As much as it will pain Castlevania fans to admit, the series was in a pretty bad state prior to the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow in 2010. Although a string of “Metroidvania” entries — produced under the guidance of the enigmatic Koji “IGA” Igarashi — had hit the mark from a critical standpoint, less worthy instalments dragged the brand downwards (Castlevania Judgment, anyone?) and its commercial performance remained decidedly lackluster.
In order to keep pace with the latest action adventure experiences, fresh blood was required — and Madrid-based MercurySteam provided just that. Lords of Shadow may have annoyed purists raised on the likes of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it achieved its goal — at the time of writing it’s the best-selling entry in the entire lineage, according to Konami. It has also spawned two sequels, one of which is currently in production and the other the subject of this review.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate takes place after the cataclysmic events of the original Lords of Shadow, and if you’ve not played that particular game yet and wish to avoid spoilers, we advise you stop reading now. Lords of Shadow protagonist Gabriel Belmont has become Dracula, and his son Trevor — whose existence he is unaware of at the time of his transformation — has been taken under the protection of the Brotherhood of Light as a baby. In time, Trevor has a son of his own — Simon — who is also separated from his parents at an early age and forced to fend for himself. The game puts you in the shoes of several different characters, but the main quest begins in earnest as Simon Belmont enters Dracula’s castle to claim vengeance on the one who apparently killed his father many years ago.
It’s impossible to elaborate too much on this epic, multi-generational storyline without ruining the game; suffice to say it is one of Mirror of Fate’s strongest features. The developer has done an excellent job of re-purposing famous names from the Castlevania series and creating its own self-contained vision of the franchise. The same purists who baulked at Lords of Shadow’s re-booting of the Castlevania origin story will no doubt be equally aggrieved at the liberties MercurySteam has taken here, but when detached from the rest of the bloodline, Mirror of Fate ironically has one of the best plots yet seen in a Castlevania title. It helps to have played the original Lords of Shadow, but it’s by no means a prerequisite.
Despite the desire to tear up the Castlevania rule book and start all over again, the developer has maintained plenty of solid bonds with previous games, and these are sure to go some way to winning over life-long fans. Names such as Schneider, Gandolfi and Belnades — taken from Castlevania 64, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse respectively — are bandied about at several points, and monsters such as skeletons, mermen and flea-men all make an appearance, tangibly linking Mirror of Fate to past instalments.
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Mirror of Fate also adheres to the tried-and-tested Metroidvania blueprint; the top display shows the 2.5D gameplay while the bottom is reserved for a map, as well as inventory management — just as it was in the DS titles Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. However, as was asserted by the game’s producer prior to release, Mirror of Fate isn’t exactly the same as these esteemed entries. The most obvious change — and the one that even caused us moments of doubt when we previewed the game last year — is the combat. Previous Castlevania titles were all about one-hit kills and dashing through environments quickly, but in Mirror of Fate there’s a greater focus on combination attacks and special moves.
The combat engine is lifted almost wholesale from the original Lords of Shadow, and while it does slow down the platforming action a little, it actually adds considerable depth to proceedings. Most enemies take several hits to slay and many will block your blows before countering with an unstoppable offensive. Simply hammering the attack buttons won’t do you any good here; you need to learn the various combo attacks, mix in mid-air juggles and unlock guard-shattering special moves in order to succeed.
Grapple moves come into play when your opponent is stunned, allowing you to end their pitiful life with a spectacular finishing move which causes the camera to zoom in for the best view. Experience points are awarded for victory in battle, and as your level increases so too do the number of attacks available to your character. Fighting common foes is engaging enough, but it’s the boss battles which really open up Mirror of Fate. Each contest demands a varied range of tactics and it usually takes a few goes before you lock down the winning pattern. Thankfully, generous checkpointing means that failure is never a major irritation.
With combat taking centre stage, the emphasis on exploration is lessened significantly from previous entries in the franchise. While it’s possible to backtrack through the castle and visit areas more than once, you’re effectively funnelled down the correct path by red arrows on the map screen which show where you should be going. This removes the need to painstakingly cover every inch of Dracula’s crumbling citadel in case you miss a secret exit or pathway, but it also speeds things up and prevents players from getting frustrated when they can’t find how to proceed — a common issue with the traditional Metroidvania titles.
The limited variety of collectable items is another factor which curtails the need — and desire — to explore. Aside from picking up ammo for your secondary armament, reading scrolls left by fallen warriors and finding chests which expand your vitality, magical power and ammo stock, there’s no real reason to investigate every nook and cranny. Enemies don’t drop special items either, which means you don’t have the “gotta catch ‘em all” collectability element which made RPG-inspired Castlevania titles like Symphony of the Night and Portrait of Ruin so addictive. While this might come as a crushing disappointment to seasoned fans, it’s actually quite a positive change in some ways; the action is more focused and straightforward, and the already impressive amount of play time available means you’re not going to be stuck for entertainment, despite the toning down of RPG elements. Having said that, we did at several points find ourselves wishing there were more things to collect and secrets to uncover.
Visually, Mirror of Fate contains moments of sheer, unadulterated beauty. The 3D effect is astounding, and works especially well with the fixed 2D viewpoint. When navigating the highest points of the castle, you can see distant towers in perfect perspective, while closer objects remain slightly out of focus. 3D is used to good effect to add tension, such as monsters quickly dashing past the player’s gaze in the foreground, unseen by the character you’re controlling. There are points where the graphical fidelity drops slightly and the frame rate isn’t as smooth as we’d like, but these are minor grievances when you consider the standard of the overall package. It’s worth noting the quality of the cutscenes, which are rendered in real-time but use a cel-shaded style which we personally think is superior to that of the main in-game visuals. Even so, Mirror of Fate is a fine-looking 3DS title, and no mistake.
Special mention must also go to the music, which is nothing short of sublime. Óscar Araujo’s score manages to be brooding, triumphant, emotional and chilling in equal measure, despite not revisiting any of the traditional fan-favourite Castlevania tracks. Araujo is clearly a composer of incredible talent, and while his work on the Lords of Shadow series may be vastly different to what fans are used to, his contribution here is just as significant as the work of Michiru Yamane and Masanori Adachi.
Although the 2D perspective and Metroidvania-style features call to mind past classics, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate shouldn’t be directly compared to previous games in Konami’s long-running vampire-hunting series, because it tries to do things a little differently. While elements of exploration and item collection remain, they are drastically scaled back when compared to the likes of Symphony of the Night and Dawn of Sorrow — which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your personal taste. Instead, MercurySteam’s vision of Castlevania is built around a deep combat engine which tries to make each and every enemy encounter a rewarding and challenging experience. Factor in some impressive visuals, gorgeous music and taxing boss battles — not to mention a fantastic story and more replay value than you might at first imagine — and you’ve got a game which can stand proud in the Castlevania bloodline. Sometimes, a little change is a good thing.