Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is anything but conventional. Rather than handing the (revived) franchise to a secondary developer to make the handheld version, Lords of Shadow studio MercurySteam is making it themselves. Even more interesting, the developer nixed any ideas of basing it on the original Castlevania series, and instead decided to put the God of War-like combat into a 2D action-adventure platformer. Needless to say, we have a lot to talk about.
The game initially follows Simon Belmont on a quest to slay Dracula and save the Brotherhood of Light as well as mankind. In the process, we run into other Castlevania series characters, but the game is really about the quest to kill Dracula while traversing in and around his castle. While the story sounds simple, it actually gets much more complex as the tale goes on to discuss the role of fate, and has a plot twist very early on that makes it impossible to go much further. I am especially impressed by the production value put into cutscenes; like Fire Emblem Awakening, the game splits cutscenes between cel-shaded and in-engine ones, and both look very good.
The gameplay itself is, in some ways, very reminiscent of the Metroidvania games of the past. As you traverse the all-2D castle, Simon (and the other two main playable characters) gain the use of abilities and projectiles that allow for greater exploration of the castle. Toggled by the D-Pad, each character has access to a whip, one throwing weapon, one projectile with spread damage (like Simon’s fire bombs), and two abilities that use up the magic bar. As a rule, one magic attack preserves health while the other causes more damage. In addition to this, each character has unique abilities that make exploration easier, like the ability to fly or jump incredibly far.
Regarding combat, it’s truly the most unique part of Mirror of Fate. Playing like a 2D version of God of War, enemies no longer go down quickly with one or two hits, and instead require a variety of whip combos, grappling, guarding, and dodging to defeat. Thankfully, the combat is very well-polished and fun. While this may (perhaps rightfully) turn off Castlevania fans expecting another Dawn of Sorrow, the enemies are just so varied and fun to fight that I can’t complain about it one bit.
Mirror of Fate’s great combat is assisted by its wonderful boss fights. All massive in scope, unique in form, and as destructive as they look, the bosses feel like a reward for reaching the area rather than an impending doom. They certainly are challenging, but every single boss (albeit a few recurring ones) have their own unique style and move set. Some highlights include a demon lord fueled by electricity, a nasty siren, and a pathetic zombie-looking thing who turns into a basilisk-like monster of destruction. Like the original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, you can expect a bevy of quick-time events to show up, but they always feel like a fun part of the gameplay and less like playable cutscenes.
Likewise, the environments in Mirror of Fate are very well-designed. All sections of the castle look different, and beyond that, each section of the castle tests the player’s mastery of all of the tools at his disposal. This allows for platforming action that is challenging-yet-fair, and areas of the castle that get progressively complex as you go deeper in. The beginning of each of the three main acts simply push you forward in a straight line against enemies, while many of the later castle areas feel like mini-labyrinths, each having several layers of difficulty and multiple challenges that need to be cleared at once. Sometimes you need to swim through a maze without running out of air, sometimes you need to use your climbing and grappling abilities to get to that one necessary far off switch, and sometimes you need to platform carefully with the risk of death all around you.
Not all is pleasant in this Castlevania title, however. With great combat, a good story, and fantastic bosses, Mirror of Fate ultimately suffers when discussing exploration. Despite the game’s efforts to rival the 2D Castlevania games of the past, the inspiration ends up aping the original titles more than anything else. Traversing the castle is fun enough, and the platforming is well-designed and occasionally challenging, but Mirror of Fate manages to be linear to the point of incomparability. The game does encourage exploration with reasons to backtrack as your abilities unlock, but the motivation to explore immediately fades when you realize that almost every reward for exploration is either a stat boost or a few extra experience points. Moreover, even after doing quite a bit of exploration and clearing the game at 85% completion, it still took me only 8 hours on Normal to easily reach that point.
In the technical department, Mirror of Fate is boosted by a great orchestral soundtrack and an overall good-looking visual-design. While not remixing the original tunes (thankfully), the soundtrack still manages to set the dreary-yet-exciting tone the game strives for. And, as stated, the game looks very good. Character models generally look as smooth as can be, and in-engine cutscenes are at least as good as anything else on 3DS. My only real complaint about this is that I question the choice to use a realistic art-style in a 2D platformer. Because the camera is so far out most of the time, the 3D character models that look otherwise great up-close end up appearing jaggy and none-too pleasant from afar.
For everything that the game doesn’t do like the originals and for the minor flaws within, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a very good game. Sure, it doesn’t reach the level of greatness that some may have hoped, but it still manages to provide a solid experience while doing its own thing. And in today’s gaming world, maybe that’s enough.