Games as a medium have matured extensively over the past decade or so. Numerous ideas and stories which would have never previously been explored now find their way into game form. Increasingly we’re seeing games based around cultures and their mythologies, providing a new and interesting lens into these worlds that typically wouldn’t have been explored in this medium. Mulaka, the second game from indie developer Lienzo, explores the lore of the Tarahumara people through a 3D platformer beat ’em up. It’s one of the few examples where I can say that the developer knew their limitations and chose to focus on where to best spend their effort. The result is a simple, relatively short game that achieves what it set out to do with only a few minor hiccups along the way.
You play as one of the Sukurúame, a Tarahumara shaman who has tasked themselves with ridding the world of the corruption that has begun to plague it. To do so you will have to enlist the help of the demigods who will imbue you with their powers in order to cleanse the corruption from the land. The path before you won’t be easy however as many of the normal creatures of the land have been warped and changed by the corrupting magic that now infuses the world.
Mulaka utilises a low poly visual style with bright, solid colours and little texturing to be seen. The art style is somewhat reminiscent of older Nintendo 64 like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Goemon’s Great Adventure with the NPCs having flat faces with simple textures. Under the hood this is all powered by Unity but, thanks to the customised art style, manages to avoid that trademark look and feel. Consequently the game runs absolutely lightning fast on any semi-modern PC and, given it has a Switch release, would likely run quite well on nearly anything you cared to throw at it.
The game can be largely categorised into 2 major parts: the 3D platforming and puzzle sections, and the now standard “Dark Souls-esque” style of combat. Each of Mulaka’s levels requires you to find 3 stones in which to unlock a door to progress to a small final section, most of which are found via exploration or completing a quest set by one of the NPCs. Initially they’re your stock standard platforming puzzles but as you unlock new abilities they change into more of a traditional puzzle experience. The combat follows a similar progression, starting off with your typical dodge/roll/parry and quickly building into more complex encounters thanks to multiple different types of enemies and the new abilities you unlock. There is a small progression system in the form of currency you’ll receive from defeated enemies but, honestly, I did the vast majority of the game with only buying one (and that was actually a mistake). Overall there’s actually not that much to Mulaka in terms of game mechanics but for things it does do it does them well.
Combat isn’t exactly a challenging experience as most enemies can be defeated by simply spamming one attack at them. Whilst challenge initially comes from trying to figure out how to tackle new enemy types it unfortunately tends towards simply throwing more enemies at once at you. The upgraded enemies you’ll come across later in the game are simply bigger, badder versions of their earlier incarnations and so they don’t really feel like that much more of a threat. The bosses are however all quite interesting, attempting to recreate that same feeling you get in the Dark Souls series of being a very small person going up against an unbelievably giant threat. Suffice to say you’re not going to be playing this for the challenge (or taunting your friends to “git gud” at it) but it was somewhat refreshing to have a combat experience that didn’t feel like it was getting in the way too much for once.
The puzzles are similarly none too difficult with the majority of them being a follow the bouncing ball kind of deal. The 3D platformer puzzles can be solved in numerous ways, many of them I’m sure weren’t entirely intended by the developer. Other smaller puzzles (like the water one shown above) only have a single solution and can usually be solved in a few minutes. Mulaka could do a slightly better job of communicating when you’re not able to solve a particular puzzle due to you not having the requisite ability as this is one of those games where not everything in every level is available to you from the start. For instance you’ll likely find items behind a big rock with red claw marks on it, something which can’t be cleared until you get the bear ability. The game doesn’t tell you this (nor for any of the other blockers) so it can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game as to what you can access right now and what you’ll have to come back for.
There’s also some quality of life improvements that could be made, 2 of which jump immediately to mind. First off the upgrade vendor is only in one map which means you’ll have to trek back there every time you want to purchase one. Since the game already has characters that travel from map to map with you it’s not out of the question to bring said upgrade vendor along with you. Secondly the potion crafting, whilst simple and concise, is needlessly laborious in its resource collection mechanic. In order for you to craft a single potion you’ll need to get 4 of a certain item and then you’ll automatically create one. As far as I can tell those resources will spawn an unlimited number of times meaning that the second you find a resource you can, in theory, fill your potion inventory. However the time taken to do so is a little bit too long in my opinion and instead could take inspiration from the estus flask idea in Dark Souls (I.E. refilling them all at certain points). I admit that there is a small lore reason for the gathering mechanic but I’m sure that could be worked in other ways.
The game is well polished in most respects although there are a few minor issues here and there that could use addressing. As the above screenshot shows there are numerous places on several maps where you can fall through the world. Thankfully instead of outright killing you the game will simply teleport you back to a safe place after you fall for a while so it’s not a major issue when it happens. The hit detection, both for your character and enemies, could do with a little tuning as well as some of the enemies attacks connect when you’d think they’d miss. Thankfully these are minor gripes in the overall scheme of things and I’m sure future patches will work most of them out.
The story is steeped in the mythology and culture of the Tarahumara people with many of the places, stories and even game mechanics taking inspiration from it. With your character being an entirely mute protagonist it is a little hard to engage fully with the story. There are some interesting pieces here and there and the story’s ultimate climax is cool but, overall, I didn’t get that much out of it. Looking at the Steam page there’s a bunch of videos that the developer made diving into the culture and how it influenced the game so had I watched those before playing I might be saying something different.
Mulaka’s greatest strength is that it achieved what it set out to. Too often I’ve seen both indie and AAA developers strive for grand visions that can never be fully achieved, resulting in games with half baked ideas and broken implementations. Mulaka instead had a simpler, narrow vision which helped it focus more on what mattered. The game that came out the other end is simple, short and concise. There’s improvements to be made though with some levels needing a little more polish, a few quality of life improvements here or there and a little more story work could elevate this title to much greater heights. None of these are terminal issues though and, should the developers decide to revisit this world, I’m sure a follow up game could strive for a much greater vision.
Mulaka is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Kickstarter opened the gates to underserved gaming niches, allowing us gamers to vote directly with our wallets and see incredible games come to fruition. Not every game was a hit of course and even looking at my backing history there’s several titles in there that, had I known what they’d become, I would have put my cash somewhere else. Kingdom Come: Deliverance falls somewhere in the middle for me; on the one hand I can remember wanting to back this game as even at the concept stage it looked fantastic. However 4 years after I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign (at the Duke level) much of that hype had disappeared, lost in the some 100+ games I played in the interim. That’s possibly what has led to my lukewarm impressions of the game, even though I can definitely appreciate the amount of effort that Warhorse Studios put into it.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance starts off in the silver mining town of Skalitz with young Henry, a simple peasant, living under his mother and blacksmith father, Martin. After finishing some errands for his father, Henry joins him in completing a commissioned sword for King Wenceslaus’ hetman, Sir Radzig Kobyla. While Henry wishes to explore and see life outside of the village, Martin insists that a quieter life is much safer. Immediately after an army of Cuman and Czech soldiers under Sigismund of Luxembourg’s control attack and raid Skalitz, killing all who do not flee. Henry holds on to the sword and runs but later comes back for his mother and father, and witnesses their murder under Sigismund’s crony, Sir Markvart von Aulitz. Henry flees to the safety of the castle, but is too late, and is forced to ride out to the nearest castle of Talmberg.
Depending on what kind of rig you’re running it might not be immediately obvious that Kingdom Come is running on CryEngine. The reason is that, at least on the PC, the game wasn’t exactly optimised at launch. Now my PC is no slouch although it is just over 3 years old at this point but even it struggled to get things running properly with its default configuration (as the below screenshot will attest). Searching around the forums revealed that the game really, really struggles if it’s running on a traditional hard drive, even if that hard drive is say a RAID 10 array capable of 400MB/s throughput (like mine). Using a custom user.cfg file fixed most of the issues but moving it onto my main SSD fixed the rest. Even with all those fixed Kingdom Come is a game that, strangely, looks a lot better up close than it does from afar. Usually most games are the opposite. These issues run deeper than just the graphics though, something I’ll dive into a bit more later.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a true to its roots RPG, taking its inspiration more from the pen and paper variety rather than its more action oriented brethren. There’s a bevy of different stats for you to build up, each of which will require you to do certain things (like say, running to increase vitality) to level them up. Similarly there’s a lot of skills, many of which will require you to be trained in them first before you can start improving them. There’s the usual array of loot along with the requisite inventory management to go along with it. Combat also takes the form of more “traditional” medieval fights which typically means that taking on more than 1 or 2 enemies at a time is a recipe for disaster. There’s also a bunch of status mechanics like hunger, sleep and injuries, all of which will need to be addressed if you’re to stay in top fighting condition. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few features in here too as the game is quite massive in scope and I’ve only seen a small fraction of it (for reasons I shall explain). All of this is presented in a period correct medieval setting, meaning there’s no magical powers or fantastical elements.
FPS games that deal in melee combat have always been somewhat awkward and Kingdom Come is no exception to this. The mechanics of it are pretty simple, you have an amount of stamina (tied to your current health, which is an interesting mechanic) which you use to throw punches, swing your sword and dodge/counter/block enemy attacks. With a sword or other weapon equipped you choose the direction of your strike which has a direct impact on your enemy’s ability to block it. What this results in is a game of cat and mouse with the NPCs, trying to figure out which angle to hit them from. I do get that they were going for a more realistic feel to what medieval combat would be like but it just wasn’t particularly enjoyable.
One feature that’s notably missing, and I think one that sucked a lot of the fun out of it for me, was an unlimited, on demand save. Whilst that’s changed in a recent patch (now with a save and exit function) it did mean that the game was a lot more laborious than it would otherwise be. There were a few times where I lost quite a bit of progress, whether due to my own fault or the numerous technical glitches, because the save point was quite a while back. This also meant that one of my more favourite things, quicksaving and then being a total jerk for no good reason, was stripped away. Say what you will about save scumming and what have you but things like that really do help to keep me engaged in games like this. With such a restrictive save system I no longer feel like experimenting or just having fun for 10 minutes before I break for the night. The save and exit feature somewhat addresses that but, honestly, without a quick save/load it’s really only a halfway solution.
This isn’t even mentioning the larger game design issues which made what was supposed to be the games opening hours more frustrating than they could be. You see an early mission requires you to pick a lock in order to get an item. No worries, you’re given some lock picks and a practice lock to work with to get going. So I spent a few minutes honing my skill until, unfortunately, I broke my lockpick. Alright, I thought, I’ll go into town and buy a new one. Not a single vendor in the town I was in had any and, looking up places to buy them showed that I’d probably have to spend another 30 minutes travelling (I didn’t have a horse) to get more. Great, that mission is now dead to me until I figure out a way around it. Sure it’s not like I couldn’t do other missions but these small issues are numerous and they all make Kingdom Come less enjoyable than it would otherwise be.
This isn’t to mention the numerous issues it has with performance, optimisation and game breaking glitches. In addition to the texture pop in issues the game will lag horrendously in cut scenes if you have G-Sync enabled, yet again requiring a custom config to fix. Lock picking, for some unknown reason, enables mouse acceleration meaning that you’ll need a custom mouse profile or something similar to counteract the effects (making that particular mini game incredibly frustrating). Timed events for NPCs will sometimes simply not work, like when I was told to go to the training ground to meet the captain. I waited next to it for 2 days and he never showed up, requiring me to restart the game to my last checkpoint and try again until it worked. I’m not the only one to experience weird behaviour like this either as many of the Let’s Play videos on YouTube will attest. I know that, as gamers, we’ve come to expect this kind of jank from large RPGs but that doesn’t excuse it. For some I can imagine these things are actually a source of fun but, for me, they just soured me even further on the whole experience.
Which is a right shame as the story seemed quite good. Sure it was relatively predictable how things were going to start but it was truly refreshing to play a game from the perspective of a nobody from nowhere with no prophecy or powers behind him. Careful attention was paid to fleshing out the world with bits of story, interesting conversation between NPCs and a range of dialogue options that were all dependant on how you built your character. Indeed I feel that I should probably wait another 6 months or so until the major issues have been patched out and the mods start rolling in, allowing me to mold the core game of Kingdom Come into something I’d enjoy. That way I could experience the story without having to worry about all the other elements I’m not so keen on.
To be sure Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a great game for a certain subset of gamers: those who’ve been lusting after a true to form RPG in a medieval setting. 4 years ago I thought I was one of them, my pledge on Kickstarter a testament to that, but since then it seems things have changed. I’ve become less tolerant of the jank that these large scale RPGs seem to bring with them, no longer wanting to have to deal with troubleshooting performance issues just so I can play the damn thing. I do recognise the amount of effort that goes into producing something like this though as there are many aspects of this game that I can appreciate for their objective quality. The attention to detail in the world and the story are two such elements, ones that I might be able to enjoy at a later date. If this is the first you’re hearing of Kingdom Come: Deliverance then the game might not be for you but for those Kickstarter faithful I’m sure they’ve got their moneys worth.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 8% of the achievements unlocked.
I really shouldn’t be making a habit of posting these 2 months after the previous year has finished…
Despite my best efforts to really, truly, get back into the 1 game per week rhythm I still managed to only play 43 games last year (1 up from last year). My list of games I didn’t get around to is about as long as it was the years previous although, to be honest, most of them were missed deliberately. Unlike like the last few years I really don’t have a problem with crowning this year’s winner, even with 4 titles vying for the top spot. However it wasn’t always so as I went back and forth over which title should take the crown for a good part of last year. In retrospect now, and by looking at the scores it’s quite clear that there’s only one title it could be.
For reference here’s the list of every game I played last year in chronological order:
It is my not-so-guilty pleasure to assign last year’s worst game to none other than Space Hulk: Deathwing, my second game for last year. I went into that game with no real expectations; I simply hoped for another semi-decent Warhammer 40K game. What I got instead was a slow moving borefest that made the ultimate 40K fantasy, the one of being a Space Marine, a tiresome affair. I’m definitely not alone in thinking this either with 43% of owners simply not playing it and, for those who do, half of them have played less than 2 hours. Coming in at a very close second was STRAFE which proved that nostalgia can only take you so far, especially with “old school” 3D graphics. Thankfully both these titles have been overshadowed by the numerous better games I played last year and there’s a couple that fit into the honourable mention category.
This is likely going to land me in some very hot water but Star Wars Battlefront 2, yes that one, gets a mention as since it’s released I’ve poured some 100+ hours into the multiplayer. A small chunk of that came during the review and I was almost set to put it down until the holiday period came along. It was then that the Christmas Noobs flooded the servers, providing an incredible hunting ground for those like me who had unlocked some decent star cards. That then grew into a love for the base game and I’ve since unlocked all heros and topped the servers dozens of times over. To be sure the issues around microtransactions and progression tied to loot boxes still exist however, now that I’ve basically got everything I need, it’s a non-issue for me. Funnily enough had I shelled out cash to get to this point earlier I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. Still it remains one of my guilty pleasures, much like Call of Duty used to be.
I also want to mention Pyre as it’s a rare example of a company taking a massive risk when it comes to changing what they do. Whilst I didn’t score it as highly as Transistor it did stick in my mind as one of last year’s more unique experiences. For Supergiant games it signals something of a turning point, one which frees them from the shackles they so lovingly crafted for themselves. Their future is incredibly bright and I can not wait to see what comes from them next.
But enough beating around the bush, my Game of the Year for 2017 is:
Zelda: Breath of the Wild was destined for great things right from the beginning. A new Zelda game on a new Nintendo console is basically guaranteed to be a hit but the changes to the core Zelda formula could have swung either way. Thankfully what we got was an absolutely amazing game, one that managed to grow the franchise beyond the constraints that came from the decades of titles that preceded it. The fact that even after some 30+ hours the game could still surprise me says a lot about the game as there aren’t many that can remain new and fresh for that long. There are some small chinks in its near-perfect armour however, namely the weapon durability system which made some of the game’s more interesting and unique finds less useful and enjoyable than they could have been. Even that small flaw melts away in the face of the grander experience that the game puts forward. Honestly whilst my Nintendo Switch may sit not 3 feet away from me, still unused since I played Zelda last, I still consider it money well spent simply for the purpose of playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Coming in at a very close second was Horizon: Zero Dawn. Given that I played it immediately after Zelda it could have easily have been overshadowed but it managed to shine extremely brightly. For a long time after I finished it I was tossing up which of them was the better of the two games. On a raw score perspective Zelda wins, so you’d think that would seal it, but Horizon is a completely new IP and doing something new like that (and doing well at it) could be argued is the greater achievement. In the end Horizon had a few more black marks against in terms of overall experience but make no mistake, it’s still one of last year’s top tier games.
In third place is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, which continued the series’ trademark classic shooter experience in a modern context. It also gets extra points for presenting the most captivating story experience in the series to date. Some of the mistakes of the past still haunt it but, at least for this old reviewer, it proved itself to be the best game in the series to date.
If my list of games to review is anything to go by 2018 is shaping up to be quite the year. Many of the developers who I’ve previously given Game of the Year to are releasing new titles this year and I’m eager to see how they all stack up.