When thinking about edutainment (educational entertainment) games, the image that usually comes to mind is either puzzle games such as Brain Age or the Zoombinis, or children's' games such as Mario Teaches Typing. What you most likely did not think about is a game like Mulaka. The game sets out to teach its players about the culture, mythology and folklore of the Tarahumara, an indigenous group of people currently inhabiting an area in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Mulaka is a 3D action-adventure game where you take control of Mulaka, a Sukurúame (shaman) on a quest to gather the powers of formidable demigods in order to battle a corrupting evil. The game is not open-world, but rather features open levels where you need to gather three stones in order to open the way to fight the level's boss.
One of the best things about Mulaka is its aesthetic. The game is incredibly pretty and features an original low-poly style. The music is also great and perfectly captures the authentic vibe the creators tried to achieve. Every design, whether it is the enemies, characters or the levels themselves, was unique and I loved it. Another notable aspect of the presentation is the short animated cutscenes which feature gorgeous visuals.
On paper, Mulaka handles combat design very well. You are slowly introduced to a fairly large variety of new enemies,
each requiring you to use slightly different tactics in order to fight them. For example, you can't get close to poison mushrooms so you have to beat them by throwing your spear, and some enemies require you to break their defense with a strong move before you can damage them.
Mulaka also allows you to read about a new enemy the moment you meet one for the first time, learning
about both its mythology and how to fight it. Most new enemies are met in circular arenas the game locks you in. You are only allowed to leave once you beat a few waves. In order to deal with a large group of enemies you can build up a devastating finisher move by hitting enemies, and this ability can even be saved until a more opportune moment.
It might surprise you then, that Mulaka's weakest aspect is this combat system. The reason the combat fails is because I found myself using the most basic combo the entire game. Although the game forces you to deal with new and interesting combinations of enemies inside the combat arenas, most of the time I just ran around the arena, spamming the same combo and building up my finisher meter. The combat became so repetitive and simple that I found myself avoiding most of the enemies once I bought all the upgrades (of which there are only seven). This is not to say that the combat is bad, but rather that it is merely passable and that it could use more complex combos and enemy patterns to force you to use those combos.
This is also not to say that everything about the combat system is mediocre. Throughout the game, you are introduced to four potions that will aid you in combat and sometimes in exploration. These potions are for healing, shield, a bomb and increased damage. Once you use a potion Mulaka will perform a short dance before the potion takes effect, other than the bomb which requires you to aim. I did like that using potions takes time and so you have to find an opening to use them or you will get hurt. They are also in limited supply so you have to make sure that you have enough of them before heading into a tough battle. What was irritating is that you get more potions by collecting plants that are scattered across the level. While you can see where the plants are by activating your special vision, there may not be enough of them, so you will have to travel back to previous levels and find some there.
Boss battles are where the combat system shines a little better. Because bosses have more health and cannot always be damaged, they force you to learn their patterns and find openings for attacks. Most of the bosses are quite unique, though I found it a bit irritating that some of the late game boss battles were just about avoiding their hits until you have a tiny opening to stun and damage them. Even then, these fights are properly challenging unlike the usual enemies. However, boss battles do not fix the biggest issue with the system: there is no lock-on. You can lock-on to an enemy by trying to throw a spear
at them, but you cannot do so during regular melee combat. This leads to many times where an enemy will hit you from off-camera or you have to spin the camera around to see where the enemy is.
Combat is only half of the game, with the other half being exploring the open levels for key items (the previously mentioned rocks), treasures and hidden collectibles. In order to aid you with the exploration, you have a special vision you can activate that will allow you to see the direction and distance of anything important other than the collectibles. This vision also allows you to see ghosts, which act as hidden collectibles you can talk to. Using this vision costs magic so you can't have it activated all the time. The vision is very useful to keep track of what you still need to do in a level and will also show you enemy and boss health bars. I really liked that you could only see some enemies using this vision as it added a bit of complexity to the combat.
Throughout the game, you will receive four special abilities from the demigods. These are the ability to float like a bird, a powerful bear strike that destroys certain objects, a puma dash that allows you to climb up mushrooms, and a serpent that allows you to slide on water and freeze vines. Each of these costs magic and all have a use in combat, especially against bosses. One boss has you waiting for it to hit the ground so you can freeze vines it got caught in, then you break those vines with a bear attack to make the boss fall down. I also really like some of the platforming puzzles. For example, there is a late-game section that has you switching from the puma to the bird transformation mid-air. Unfortunately, even the puzzles and platforming challenges do not stop the game from being too easy.
Even though your goal in each level remains the same, except in the penultimate and final levels where you just need to reach the boss, I think that there is enough variation in the puzzles and platforming challenges you have to do that it never feels too repetitive. Some stones you get by beating challenge arenas, other may require you to beat a short water puzzle where you have to get water flowing to snake statues. I think that the game could have been better if each level had a slightly different goal so they did not feel too similar to each other.
The game's strongest aspect for me is its lore. Whether it is the learning about the creatures from the bestiary, or about the culture by talking to NPCs, ghosts and inspecting hidden artifacts. The game has a lot to teach the players about the Tarahumara people and I had a fun time learning, which is rare when it comes to edutainment. Although, it was annoying that you have to basically pixel hunt for the ghosts and the artifacts as there is no way to know where they are.
Mulaka is a charming game with a lot to teach its players, and while you do have to deal with its sub-par combat system, I do think it is worth it. I really liked the game, but unfortunately, it is the simple, repetitive gameplay that brings it down and I do understand why some may not want to play it.
Ofir played Mulaka on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.