Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate 3DS Review

Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/s/castlevania_mirror_of_fate/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

When Konami rebooted the Castlevania franchise in 2010 with Lords of Shadow, they did so knowing that the proverbial wheel would not be so easy a thing to reinvent. You don't just move on from a series including titles like Symphony of the Night, Rondo of Blood and the original Castlevania – those games linger like the romances of youth in the back of your memory. Still, Konami trudged on, perhaps due to a fear of stagnation or because they felt like they had a trove of ideas the series couldn't capitalize on in its current form. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was released and despite early fears, proved to be a solid foundation for the franchise's future, though to no one's surprise the biggest criticism was just how different it was.

Since then Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 was announced,continuing the fresh 3D format the series has taken (and possibly wrapping it up, but that's another story). This review, however, is for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate. Mirror of Fate is a 3DS title bridging the story between the two main episodes on the series, but really that's only just the first chapter of this story.

Where Lords of Shadow broke relatively new ground for the Castlevania franchise on consoles, Mirror of Fate is revisiting a tender area that many gamers recall fondly. Mirror of Fate is, of course, a 2D explorable action game akin to franchise classics like Symphony of the Night – at least when summarized in a single sentence. It's important to understand, or at least be aware of this going into Mirror of Fate, because it's likely to be the biggest issue of contention revolving around the game.

This early elaboration on Mirror of Fate's place in the Lords of Shadow universe, along with noting the return to the series' roots in “Metroidvania” style gameplay, is significant. Why? They ultimately prove to be Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate's greatest flaws. As a standalone experience, however, Mirror of Fate is an excellent game that's easily one of the best titles available on the 3DS. Also, don't tell anyone, but it might be my favorite Castlevania title since the franchise began trying to recreate the magic of Symphony of the Night in 1997.

Not Grandpa's Castlevania

My largest compliment for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate is that the game flows; it feels like one plenary experience. One of my largest criticisms of the series in recent years is it felt more like a series of awkwardly arranged boss fights linked by incongruous mazes of insignificant enemies and inherited gameplay systems. Like puzzle pieces from different puzzles forced together.

Moving through the halls and towers of Dracula's castle in Mirror of Fate makes every step feel like progress. Certainly, there’s opportunity to backtrack at points to pick up power-ups only accessible with new skills, and brief forced backtracking, but well-placed fast travel hubs remove the tedium. Linearity is a curse word to many Castlevania players, but Mirror of Fate is only linear enough to keep players moving forward and all the while nodding to its ancestry with hidden power-ups and opportunities to grind experience levels. In Mirror of Fate I felt compelled to progress, a reward provided by the game's pacing and storyline.

Moment to moment gameplay in Castlevania is nothing to dismiss, however. While the complexities of modern 2D Castlevania's have been pared down in Mirror of Fate, what's remaining is exemplary. Present are as many combat options as Konami felt they could include without ever requiring the player to put down what they’re doing just to reexamine their actions. Again, it's a smoother well-paced experience, both in terms of immediate combat requirements and the extended time line of the game.

Yes, Mirror of Fate is still, when broken down, a 2D action platformer. Jump, weak and strong attack, items, powers and a small assortment of progression-based skills (how will you ever defeat Dracula without double jump), dynamic counters, and the most basic of experience-based leveling systems ever; it's a tried and true system that most gamers will be comfortable with if they've ever played an action title before. The challenge isn't meant to be inherent to the pressing of buttons, but in solving the patterns each enemy and boss are based around. In this way, Mirror of Fate delivers as solid of an experience as you'd expect from a Castlevania game.

I saved the best for last: quick time events. Mirror of Fate has a lot of quick time events, generally during boss fights or leading into a spot of narrative. Really, these QTEs are a sloppy way to keep the player focused on what's happening on-screen, pulling them into events that would otherwise be simple cutscenes. Mirror of Fate also uses them in a particularly unique way, drawing players into the 3D experience and breaking down the 2D from which the majority of the game is played. Normally I'd say QTEs of any kind are rather abysmal, but the way Mirror of Fate uses them to draw players into a more visceral experience, exploring environments in ways 2D games never seem to have done before, I'll admit it was the most fun I've had with them since God of War.

I'll repeat that although Mirror of Fate's combat isn't as complex or robust as earlier Castlevania titles, I enjoyed it as much or more. Between Mirror of Fate's three playable characters – Simon, Alucard and Trevor – you're always acclimating yourself to new skills and ways to traverse the environment. Despite the relative complexity, Mirror of Fate never felt stale. I was entirely engrossed in the experience from the drawbridge of Dracula's castle to the highest parapets.

Castlevania in All Its Splendor

Speaking of Dracula's castle, it's never really been as wonderfully realized as in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate. At least from a stylistic point of view, Mirror of Fate doesn't hold a candle to the art of Ayami Kojima – famous for her work on Castlevania titles from Symphony of the Night to Harmony of Despair. Still, the 3D models and animations, the 3D effect added by the Nintendo 3DS, the excellent camera work involved in QTEs, and perhaps best of all, the level and environment design have set a new standard for the series. Memorable locations such as the altar where Simon finds his father's combat cross, the draw bridge, Alucard's tomb and Dracula's chambers – along with a dozen more areas – are wonderfully crafted and some of the best visual design on the 3DS.

It's all brilliantly realized in Castlevania's level and character design. Each area is unique in very extraordinary ways, not just its background, but also considering how a player will explore it and the enemies that will spawn there. Granted, this isn't true for all areas, but a majority of them are true to their themes and the world is much better realized because of it. Whether it be the puppets hiding around theater or the hunchbacked menial workers whose large pots of... stew are sporadically placed around the areas they spawn. Skeletons stick to catacombs and dungeons, ghosts fly around the exterior of the castle , and of course merfolk hide near water. It's like a theme park, in some regards, but more as if you went to a Harry Potter theme park and actually found Hogwarts ready to explore. Exploring Dracula's castle was a journey through the house of a madman and his disturbed minions I won't soon forget.

The sound, music and voicework of Mirror of Fate, ehh... Not so much. Many of the leading characters in the game, including Simon Belmont, come off as cartoonish caricatures as opposed to complex, emotion-driven people due to their voices and scripting. For a title that includes several rather adult themes, a tad more respect for the subject material could have gone a long way. Dracula himself, however, is quite well done, which bodes well for Lords of Shadow 2.

Grandpa Belmont's Castlevania

I mentioned earlier on that Mirror of Fate is meant to bridge the story between Lords of Shadow and its upcoming sequel, and for that purpose the games does the series justice. As a standalone experience, however, there are a few concessions Mirror of Fate had to make in order to maintain the narrative – to the game's detriment. Please forgo reading the following paragraph in order to avoid some basic spoilers which are revealed early on in Mirror of Fate.

In the first Lords of Shadow game Gabriel defeats said Lords of Shadow, inevitably giving into the darkness himself and becoming Dracula. In Mirror of Fate, we learn Gabriel has a son he doesn't know about, Trevor, who as he comes of age decided to take on Dracula himself. Of course, Trevor himself has a son as well, Simon, who also decides to face off against Dracula as he comes of age – it's the Belmont way. Mirror of Fate is their story, along with the mysterious introduction of Alucard, who only complicates the matter.

The majority of the story is great – it makes sense, it's dramatic and while never surprising at all, is generally well organized, moving from character to character, layering on elements of the story and leading up to what should have been a glorious conclusion that set the page perfectly for Lords of Shadow 2. Only, it doesn't. There's certainly a climax at the end of the game, but no resolution whatsoever. This ultimately proves to be my biggest complaint about Mirror of Fate. Don't sell me on Mirror of Fate being the franchise's epic return to handheld devices and then fail to even wrap up the self-contained story therein. Perhaps they were going for an Empire Strikes Back vibe, but I don't have to like it.

Final Thoughts

For a Castlevania game, all the basic pieces are there – exploration, action based combat and clever platforming, excellent level design and a fitting gothic theme to the setting. For new players, Mirror of Fate goes to great efforts to make the experience accessible, immersive and rarely punishing or boring. It's a very good game and an excellent place to start a new generation of handheld Castlevania titles.

While Mirror of Fate can hardly claim to be innovative, its streamlined take on the Metroidvania form is polished and, most importantly, fun the whole way through. While many fans of the franchise will judge Mirror of Fate solely on what it lacks – staple features of the franchise deemed overly complex or needlessly tedious – they'll miss out on what the controlled burn has allowed Konami to do, and do well. Some fresh air has allowed the developers to reinvigorate the narrative of the series, showcase the best parts of Castlevania's combat, and breathed life into franchise so heavily burdened by the expectations of the past that it was suffocating.

There are certainly flaws in the game. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate isn't very long and lacks replayability; it's not overly challenging or complex, and the ending is climactic without being conclusive in any sense of the word. Still, the game is a joy to play and experience, visually compelling. And best of all, it made me excited about what Castlevania and Konami have in store for the future.

»Neoseeker.com

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