La-Mulana is a Metroidvania both famous and infamous for its difficulty. After seeing a review that praised its puzzles and claimed it uniquely required you to think on how to proceed, I picked it up the Steam version while it was on sale to try it myself. I beat Hollow Knight, after all, surely I can handle the difficulty, I thought.
This is a troll game. I quit about 10 hours in after I beat a difficult boss at the end of a long area with no save points, only to investigate a suspicious alcove in the next area, which turned out to be a trap that instantly killed me, undoing all my progress. I’d genuinely like to get a refund.
I have one simple metric when it comes to Metroidvanias: If I ever have to consult a guide to figure out how to progress, you failed as a designer. Arguably this is true of any game, but it’s particularly bad for Metroidvanias, where figuring out the world yourself is supposed to be the entire point. If I can only play a Metroidvania by religiously consulting a guide at every turn, what’s even the point?
I hit this point about five hours in, I believe, where I had exhausted all available areas and still had absolutely no idea how to get into the Chamber of Extinction. I knew from the “hints” (which are terrible, more on that later) that I had to flood the Temple of the Sun, but there was absolutely no indication of how to do that. There is a pool with a suspicious stopper-looking thing in the Spring in the Sky, but unlike in other Metroidvanias there’s no world map that shows you how all the areas connect together, so there was no indication it was over the Temple of the Sun; furthermore, I did poke that stopper, but couldn’t figure out how to interact with it. Turns out you have to destroy a platform in the room that looks solid, then go up and hit a winch that looks like a background element to raise the stopper. It’s so obvious!
The insidious part is that La-Mulana doesn’t start this bad. It starts quite reasonably, in fact. The first area is full of skeletons from previous failed adventurers who you can scan for crucial info that adequately tutorializes many of the basic mechanics: Read the tablets, make sure you’re prepared before charging in, and some puzzle triggers can be traps. The puzzles in the first area are pretty straightforward, with the hints for each puzzle generally close by. I felt pretty confident after beating it.
Turns out that was the real trap. The game immediately shoots up in difficulty; the hints get increasingly obtuse and often simply do not give you all the information you need, requiring you to make increasingly large leaps of logic to figure anything out. The very next area forces you to discern the identity of various statues based on hints scattered throughout the area, but there are two statues with the exact same distinguishing feature, and it is literally impossible to discern which is which. Apparently you are supposed to decide that when asked to find a statue with a chest wound, you are supposed to pick the statue that is also headless instead of the one that is in perfect condition except for a chest wound, because being headless is just an irrelevant aesthetic detail! Obviously!
Probably my favorite example is in the Temple of Moonlight, regarding the boss fight with Anubis. Immediately before the arena, there’s a tablet telling you that Anubis cannot be defeated without the Book of the Dead. Okay, I thought, clearly this means I should avoid this area until I find that item somewhere else. Turns out, no, you get that item by trying to fight Anubis anyway, confirming he’s invincible, at which point an escape route will appear (unlike every other boss ever), and only then can you mention this to a helpful NPC in another area, who will then reveal she had the book the entire time.
Here is a quote from the developers explaining the punishing design ethos of the game:
Let’s say you were an archaeologist. You’re standing in front of a dark hole that you can’t see the bottom of. Would you jump in? In real life, your response would probably be, “Heck no!” After all, you don’t know what’s down there. Or say you’re in a room filled with corpses and a bunch of switches. Would you just press them haphazardly at random? In this case too, you’d probably never do something so reckless. We wanted to try to incorporate this type of tension–a “Proceed with caution” type of feeling into the game.
With this in mind, we ended up making La Mulana a lot harder than we had been intending when we started the project. We tried to make it so that people wouldn’t get hopelessly stuck everywhere, but if you just whack walls at random without thinking you’ll die. If you think “Ooh, a treasure!” and run charging toward it without thinking, you’ll die.
But if you charge into a fight you know is impossible, you won’t die, that makes total sense.
And Anubis is far from the only example of this contradictory messaging. You see that bit about how if you whack walls at random you’ll die? You are told and shown early on that, because the ruins are holy, attacking certain objects will get you smote by the gods. Thank goodness, I thought, they’re critiquing the annoying Metroidvania trope of needing to smash every wall to find hidden passages! Surely they will use those famous puzzles I hear so much about to direct me instead. Ha ha, nope! There are still tons of unmarked secret passages you can only find by whacking walls at random, including one that looks exactly like the kind explicitly marked as “don’t hit this or you’ll get smote”, but that one you are supposed to attack, because!
The entire game is like this. The rules are completely inconsistent and the few “hints” the game gives you are deliberately insufficient to fill in the gaps. Sometimes you need to investigate suspicious alcoves to progress, sometimes that gets you killed. Sometimes you need to smash walls to progress, sometimes that gets you killed. Sometimes you’ll get a hint, sometimes you won’t. You’ll be told what item you need to solve a puzzle but not where to get it, which is useless. You’ll be expected to solve puzzles that use a completely unique mechanic that isn’t used anywhere before or after. (Like the Eden puzzle, where you have to use the hand scanner on a bunch of background details that look uninteractive.)
And then you get killed by a random trap and have to do it all over again, because oh did I mention, there’s only one save point per area?
The developers seem to believe the height of video game design is wasting the player’s time. You are forced to spend ages wandering around poking everything to brute-force these stupid, nonsensical “puzzles”, during which you will inevitably get sucker-punched by something without warning, and then you’ll have to do it all again. That’s not difficult, that’s not clever, it’s just banal and sadistic.
So screw that, I’m out. This game is for people who enjoy having their time wasted, and I’m not one of those people. If you want a difficult Metroidvania that’s actually fair, play Hollow Knight, and if you want a Metroidvania with a puzzle focus, play Toki Tori 2. This game is just a troll that people put way too much effort into.