Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I will be the first to admit that I wasn't a big fan of the original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It was an attempt to reboot the franchise, not only in story but also in style of play; although I haven't ever touched the God of War series, the first Lords of Shadow drew heavy comparisons to that series in reviews. While that game may have had some fans, I was not one of them. It not only was a poorly made game, in my opinion, but it didn't feel like Castlevania. That was a serious problem for me.
Three years after the first game in this reboot came out, the team behind that game, Mercury Steam, announced two new sequels. One, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, would be a direct sequel, picking up after events alluded to at the end of the first game and would play largely like the first game in style and scope. Meanwhile a midquel for the sub-series, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (which is hideously long to type over and over again) would be released one year before the full-fledged sequel and would return this little pocket of the Castlevania universe back to its roots. Namely it would be a side-scrolling 2.5D Metroidvania-inspired title set in this new pocket continuity.
While the idea of bringing Lords of Shadow back to its roots seems like a good idea -- certainly I appreciate that it answers one of my biggest complaints about the first Lords of Shadow -- in execution there's something missing from Mirror of Fate. The game looks like the Castlevania when know and love when you see it in screenshots, but once you actually pick up and play the game you'll notice that something feels... off. It's close, but the beating heart and undead soul is missing from the game, keeping it from truly feeling like a proper part of the franchise.
The first issue I had with the game came from it's basic design. Yes, this is a 2.5D explorable castle, and yes you can go back and forth through the stages exploring the castle to find every nook and cranny and get all the collectables, but it does play like a proper Castlevania game. The stages are too linear, too similar is style and construction without all the weird flourishes of the previous games. Instead of a weird castle with rooms packed full of beasts and heroes constantly battling the undead as they collect weapons, items, tea cakes, furniture, and whatever other oddities the game has along the way, you just have a hero trudging through the same-looking hallways, maybe finding a health powerup or magic refill. It's all very dull.
That's in part due to how the game doles out fights. Note that I mentioned the rooms in classic Metroidvania titles were packed with enemies. Mirror though, keeps the monsters contained to very specific areas, often in single hallways where you have to clear them out the first time you fight them. After that you can dodge these small pockets while the rest of the castle reamins starkly empty. All the (un)life has been sucked out of the halls and rooms, so that instead of a castle packed with danger it's mostly just a dust edifice.
Of course that's probably because none of the fights in Mirror of Fate are quick to dispense with. Taking a page from it's console brother, the battles in Mirror of Fate are long, multi-hit affairs, even for the most basic of skeletons. There's no quickly slicing your way through wave after wave of enemies because each time you decide to take on on you have to stop your forward momentum and really deal with your target. This gives the game a completely different pace, and if the halls had been packed with enemies then it would have been even more of a slog to get through this game.
The solution, of course, would have been to make the enemies a little easier to deal with so that, as you progressed and gained powerups and levels, the trash mobs could be dispensed with more easily. Then you could have a castle actually teeming with life like we expect from these games. But then the designers would have also had to put in upgraded weapons, armor, equipment, and everything else you expect and, for whatever reason, Mercury Steam elected not to do this. They wanted this game to play in the vein of Lords of Shadow, with it's combo attacks but not much in the way of equipment, but it's just another difference between this game other it's classic ilk.
A constant slew of upgrades isn't necessarily required -- certainly the Metroid series doesn't need to give Samus 20 gun, 80 different chest armors, and a bunch of food for her to get through her games -- so none of this is necesar to get through a Metroidvania title. But even Metroid recognizes that the trash mobs should be easy, that there should be all kinds of fun little goodies (bombs and missiles and health tanks) to find, that the whole game shouldn't be so stingy with its secrets. A good Metroidvania title has a strong balance of these elements, but it all feels off in Mirror of Fate.
The big feature that Mirror of Fate gives us is three different main characters to play as while going through the castle to kill Dracula -- first a short prologue as Gabriel Belmont, followed by a first act as Simon Belmont, then Alucard, and finally Trevor Belmont. But while you get three (technically four) characters to play as on paper it really just amounts to one long single-character quest broken up among three very similar heroes played one after another. This isn't like with Castlevania: Bloodlines where you have two different heroes with their own weapons and abilities, or Portrait of Ruin where you have two characters at once, each different in style, and you can switch back and forth. Nope. You get one hero, finish their game, then the next, then the next.
I could probably have tolerated this on its own if the characters played in the same sections of the castle and somehow elaborated on what was discovered before to enhance areas you've already seen. Instead, though, each character is on their own fairly linear path through the castle, and each portion of the castle they find, while named and decorated the same as the parts of the castle the other heroes explore, is its own disinct area. No overlap, no rediscovery of sections, and no newly illuminated portions of the world that benefit from having a new hero granted access to the game. It's just more of the same, over and over again.
This is due, in no small part, to the fact that the heroes all play the same, with Alucard being an improved version of Simon, and the Trevor being an upgrade over Alucard. Yes, each of them have their own sub-weapons exclsuive to them (like SImon with his axe, Trevor and his boomerangs, and Alucard and his bats), and sure, they do have different abilities only they can use (Simon can summon the spirits of the Belnades and Schnider clans to protect him, Alucard gets vampiric powers like wolf and mist forms, and Trevor can use Light and Shadow magic), but in basic play style they're all the same. To get around the castle Simon has to find a whip upgrade that allows him to attach to special whip hooks, Alucard then has this and gains the ability to double jump and wall kick, and wouldn't you know it, Trevor has all this and games more as he goes along.
Sure, it provides continuity in play so you don't have to learn new characters, but if you give me someone new to play as I want them to feel substantially different from what came before. By keeping all the characters the same in basic function they don't feel distinct. Instead you end up with what feels like a single character putting on new costumes but otherwise continuing their basic exploration. Frankly, if I want a character that can change outfits but gets to explore a proper Castlevania-style castle, I'll go play the Bloodstained games.
While I have a ton of issues with the construction of the game and how the designers went about trying to ape the Castlevania formula (without, clearly, understanding what makes a good game in the series), I didn't completely hate this game. As far as being an entry in the Lords of Shadow series, I honestly felt like this was a disinct improvement over the game that came before, the original Lords of Shadow. As I noted in that game, I absolutely hated the combat, loathed everything about it from the awful combos to the piddly nature of my heroes attacks and the damn Quick Time Events that plagued even the most basic of enemies. When I fight something I just want to be able to kill it, not have to play a game of Simon just to clear an enemy out of a trash mob.
Thankfully most of that is gone in Mirror of Fate. Yes, occasionally you do still find QTEs but those are only if you want to do a stylish finisher on an enemy and take it out a little quicker, but you can also just wail on them and watch the mobs eventually fall over. The whips in the game feel more substantial too, more likely to take out enemies in anything close to an efficient manner, so you're not constantly struggling just to make headway against the foes. It's much easier to make progress, and I appreciated that.
The layout of the game is much better than Lords of Shadow, too. I regularly got lost in the game, not quite understanding where the original title wanted me to go or what I was supposed to do. While Mirror might have levels that feel very basic, with the same art used over and over again, I never got lost or was confused as to my next goal. The was at least clearly laid out and easy to navigate, which meant I actually found myself enjoying it a bit more.
Honestly, my biggest complaint with the game is that it still doesn't feel enough like a Castlevania title for my tastes. If this had been just a random Metroidvania with a generic vampire hunter in the lead role I probably would have viewed it more favorably simply because it didn't have all that history of better titles I was forced to compare it to. But then, if it wasn't a Castlevania game I doubt anyone would have paid attention to it at all. It's a competent, decently made, average title that got as much press as it did because of it's name. There's nothing special about it, it just doesn't suck.
The game originally was designed for HD consoles but, part way into the development cycle it was decided that the game should be released first on the 3DS. This meant enabling 3D graphic options as well as putting in an implemental of features on the second screen (which mostly just amounts to putting the map on the bottom screen while you play on the top). Six months later, though, versions came out (as Mirror of Fate HD) for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. Aside from the lack of 3D graphics, and the removal of the second screen (so that the map is now show as part of the main HUD) there are no substantial differences between the games.
I did check out both versions of the title for this review but, honestly, I preferred playing it on an HD console. The stages, while broken into chunks and not too short, were just long enough that I didn't want to play the game on the go, instead finding it just lengthy and meaty enough that it was better enjoyed on a console. However, depending on you preferred play style either version of the game could be right for you. They're equally good when compared to each other.