Back in the good old days, a game wasn't even considered playable unless it was so hard that you could never actually see beyond the first few levels – that was just how we got our value for money. The late 1980s were a time when men were men – even when they were pre-pubescent or, God forbid, female – and chest hair, flat caps, and hard liquor were mandatory for anybody over the age of four. La-Mulana EX is a throwback to that glorious time, complete with an Indiana Jones protagonist and a huge tomb to raid – and it's as tough as a Geordie groin guard tester.
The difficulty is more of a side-effect of recreating one of those retro games that we all loved to hate two decades ago. Complete with bars down the side, this is a loving recreation of titles that appeared on the MSX and SNES and which we shamefully still haven't finished. You explore a variety of screens, fight monsters, collect objects, and work your way through a self-guided story. Metroidvania gameplay mixed with classic visuals make for an incredibly authentic experience that'll delight purists but grate for those that want something fresher.
The Vita is the perfect device for a game like this, because it's as much about exploration and puzzle solving as it is action. You will need to use your trusty bullwhip to take on enemies, but you'll also need to use your brain to progress. Backtracking and pixel-hunting is frequent, and failing a challenge can have tragic results.
Your little Indy clone can take quite a bit of damage actually, which is handy because you're going to get a lot of it. Enemies are quick and tricky and you'll need quick reactions if you want to survive. Bosses are just as frustrating, and saving is a must before you decide to take them on. Save points are relatively rare, so every new section of your adventure must be approached properly.
You can buy new items that'll make your progress that much smoother. Your computer can translate runes, speak to the dead (or read their final diary entries, anyway), and receive emails – the only thing that it can't do is stream from Netflix or post to Twitter. Clues as to what you must do to open doors or reach new areas are about as obvious as a lemming's will to live, so a guide will come in handy if you don't fancy a mental breakdown.
You'll also unlock a variety of new weapons, which basically just change the range at which you attack. There's a sense of progression as you become gradually more badass, and a sense of being knocked down a peg or two when you inevitably let it go to your head.
Visually the game is striking, if only because it goes so far out of its way to live up to its influences. There are occasional tell tale signs that it isn't a real retro outing, but they're not easy to spot.
However, because of its loyalty to source material, this is a game that struggles to stand on its own two feet. It's not going to be a Braid or a Limbo, where everybody and their hipster sister fight their friends to say the most hyperbolic statement in existence. It'll be a quiet success for people who like to get their butts kicked, and who like to explore big maps and solve occasional puzzles. It's a niche title at best, and buying without knowing fully what you're getting into could well be a recipe for disaster.
It'll be a long disaster, though, because there's plenty to come back to. Challenges expand on the main adventure, tasking you with certain objectives that you'll need to beat as quickly as you possibly can. There are also a lot of people to talk to and different ways to approach things, but how fun that'll be when you've already completed the game will vary from person to person.
But that's part of what makes it special: it never tries to be anything that it's not. The dialogue is a little wacky, but other than that it's wall to wall death and exploration; no shoehorned story or bonus gameplay – just playing a game for the sake of playing it. It won't be to everybody's tastes, but it never feels like it's trying to be.
If you want a hard-as-nails adventure that'll have you swearing at random people on the street, then this might just be the game for you. La-Mulana EX is a quality recreation of the titles from yesteryear, but perhaps lacks a little soul of its own as a result.