Mirror of Fate wants two things: 1) to be old Castlevania and 2) to be new Castlevania. Sadly, the concessions made to appease fans of both spectrums mean neither side gets the game they want. You may revel in the number of whip-based combos while you cleanse Dracula’s castle of werewolves and mermen, fill out each area’s 2D map block by block, or enjoy some plot continuity with Gabriel Belmont’s family after his transformation into the dark lord, except the execution of story and gameplay takes one step back for every step forward.
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio..."
Things go awry beginning with the prologue. Unknown to Gabriel, his wife carries their unborn child, Trevor. To protect the boy from his father, the Brotherhood steals Trevor away and trains him to be their best knight. Meanwhile, Gabriel prepares for his fight with the problematic Daemon Lord. This chatty chimera eventually becomes a recurring villain, though there’s no purpose for his inclusion. He taunts the player, laughs maniacally, and gets stomped during the ensuing boss fight.
The rest of the story follows many years later, after the maturing of Trevor’s own son, Simon. To avenge his fallen father, Simon intends to kill Dracula and clear the Belmont family name, but the young man’s quest is not the only catastrophe being told. Mirror of Fate recounts the troubles of Alucard and Trevor, rewinding the story with each time skip and confusing the audience by way of unanswered questions. What exactly is the Mirror of Fate? What does this looking glass reveal? Who is the Toy Maker? Can Dracula be killed when he remains integral to Lords of Shadow 2? Although the final cinematic offers little insight (provided you obtain 100 percent completion), expect some of these ponderings to be resolved in the official Lords of Shadow sequel. Otherwise, the plot and the abrupt ending leave players wanting more.
While the story proves the worst of the game’s worries, the fast-paced and flashy whip-heavy combat held my attention throughout the campaign. Instead of prior Castlevania titles’ tendencies towards stiff animations, Mirror of Fate adopts the fluidity and style of Lords of Shadow. There are nearly two dozen moves to master, from mighty ground slams to rapid air juggles, and all four protagonists wield the iconic Combat Cross ‒ a chain whip ideal for sending monsters back to purgatory with a flurry of paralyzing strikes. Blocks and rolls also prove vital, as enemies destroy your health should they box you in at the edge of the 2.5D stages.
Bosses can only be defeated by quick-time events.
The gameplay, however, quickly falls into a precarious rhythm. Players earn experience for their pest control services, yet the Belmonts must locate specially marked chests lurking about Dracula’s fortress to raise their health and magic reserves. That means the only benefits to leveling and clearing the castle of hunchbacks, werewolves, and gargoyles are the excess combos; this actively discourages you from engaging respawning enemies when you backtrack through mansion corridors. Worse, the initial set of direct and area-of-effect attacks work fine for every situation, so you never need to mix together superfluous assaults for anything beyond personal satisfaction.
The real rewards for backtracking remain the aforementioned chests, and it’s here that the heart of Castlevania still beats. As you explore the Dracul estate, you uncover new magicks that allow you to enter previously inaccessible areas, like a phantom guardian that shields you from acidic waterfalls or a lycan transformation that imbues your character with extra strength. In addition to the health and arcane chests, these hidden corners harbor secret scrolls detailing a knight’s final thoughts, journal entries that add to your growing bestiary, and item chests that increase the carrying capacity of your secondary weapons. These combat tools, such as throwing axes or a time-stopping hourglass, vary per hero and do not transfer between acts. Just when you grow attached to Alucard’s swarm of bats, the game replaces the winged vermin with Trevor’s boomerang.
The stats that really matter (health, magic, item capacity) carry over from flashback to flashback. While the consistency lessens the difficulty, and the fights steadily grow easier once you uncover more chests (the frequent checkpoints help, too), it’s a negligible issue. Still, several downsides appear during the course of backtracking. The chapter select dumps players into a character’s arc where they left off, but forgotten chests, scrolls, and bestiary bios are rarely located off the beaten path. I finished the story with 88 percent completion after eight hours, and to mop up the remaining collectibles required less than two.
Trevor performs his best Tarzan impression.
At the end of those ten hours, I could not suffer more derivative puzzles (are we not beyond pushing blocks or bending lasers with mirrors?) or traps of instant death. Less egregious but still irritating, my patience waned for the camera angles that pull out to obscene lengths, minimizing the protagonists until they become microscopic. I liken the characters' appearances to N64-era sprites at best, too, and the world is simply not pretty, with the sole exception being the cutscenes themselves. These cinematics look appropriately gritty, and the graphic novel art better serves the game’s dark design.
My complaints with the presentation aside, I do not disparage the variety of the castle’s actual interior. Underwater caverns, a toymaker’s workshop, candlelit studies, and large dining halls are reminiscent of the gothic architecture the game so desperately tries to portray, and the soundtrack exceeds above all else. It’s a disgrace to subject some of Castlevania’s most calming symphonies to Nintendo’s paltry 3DS speakers instead of a proper surround sound system.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate tries to do too much with too little. The narrative (allegedly) segues into Lords of Shadow 2, but the storytelling leaves too many untold questions to be an admirable anecdote. The developers also cram a console-sized title onto a cartridge the size of a thumbnail, and only the combat and soundtrack survive unharmed. Although Mirror of Fate marks the opening act to a much larger main event, this game of shadows is better left out of the limelight.
Developer: MercurySteam Entertainment
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)