Although it literally has no connection to the series of spiritual books popular in the 1970s, playing Mulaka reminded me of a Carlos Castaneda story come to life in videogame form. With its Northern Mexico setting and Native American protagonist, who can commune with animals, shape-shift and see into the spiritual realm, I half expected the mysterious Don Juan to be the next NPC, offering wisdom and guidance. Games with Native American or Mexican themes are rare, so Mulaka immediately impresses by virtue of its setting and Tarahumara main character. I wished, in fact, that the semi-nomadic Tarahumara people and their religion were a little more integral to Mulaka, which at its core is a modest action-RPG.
Mulaka's main character is a Sukurúame, a shaman, who's tasked with saving the world by appeasing several minor gods and harnessing their power. The open and - especially at the start of the game - barren desert landscapes hide the fact that Mulaka is a very linear, level-based game with a fairly repetitive structure that involves finding some key items to unlock the boss for each area. Finding those items involves fighting a number of smaller enemies and collecting medicinal plants to make ability-enhancing potions. There are some simple environmental puzzles to solve, but none of them are terrible obtuse, and usually integrate well with the main character's increasingly diverse arsenal of abilities.
Mulaka's combat - in part a byproduct of the game's minimalist aesthetic - is likewise pretty simplistic, relying on a handful of moves and attacks throughout the game, and learning the enemy's attack patterns and weaknesses. If those sentences sound like they could be describing any one of a thousand action games, it might be because Mulaka's combat is far less interesting than its setting. Special abilities, like gliding and shapeshifting, are welcome wrinkles in the familiar fabric, and the hero's ability to see into the spirit world and locate objects and pathways is both very gamey and a logical extension of the shaman's magic.
Made up of low-res polygons, Mulaka's art style is colorful and distinctive, but stylized in a way that might not appeal to everyone as so many objects, animals and people lack detail. If you imagine a two-dimensional aboriginal painting come to life, you'll understand the game's art. Occasionally, the lack of environmental detail resulted in a bit of frustration, as there's little to distinguish shadows from, for example, insta-death pools of quicksand. As the game progresses, the environments become richer and more interesting - and sometimes very pretty - but the first few hours are tediously lacking in variety. Mulaka is a slow build.
In the end, Mulaka's disappoints by bolting a really interesting and rarely experienced setting to a rather unimaginative action game and and art style that might be divisive. The gameplay loop is so familiar that the story and Native American setting feel arbitrary. Never very challenging as an action game, Mulaka is best experienced as a brief portal into an unfamiliar culture.