Dracula Backwards: A Review Of Castlevania: Mirror Of Fate

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It seems as though the entire Castlevania series is haunted by the specter of one title, a progenitor whose shadow darkens the countenance of every single title that has followed it.

Symphony of the Night was a masterpiece of design, a fluid and open-ended game that fused the ability-based exploration of the Metroid series with the gothic style of Castlevania. Nearly every Castlevania title following it, from Circle of the Moon for the GBA to Order of Ecclesia for the Nintendo DS, has stuck to the format. Even the two fully 3D titles, Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness eschewed the level-based design of the earlier NES titles for the wide-open castle and RPG-lite mechanics that made Symphony of the Night unique.

As a result, the Castlevania series has ended up with an increasingly fragmented and divisive fanbase, split between the unforgiving platforming of earlier titles and the heady action and exploration of the series’ recent entries.

It was into this civil war that developer Mercury Steam wandered, attempting to settle the debate once and for all with Lords of Shadow, a God of War-style action platformer that traded the anime style and nonsensical plotlines of previous titles for a somewhat coherent narrative and actual characters. While the critical response was tepid, it did well enough to justify a creatively titled sequel, Lords of Shadow 2.

In many ways, March 5th release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate (holy subtitle Belmont!) for the 3DS functions as a bridge between not only the stories of the two console Lords of Shadow titles, but also the two gameplay styles of Castlevania. A return to 2D, it attempts to meld the action of Lords of Shadow with the map and ability based exploration of other Metroidvania titles.

Whether or not it’s successful is a matter of expectations. If you’re looking for something to tide you over until Lords of Shadow 2, then Mirror of Fate is exactly what you’ll want.

If you’re expecting a game filled with elaborately designed hallways, each harboring countless secrets that require an ever-expanding skillset to unlock, then you’ll be disappointed.

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Then again, if you happened to enjoy Mercury Steam’s focus on combos and action, then you’ll most likely feel much the same way about Mirror of Fate. It’s a Lords of Shadow game first and foremost; an action platformer that plays surprisingly similarly to its 3D predecessor despite losing a whole dimension in the transition to handheld.

The game makes good use of its mechanical depth, mirroring the moveset of Lords of Shadow almost one-for-one. Much like its 3D brawler brethren, the majority of your battling is done with combos and launchers, alternating between targets in a flurry of attacks. Because of the 2D nature of the game, you generally only take on two foes at a time, one on each side, but you’ll be making good use of the game’s dodge feature in doing so. Boss fights tend to fall into a routine of dodging highly telegraphed attacks, with a few standout fights against a certain nefarious nocturnal nemesis highlighting the joy of how mobile your character is.

In a nod to the Metroidvania genre, Mirror of Fate trades Lords of Shadow’s level based progression for a somewhat open-ended castle. It doesn’t even come close in complexity to the sprawling fortresses of Castlevania games past, but there are a few places where you can veer off the primary path to uncover an upgrade or hidden piece of lore.

There’s a certain joy to simply exploring though, as the castle itself has been lavished with attention. Limited almost entirely to the castle and its immediate grounds, Mirror of Fate lacks the variety of Lords of Shadow, but it still manages to impress with some of its more grandiose locales. Having been originally developed for HD consoles, then downscaled to the 3DS, it manages to cram a lot of details into the small screen. At points it’s almost too much with textures getting muddy as the camera pulls out of close ups. With the exception of a few of the more intensive QTE events, the frame-rate stays pretty consistent as well.

You spend your time in Castle Dracula as one of three characters, two belonging to the Belmont clan and a mysterious third figure who fans of the series will recognize. Each of the game’s three acts is focused on a different character’s journey through different parts of the castle, the first two occurring simultaneously with the final taking place 30 years prior. Each plays similar to the other, with larger ability unlocks transitioning from character to character. Unlock the double jump in Act 2 and it’ll be there in Act 3, albeit in a form more fitting that character. The major gameplay difference between them lies in the magical spells and subweapons each finds on their journey, which range from generic damage buffs to shields and electric bombs.

It’s a big departure from the solitary narratives of previous Castlevania games, something which I have to give Mercury Steam a little credit for. For the first time, it really feels like somebody is trying to do something with the multi-generational vendetta between Dracula and the Belmont clan. While Mirror of Fate won’t win any awards for storytelling, there are enough twists and turns, especially in the surprisingly poignant final act, to keep your attention.

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Unfortunately, it won’t have to hold your attention for long. On normal difficulty I was able to plow through the game in just under seven hours with over 80% completion. There’s an additional cutscene unlocked if you get a 100% clear, but little else in the way of reasons to come back to the game after your first time through. That said, the game doesn’t feel overly long or padded out, each act ending just about the time I was starting to tire of it.

Mirror of Fate isn’t for everybody. It isn’t for people who found Lords of Shadow to be a tiresome hodge-podge of stolen mechanics, nor is it for people who think that Symphony of the Night is the sole direction for the series. It’s a game that almost entirely takes the feeling of its divisive forebearer and transitions it to 2D, hinting at the series’ past while maintaining a singular vision about its future.

In that sense, the Lords of Shadow franchise does everything a reboot should do. It takes the antiquated concepts that’ve kept a series on life support for the last decade and exorcises them like a malignant tumor. Mirror of Fate is a natural progression of Mercury Steam’s vision of Castlevania, one that trades sweeping exploration for combo attacks and teenagers from the future for ambiguous European accents. It’s new, and that’s a little scary.

But it’s also a little exciting. It’s a sign that Mercury Steam is willing to stick to their guns with this most hallowed of series.

A sign that perhaps Lords of Shadow 2 is worth waiting for.

Pixels or Death gives Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate 3.5 out of 5 stars.