Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a game that seems to have an identity crisis. It’s not a Symphony of the Night, RPG styled exploration game you might expect from previous Castlevania entries on GBA and DS. It’s most definitely not the pure action platformer of more classic Castlevania games either. It’s even quite different to the more recent Lords of Shadow game for 360/PS3. Developer MercurySteam attempts to mash together elements from previous Castlevania games as well as other popular recent titles in an effort to create a compelling new handheld Castlevania experience. In doing so, they have created an enjoyable game that is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts.
The game begins with a short prologue set one year before the events of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and stars that game’s protagonist Gabriel Belmont. This short sequence serves as a basic tutorial for the game’s combat and general controls, as well as providing a rudimentary backstory for the game’s characters. The bulk of the game is split into three acts, set at different times and starring different characters. The stories of these acts intertwine, at pre-determined points of the story, giving more insight to the overarching story arc. Much of the overarching narrative is told through rather nicely detailed cel-shaded cut scenes, and these are fully voiced. There is some more incidental storytelling through scrolls left with the remains of fallen knights found around the play area, which can also serve to give clues on how to progress. Finding these also rewards you with a small experience bonus, making them useful beyond incidental storytelling.
The bulk of Mirror of Fate’s gameplay is in its combat, and in this it borrows much from the successful God of War franchise. Our characters all wield a weapon that behaves much like the chain sword from God of War, and combat involves lots of slinging this chain or whip around and flailing enemies in spectacular looking fashion. Basic attacks involve ‘powerful but focused’ attacks, mapped to Y, and the ‘wider range but less damaging’ attacks mapped to X. You can also block certain enemy attacks and if timed right, you will get an opportunity for counter-attack. After a certain amount of damage is dealt, enemies will be stunned and flash white, meaning you can tap R to execute a flashy finisher. Each enemy dispatched will drop balls of light that increase your experience bar. Collect enough of these and you will level up, allowing the character to learn a new form of attack. New attacks are definitely not difficult to pull off, as they are used with fairly basic inputs such as mashing a single button repeatedly, pressing one button then another, or simply holding down one of these buttons in different situations. Over time, you will build up a repertoire of moves, most of which are useful in their own situations, and since the inputs are fairly basic, you feel safe experimenting with them.
One aspect not borrowed from God of War, and to the combat system’s detriment, is that the game is set on a 2D plane, rather than in a more open 3D space. With your character stuck in a 2D plane, dodging attacks becomes more challenging than it really should be when facing multiple opponents. If you’re surrounded, you can find yourself trying to dodge one enemy’s attack, but dodging straight into the path of another enemy, who stops you from moving far enough to dodge the attack. These dodges work well in a 3D space since there are 360 degrees that you can dodge into, but using this kind of combat on a 2D plane, especially on a relatively small and low resolution screen of a 3DS, makes the whole experience feel rather cramped. Often it can make you feel like you got damaged more due to the limited play space rather than something you did wrong. It is something that you can adapt to, to a degree, but even after hours of play, you will still feel cramped in the confines of a 2D space. The game’s inconsistent frame rate also serves to make dodging and combat in general, a fairly frustrating affair, with some encounters feeling like more luck than skill based.
No Castlevania game would be complete without boss battles, and Mirror of Fate’s bosses represent some high points of the game, which unfortunately become less enjoyable once you realise how you can use the game system to your advantage in beating these bosses. The bosses all follow a set pattern, and once learned there is joy to be had in successfully dodging and counter-attacking when an opportunity presents itself. The way the checkpoints in these battles work however, means that more often than not bosses are more about pure persistence than skill. Once a set amount of damage is done to a boss, a short cut-scene will play. If you die after this, you will start playing again from this cut scene, with your health partly replenished, but the boss’s health still depleted. Once you realise this, it’s all too easy to just take advantage of this and feel like you just need to make it to the next checkpoint, rather than seeing the entire encounter as a challenge to be overcome. In another nod to God of War, boss battles typically end with a series of Quick Time Events involving mashing buttons to dodge attacks or finish off the boss in cinematic cut scenes. Like the battles themselves, a failed QTE doesn’t really punish players, it simply brings the player back to a few seconds earlier to try again.
Each of the playable characters shares the same general whip/chain combat abilities, ensuring that the skills learned by previous characters are not lost when starting a new act with a new character. In doing this though, it does rob the characters of much individuality, since they all fight in much the same way. Characters do have their own unique abilities like magic or throwing weapons, and these are somewhat useful while they last, but since your time with each character is fairly short, these unique abilities are rarely needed to take out enemies, and typically are only used in very rare and specific situations.
When you’re not fighting in Mirror of Fate, the rest of the gameplay centres on a very limited style of exploration platforming. You have a map reminiscent of Metroid for the immediate area that you’re in. A neat feature implemented here is the ability to add notes to the map via the 3DS touch screen which is useful for those inevitable times where you find a door or switch that you can’t get past with your current abilities, but don’t want to forget to come back to later. It’s not long into the game that you realise that the exploration isn’t quite as extensive previous Castlevania games. The time you have in each area with a character is fairly limited, in my play it was around 2-3 hours with each of the main characters. Because of this limited time in each area, there is very little to explore beyond the immediate paths to objectives. Yes, there are the aforementioned collectibles, and treasure chests that increase your health, magic and ammunition reserves, but it’s very rare that they’re far off from the main track. MercurySteam have made an effort to sate completionists by adding in extra optional collectibles, but they feel more like an obligation than a purposeful decision to better the game.
Graphically, Mirror of Fate is a mixed bag. On one hand, those cel-shaded cut scenes look quite nice, with detailed characters and surroundings. When the game cuts back to in-engine however, the bland textures and uninteresting locales become jarringly obvious. The game has some moments where you might be impressed graphically, one such section in Act 2 surprised me. As your character traverses sewer pipes, in the background you can see the castle in the distance, and it’s quite a neat use of 3D. For the most part though, the areas you are exploring are rather dull. One graphical issue that you almost certainly will notice, is the inconsistent frame rate. During in-engine cut scenes, and during regular gameplay, the frame rate can vary wildly. It rarely feels fluid, which really makes the combat difficult to enjoy, and during some in-engine cut scenes I could swear the frame rate dipped to single digits.
Mirror of Fate employs an orchestral score throughout. In some situations, this can certainly add to the game’s atmosphere, especially when exploring some of the dark, dank areas of the castle. There are very few memorable themes however. I definitely recommend playing this with headphones, not so much because the music is incredible, but more because the music is ill-suited to the 3DS’s speakers. Quite regularly while playing on a 3DS XL, the music will reach certain notes that the speakers just can’t reproduce, creating distortion. Character voices in-game leaves much to be desired as well. Simon’s various grunts and yells are particularly grating. Often when Simon jumps, he makes a noise as though he is surprised he could jump so high, and then proceeds to make this sound every few jumps. It’s just comical. Occasionally, the music would abruptly just cut out after a cut scene, not resuming until entering a new area, which seems like it was not intentional. All of these audio related issues serve to destroy any immersion that might have been built up, which is a shame.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is not a terrible game, it’s not broken, and there is some fun to be found. For fans of the original Lords of Shadow, there might even be some further interesting story to discover relating back to that game. It has its moments with some encounters managing to be enjoyable, and for someone looking for some portable monster slaying, Mirror of Fate might float your boat. It just feels like for every positive, there’s at least one thing bringing the game experience back down to earth. It’s main combat feels clunky thanks to the 2D perspective and inconsistent frame rate, the exploration feels half-baked, and the graphics in general really seem to lack any interesting design. It really feels like a little while longer in development could have helped the game immensely and at least smoothed out those issues with the game’s presentation. One playthrough took just under 9 hours. Mirror of Fate is enjoyable, but don’t expect a masterpiece.