I defeated zombies, possessed puppets, and knife-wielding skeletons with a whip. I tossed axes and exploding flasks while leaping around catacombs and flooded prisons. I fought a powerful nightwatchman in a lengthy, difficult three-stage battle. These battles occurred during my first couple of hours with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, conflicts that on the surface would normally identify the game as part of the Castlevania series. Yet, it doesn’t feel like Castlevania.
Developer MercurySteam continues its interpretation of the long-running franchise with this 2.5-D platformer/Metroidvania/God of War-like for the 3DS. Mirror of Fate stars in the latest episode of Franchise in the Midst of an Identity Crisis, previously starring Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Silent Hill, and Metroid. This is the same problem that Mirror of Fate‘s predecessor, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, suffered.
Like the initial reboot, Mirror of Fate has several familiar names — Simon Belmont, Dracula, Alucard, even Belnades — but the overall feel and atmosphere differs so much from previous titles it may as well not carry the Castlevania name. The Lords of Shadow off-shoot series is dark, dreary, and a little too dead-set on being taken seriously. It’s a big contrast from the bright oranges and blues of the very first Castlevania, or its star installment Rondo of Blood, with their chicken dinners hidden inside walls and magical girls who fire parrots out of their fingertips. Beyond an interlude where Simon Belmont gets dragged to a giant cauldron by cannibal imps, there’s very little playfulness in Mirror of Fate. I wouldn’t mind the super-seriousness of it all if not for the dry writing and choppy presentation. In ill-directed cel-shaded cutscenes, Simon yells and barks like a boar, and the notes and diary entries littered around the world only describe and explain things you’ve already seen or experienced. I suspect they exist simply to exist as collectible items.
The soundtrack, such an identifiable part of the series, has been replaced by generic action game music. You could swap the overall soundscape with God of War and not notice the difference. Catchy melodies and memorable songs? Not here. The sound design in general doesn’t do anything for me. Simon Belmont yelps or grunts at random moments. You know how you can expect Link to go “HYAH” whenever he swings his sword? I don’t know when or why Simon will make a sound. He just does. I’m not a fan of the loud “battle theme” that kicks in whenever enemies appear, either. While you’re exploring dull, flat environments (at least the backgrounds are pretty) the soundtrack barely lingers. Then a skeleton shows up and BOOM it’s time to be epic until the music awkwardly cuts out or takes too long to fade away after the battle. Enemies are sparse too, which is really odd in a Castlevania game, and when they do show up, the area gets locked off until all baddies are bruised.
Progression has been linear so far, though there are plenty of reasons to backtrack — unreachable spots and ledges become accessible once new abilities are acquired a la the familiar Metroidvania formula established by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’m not sure I’d want to backtrack, however. Simon’s walking speed is a bit slow for all the long corridors, and the level design is very basic. Platforming’s been replaced, for the most part, by climbing and jumping to and from glowing white ledges, usually with jets of steam to impede you rather than bottomless pits. It’s repetitious and uninteresting.
Combat is the lone bright spot — and that has its own issues. Hit detection is most troubling as distant enemies would land hits on my character who should have been well out of their range. The combat is also quite mindless despite the pretension of attack combos and gaining new ones by leveling up. I’ve gained a bunch already, but I can still swat through skeletons and imps by button-mashing the light and heavy attacks. Boss battles are a challenge, but the in-fight checkpoints negate any use of skill or thought. The bosses have patterns, but you don’t need to be hyper-alert or have the right equipment like in previous games. Just have a lot of patience and you’ll come out on top.
Weapons also lack the strategic element they once had, though at this point in my adventure I’ve only used a standard whip, axe and oil flasks – Mirror of Fate‘s version of holy water. The whip, which once required getting up close and personal with the enemy, or at least a whip’s-length away, now stretches and flies all over the screen. It doesn’t matter where I am, I can even hit airborne enemies, rendering the sub-weapons and the need to position myself in relation to the enemy useless. The axe, when thrown in previous titles, had an upward trajectory that was perfect for slicing bats, medusa heads, and other flying annoyances out of the air. The axe now gets tossed out in front of Simon, so I’m not sure what its use is. Its range is too short for it to act like a replacement for the screen-spanning throwing knife. And the oil flask lacks the lasting, wide spread that holy water used to have when thrown onto the ground. Sub-weapons in Mirror of Fate are formalities now that the whip does all the work.
As I played these early moments I wondered “Why would I play Mirror of Fate instead of any of the previous games?” and “Would I recommend this to a Castlevania fan?” Probably not. Maybe Mirror of Fate is meant for non-fans like so many other reboots and current franchise entries. Still, I’d just point those people in the direction of the original NES games (sans Simon’s Quest), Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines, Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow. There have been so many games in this series — great ones — I don’t envy any new studio that tries to squeeze blood from this particular stone.