by Colin Moriarty
What a horrible night to play this game.
→ March 5, 2013 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night represented a major sea change for what was, back in 1997, Konami's best-known franchise. Heavily inspired by bona fide classic Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night created an inescapable trend with subsequent Castlevania releases. It took a series best-known for grueling difficulty and linearity and replaced it with exploration-based, RPG-driven gameplay. The results were staggering: Symphony of the Night is widely considered to be not only the best Castlevania game, but one of the best games of all time. Naturally, it spawned a litany of handheld games modeled after it. And virtually every one of those games is far superior in just about every conceivable way to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate.
In short, Mirror or Fate suffers from a troubling identity crisis. Caught between developer MercurySteam's high-quality reimagining of the Castlevania series in Lords of Shadow and the towering legacy left behind by the Koji Igarashi-driven handheld games (some of the best available on both Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS), Mirror of Fate is a muddled, rarely enjoyable slog that attempts to take inspiration from both, but ends up pleasing the sensibilities of neither camp of Castlevania fans. It's unfocused, unfulfilling, drab and boring.
A classic shot from a not-so-classic game.
We're cast in the roles of four different characters that will be familiar to Castlevania fans, starting with Gabriel Belmont. Graphics are standard 3DS fare, while cutscenes utilize a unique
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- Mirror of Fate
March 5, 2013
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- Mirror of Fate is the first 3DS entry in the gothic action-adventure series.
Colin Moriarty Says
Play These Games Instead:
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
art style with voice acting that, while sparse, is well delivered. What's not so well delivered is the story, which is a nonsensical and uninteresting mess. Its convoluted, almost obtuse delivery is further stymied by seemingly interchangeable characters that Castlevania fans hold near and dear to their hearts - from Simon and Trevor Belmont to Alucard and Sypha - but ones they'll be hard-pressed to care much about in the context of this game.
Presentational issues aside, where Mirror of Fate really begins to fall apart is in how it plays. For starters, it lacks the tight, consistent controls that are the hallmark of the handheld Castlevania games that came before it. Battling seems totally random; you can have an easy time fighting some enemies (a small variety of mostly uninteresting foes) at one point and get your clock cleaned against those same enemies later, not because you're getting worse, but because everything is incredibly inconsistent. Hit detection, both in dealing and receiving damage, also seems unreliable: I was, at one time, hit by a sword-wielding enemy when jumping over it, with the sword slashing a full body-length below my feet. The fact that you're forced into using the 3DS' circle pad instead of the directional pad to move your character just compounds these and other problems. In a game that requires fighting on a 2D plane, with some challenging platforming to boot, Mirror of Fate necessitates a level of gameplay tightness it just doesn't allow for.
The developer seems to have made a modest admission of its game's complete lack of reliable combat mechanics by designing boss fights that are laughably forgiving. In old-school Castlevania games, boss fights are dreaded; they can stop you dead in your tracks and really force you to think. In the Metroid-vania games, beating boss fights requires tactical acumen, the proper equipment and the right player level. In Mirror of Fate, skill isn't the name of the game; tricking the system is, and that's all too easy to do. Bosses have patterns to learn like in any old Castlevania game, but brute force can be utilized to get to the next in-fight save point. You die, respawn, and resume fighting the boss, whose health meter has not been replenished, and try, try again until he's dead. If that weren't enough, occasional tired quick-time events will ensure that virtually no one enjoys these fights.
Then there are the environments you'll be exploring. One of the greatest things about any Castlevania game is... well... the castle, or at least its surrounding territories. The gothic, Eastern European, horror-laden setting of Castlevania is truly riveting, and it always has been. Think back to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest and how amazing those mansions were, or how surreal it was to return to the castle you'd destroyed in the original game. Or harken back to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (the single classic Castlevania game MercurySteam seemed to evoke when making Mirror of Fate) and how immersive and expertly imagined the non-linear journey from Warakiya Village to the depths of Dracula's castle was. Hell, think of Symphony of the Night or its handheld counterparts, and how colorful and sharp the graphics were, how well-imagined and diverse the castles were, how badly you wanted to explore, see, find and do everything.
Then look at Mirror of Fate's uninteresting, dreary and monotonous locales. It's all entirely too mundane for a Castlevania game. Different parts of the castle run together into a sort of muddled darkness; it almost reminds me of having to play Circle of the Moon on GBA under a lamp, except that game's excuse is that the system it's on has no backlighting. Here, there is no excuse, other than a lack of art direction. There's absolutely nothing compelling about Mirror of Fate's world save the occasional glimpse of greatness from afar, usually when you're looking at the castle's towering turrets and flying buttresses off in the background.
The castle is also sparsely populated by enemies, giving Mirror of Fate a vacant feeling that detracts heavily from the foreboding we're supposed to feel in Castlevania. Danger doesn't lurk around every corner; it lurks in preset, 2D arenas that seal you off from proceeding until those enemies are defeated. Once that's done, you can literally run right past (or jump over) just about any enemy you encounter, though you do so at your own peril, since killing those enemies rewards you with precious essence that levels your characters up. And that brings up yet an entirely new set of problems.
For one, the leveling system is inadequate for a game like this. There are no statistics to delve into, no equipment or items to find and switch up (with the exception of each characters' necessities, like holy water or a time stopper), nothing but God of War-like moves that unlock as you level up to supplement the vague sense of your characters becoming stronger. And you never have to use these moves to win - I sure didn't. For a game that goes to such lengths to mimic what makes Symphony of the Night and its ilk so incredibly compelling in terms of exploring non-linear sets of maps, MercurySteam dropped the ball when it comes to giving us a reason to level up and seek ever-greater levels of strength.
Meanwhile, the fact that there are four playable characters is also a problem. This isn't like Castlevania III, where the fun is in exploring with Trevor, Grant, Sypha and Alucard. Here, the characters at your disposal are locked into one of four acts in the story, and as soon as you really start to get a feel for one character, you have to move onto the next. Apart from primary whip-based attacks, these characters all utilize specific items, weapons and skills that can't be switched out. So as soon as you get used to chucking an axe, throwing some holy water or utilizing light/dark effects, you won't get to use them anymore unless you go back to the specific act in question.
The greatest shame with Mirror of Fate is that its heart is in the right place. As far as I can tell, MercurySteam did its absolute best to chart its own course with handheld Castlevania, one that borrows from the greatness that came before it, but without copying it outright. But in going off the beaten path, the studio ended up diluting what has made Castlevania so great in the last 15 years. Its emphasis on fragmented exploration and shallow leveling is the exact opposite of what Castlevania fans like myself love, want and have come to expect.
Stranger yet is the fact that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow got what Castlevania was all about a lot more than many people gave it credit for. But that understanding hasn't at all segued to the Nintendo 3DS version. I beat Mirror of Fate in just under nine hours with an 88% completion rating, and it wouldn't take me more than an hour more to get it up to 100%. I simply don't want to play anymore, which should tell you all you need to know. Because even the worst of the GBA/DS Castlevania games are more than worth seeing to statistical completion, but Mirror of Fate isn't worth playing at all.
Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate is not the Castlevania you're looking for. Not even close.