally inspired music all lend themselves to making Mulaka feel less like a game and more like a step into a book of living culture.
The art style’s jagged edges make the game appear as a cave drawing come to life, and the complete lack of facial detail shifts focus away from individual characters, emphasizing their roles within the game and culture instead. It’s a bold move that works perfectly.
Beyond Mulaka’s aesthetics, the developers at Lienzo had the awareness to realize the Tarahumara were put into the mainstream in Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run. At least one of the book’s quotes even appears on the game’s loading screen, pointing to the Tarahumara people’s legendary running ability.
As a game, Mulaka is a solid, fun entry into the action-adventure genre, with some neat puzzles and polished combat. It’s Mulaka’s cultural impact and ability to combine that into an interactive experience that I’ll remember it for most, though. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay it.
My only issue with the game was that in the Switch’s handheld mode, quick movements and the fast-paced combat were slightly difficult to follow, but that’s both a nonissue on other systems and quite possibly something that won’t bother everyone.
Mulaka easily earns 4 GiN Gems out of 5.