(Nintendo 3DS Review) Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Developer: MercurySteam
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Action / Platforming
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

MercurySteam is one of the few developers to have taken on the unenviable task of transitioning Castlevania, one of the 2D-est of 2D series, into 3D. Despite Lament of Innocence’s somewhat respectable success in winning over some fans to the third dimension, many still feel that the Belmonts and their associates should never, under any circumstances, be in the vicinity of a polygon. Instead of going the more traditional route with a direct transition, the studio took a hard right and made an action-heavy title that took on the look of a Castlevania but with gameplay akin to a God of War. The result was an enjoyable action title that had a lot of whip-flicking action and cinematic platforming, but one that also lost some of the explorative spirit that had been so prominent in its predecessors. Mirror of Fate, the sequel to Lords of Shadow, is an attempt to return to form by transplanting many of the 3D mechanics into a 2D world. The result is a decent, if not entirely successful, concoction.

It’s been over 20 years since the events in Lords of Shadow, and Simon Belmont is out for revenge. After the death of his father and mother, he has taken to hunting down the monster behind his suffering. But he isn’t alone. During his quest, he will meet Alucard, another monster hunter on his own journey of personal discovery. The stories of the two vampire slayers make up the first and second acts of a four-act story, bookended by a prologue featuring Gabriel Belmont, protagonist of Lords of Shadow, and a finale featuring Trevor Belmont. The four characters are links in a long chain that connects the Brotherhood of Light, the Belmonts, and the land’s most feared malevolent force, the vampire lord Dracula. Despite some awkward cutscenes, which feature questionably dressed characters frequently talking with stuck mouths, seeing the storylines tie together in the new timeline is one of the more interesting aspects of Mirrors of Fate.

The four characters not only flesh out each other’s stories but also serve as evolutionary transitions as one generation influences the next. Experience gained from combat, solving puzzles, and reading knights’ scrolls, the diaries of a brother’s final moments, carries over from one act to the next. Many of the moves do as well, though they differ in their final form to add some variety; for example, Alucard’s double jump with a follow-up wing-aided glide transforms into a more traditional double jump for Gabriel. Each character also has access to their own set of four secondary weapons, which include a flurry of bats for Alucard, electric bombs for Trevor, and throwing axes for Simon. Everything has been simplified, however. Experience again leads to leveling, but unlike in Lords of Shadow, moves are unlocked automatically rather than selected manually. There is no true inventory to speak of, either, as there are no pieces of armor, enhancing charms, or supplemental goods. Secondary items also lack the breadth and variety as those in Symphony of the Night and other handheld releases, such as Dawn of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance, and are replaced with a standard set of unlockables comprised only of the four character-specific weapons and spells.

Despite the standard item kits being one of the primary means of differentiation between the characters, the game imposes several limitations that negate much of their usefulness. Without any particular rhyme or reason, a weapon that was devastating against enemies in one area is almost useless a few areas later; a spell that allows enemies to be bypassed in a misty dash is suddenly checked by an enemy’s claws. Instead, most of the combat will be handled by the whip, which, like the unlocked moves, continues to evolve from one character to the next. The two standard attack types, one horizontal and another that sweeps upwards, are augmented by the various moves that become available through leveling; however, most of them are unnecessary, as a large proportion of enemies easily fall to the standard two- to three-hit combos. This, coupled with the numerous level and boss-battle checkpoints, leads to one of the easiest Castlevania releases to date. The checkpoints are more convenient than detrimental, though, because the game’s lack of difficulty lies at the feet of monsters that are far too susceptible to the same mid-air combos.

Combat can still manage to frustrate, due to MercurySteam’s attempts to shoehorn a 3D combat system into a 2D world. The whip motions and flashy moves look nice but add to the confusion caused by a camera that is prone to zooming out, which can make it difficult to see what exactly is going on when enemies surround your character. Encounters that take place with a more appropriate viewpoint are much more enjoyable, and allow the game’s block mechanism, which can be used to counterattack when timed appropriately or dodge unblockable attacks, to come into its own. Finesse is rarely called for, though.

Mirror of Fate is something of a mirror itself, being the opposite of Lords of Shadow in terms of design. While the combat was more satisfying than platforming in the latter, the opposite is true of the former. This is largely the result of the graphical cues being carried over, which quickly inform players of which spots can be grabbed onto, repelled, or scaled, and which objects can be moved. It’s possible to clear some areas without skipping a beat thanks to the cues, the seamlessness of which look quite nice. It’s a shame that the system is used with a design that is so unlike previous Castlevania games in how little incentive there is to explore. A grid-based map does a good job in sectioning off areas and indicating which direction the next objective is and on which tile the objective is located, and the setup would make more involved exploration a joy; as it is, though, there is little reason to go off the beaten path. Unfortunately, the only discoveries to be found are knight scrolls and chests that extend the characters’ health bar and magic bar. It isn’t necessary to find all of these to complete the game, which is just as well since I stopped caring about them long before the game ended.

Both the platforming and combat utilize one element that should have been left behind: quick-time events. I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for them to return to the series, but they are back, and they are as unimaginative as ever. Very few games utilize quick-time events properly, sensibly working them in as part of the action rather than having them because that’s what action games do these days. Instead of working them into the action to accentuate intense sequences, they are used to open chests, punch bosses, and lift doors in such ham-fisted ways that the game’s surprises are telegraphed well in advance: “Surprise! That one button-mashing lever-activated door in the area has enemies waiting in ambush.” Much of the fluidity achieved through the streamlined platforming system and combat animations is lost during the many timed- or button-mashing sequences.

There are moments when Mirrors of Fate feels like a classic Castlevania game, and that is when it’s at its best. It’s at its worst when it feels as if Lords of Shadow was crammed into an unfit design. And during those moments when the game is neither one nor the other in particular, it strikes a solid above-average.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a decent if forgettable action-platformer that happens to be a part of one of the longest-running, most-revered franchises in gaming. Its lineage is both its biggest selling point and its biggest liability as it pulls some of the best from the series while missing so much of what made it great. Some of the mechanical transitions from the 3D to the 2D Lords of the Shadow are genuinely interesting, and while Mirror of Fate certainly wins on the platforming side, it also underwhelms with minimal replay value, a simplified gear setup, and superfluous quick-time events.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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