Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate does a fine job of scratching that old-school Castlevania itch. Many long-time fans were disappointed with the 2010 reboot of the series and its clear shift toward a more fighting-heavy style of play. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, for home consoles, bore more of a resemblance to the God of War hack-and-slash games than it did to its own side-scrolling exploration lineage.
Purists will be pleased, then, with Mirror of Fate for the Nintendo 3DS. Although excessively subtitled, it’s a return to the series’ two-dimensional side-scrolling roots, which is both a good and a bad thing. While the exploration and clever puzzle-solving is front and centre again, so too is an unfortunate side effect – a healthy dose of backtracking.
The 2010 reboot introduced players to Gabriel Belmont, a knight in the Brotherhood of Light, an organization dedicated to protecting humanity from vampires, werewolves and other things that go bump in the dark. Mirror of Fate is set 25 years after that game with Trevor Belmont, Gabriel’s son, initially setting out to avenge the death of his mother.
Her killer – none other than Gabriel himself, who is now cursed to live out eternity as the vampire Dracula. Trevor must infiltrate Dracula’s castle and confront the evil fiend.
The story is divided into three acts, wherein the player shifts controls between a trio of characters: Trevor, his own son Simon, and Alucard, who is Dracula’s son (and, cleverly, also Dracula spelled backward). Yup – all of the parentage and lineage is pretty confusing.
Fortunately, the story is very much secondary to the action, which is as fulfilling as any vintage Castlevania game. Exploring Dracula’s rather expansive castle is done in Metroid-ian fashion, where new areas become accessible only once you’ve found the necessary item or ability.
Trevor, for example can only access grapple hook points once he finds the combat cross upgrade. Alucard, meanwhile, is able to pass through closed gates once he acquires the ability to turn into mist. Much of the game is thus spent figuring out puzzles, which is a form of play that never seems to get old. The 3DS’s touch screen adds a modern amenity in this regard as it lets you write reminders to yourself and attach them to the map, as in, “Grapple hook needed here.”
The downside to this means there’s a good deal of backtracking to be done, especially in Alucard’s second act. That’s another hallmark of old Castlevania games, but it’s still not fun all these years later. It’s especially frustrating when missing one particular jump means having to wind your way through the same levels again and again, just to get back to where you were initially.
All three characters encounter hordes of colourful beasties along the way, from zombies and werewolves to animated suits of armour and flying gargoyles. Also scattered throughout are the requisite boss battles, many of which are well imagined.
From giant undead knights to flying multi-headed monsters, the bad guys all have their own attack and defence styles, which means combat varies nicely throughout. The difficulty also ramps up considerably – I had to dial it down to “easy” at about the halfway point just to make it through. There’s no getting around having to master the various characters’ abilities and weapons, not to mention their blocking and jumping skills.
Mirror of Fate does still share one obvious trait with God of War games: a judicious use of quick-time button pressing that borders on excessive. It’s most apparent in the epic, chapter-ending set-pieces, like the final battles with giant snake creatures and Dracula, where it brings a sense of incongruity to the game.
The battles with these huge, scenery-destroying monsters are relatively easy, since they can generally be dispatched by pushing buttons in time with on-screen prompts. The regular beasties and bosses, however, require a considerable amount of skill and timing to beat, which ultimately seems backward. Shouldn’t the biggest bads be the ones you have more trouble with?
Mirror of Fate highlights the frequent criticisms regarding quick-time events – that they’re overused, throw-away game devices that developers turn to whenever they don’t have the technology (or budget) to design a properly interactive sequence. To some extent, this is more excusable on the smaller and less capable 3DS than it is on home consoles, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.
At least the sound and visuals during these parts, not to mention the rest of the game, is good. Mirror of Fate has a moody, ethereal soundtrack that often tests the limits of the 3DS’s speakers. The cut scenes that tell the convoluted Belmont-Dracula story are also done in crisp, cartoonish cell-shaded animation.
None of it really explains why all the characters in this Gothic action story speak in Scottish accents, but that’s neither here nor there.
While action-packed, fully three-dimensional reboots are all the rage these days, games like this one do a lot to suggest that classic 2D side-scrollers – or at least ones that are well done – may never go out of style.