Somewhere, inside the deep, dark dungeons that make up Konami’s game development offices the company has come up with a diabolical formula. A formula that, once infused with a dose of black magic and some vampire’s blood creates something incredibly potent: good Castlevania games. But wait! Not just any system can partake in this sorcery; the spell only seems to work on Nintendo handhelds, as the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS will attest to. Now it’s the 3DS’ turn to take part in the witchcraft with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate. Does lightning strike again for the series' handheld aspirations or does this game curse all who dare to play it?
This entry in the long running franchise is a spin-off of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, which released in 2010 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Set 25 years after the events of the original game, the game follows three characters central to the Castlevania mythos: Simon Belmont, Trevor Belmont and Alucard. Along the way you will discover the stories and secrets of each of these characters as well as uncover the mysteries surrounding the titular Mirror of Fate.
Unlike its console predecessor, Mirror of Fate follows the lineage set by 2D adventures like the Aria games or Symphony of the Night. You will explore Dracula’s castle from a 2D perspective, fighting monsters, discovering secrets and solving puzzles. And for the most part the game does an admirable job of emulating the feel of the older instalments while keeping the action feeling fresh with modern elements (though it could certainly do without the ‘do or die’ quick time events).
Being one half of the ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre you pretty much know what you’re getting into when you pop the cartridge into your 3DS. Some combat, some platforming and some puzzles. And while the game doesn’t do any of these elements poorly it doesn’t blow you away either. The puzzles, while complex, are few and far between and seem to serve only to break up the flow of the game. Meanwhile, the platforming is plagued by awkward controls and repetitive sections, and the combat tries to be more complicated than it needs to be.
The combat can’t be faulted for not giving you enough options. On the contrary, it gives you far too many. You start with your standard whip weapon and can learn new moves by gathering experience points from fallen enemies, collecting lore or solving puzzles. The problem, however, is that it soon starts to feel like a fighting game, with dozens of different moves to remember, some of which are nearly impossible to pull off. Add to that your four equipable weapons/powers, as well as your special equipment, and you have way too many options that just never get used, especially considering that simply spamming the whip will deal with most situations.
That said, after a while you will find yourself sticking to a handful of moves that suit you best, and once you get the hang of rolling and jumping whilst fighting the game really opens up. But by far the star of the fights is definitely the boss battles, each of which will push you to your limits, demanding patience, timing and perfection to complete. They're also all fantastically unique and, dare I say it, a total blast to fight against.
The platforming makes up the largest part of the game but unfortunately it’s also the most tedious. Long stretches of essentially doing nothing are suddenly punctuated by the need to manoeuvre your warrior who feels like he’s stuck in molasses up several stories of precarious ledges. The puzzles fare a little better and will actually make you think in between mindlessly bashing zombies.
The game’s saving grace is that it mixes up the action quite frequently and with satisfying results. It always seems that just as you get tired of swinging from ledge to ledge you will run into a horde of creatures to battle, or as soon as you solve a perplexing puzzle you will have to deal with a unique boss battle. The game does a pretty good job at keeping you on your toes, even when the sum of its parts can be described as ‘decent’ at best.
Visually, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate stands as a vast departure from the previous 2D games in the series. It borrows the mature and realistic tone from the original Lords Of Shadow yet adds in some elements more akin to the DS games (via some of the ugliest cut-scenes you will ever see). It may look more like God Of War than Castlevania, but in the end it works to help deliver a game that looks and feels like the Castlevania games we grew up with only much, much darker.
The world in which the game takes place and the stories that are told are all very well presented. You will soon be finding yourself wanting to know what happens next to the Belmont clan and their mortal enemies. The game even borrows a bit from the other half of ‘Metroidvania’ by having parts of the story told by collecting scrolls from the corpses of dead warriors that expand on the game's backstory as well as warn you about what's still to come (in similar fashion to scanning objects in Metroid Prime).
During gameplay sections and in-game cutscenes (just keep away from the pre-rendered ones) the game is actually quite the looker. With sharp 3D sprites and models, and a world that is imaginatively crafted, this is a title that stands out in the handheld's current library. The level of detail in the characters and their animations is particularly remarkable. Where the game really shines however is when the 3D effect is cranked all the way up. Not only does the game look sharper and deeper but the developers added some neat 3D animations like enemies being thrown ‘into’ the camera that show off the system’s unique hook quite well.
The developers, Mercurystream, also pulled out all the stops by getting a full orchestra to record the soundtrack, something nearly unheard of for a handheld game. While the result is pretty jaw dropping you won’t be doing it justice playing it through handheld's speakers, so I definitely recommend playing this game with headphones. It’s a shame, though, that the same effort wasn't made to deliver equally stellar voice acting.
All of these fancy audio and visual elements do come at a price, namely in the form of lengthy loading times and instances of slowdown during intense action sequences. Neither of which are deal breakers, but they do interrupt the flow of the game quite noticeably.
Surprisingly, even with all the different types of gameplay and high production values, Mirror of Fate is a pretty short experience. Clocking in at around 10 hours for a standard playthrough (an hour or two more to get 100% completion), the game is very light on content. And while an unlockable bestiary is nice for collectaholics, there isn’t much to do once you’ve found all of the game's hidden secrets.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt this way about a game before. For the first three hours I didn’t like it at all, over the course of the next three I started to warm to the game, and for the last three I simply couldn’t put it down. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate is not without its flaws, but it’s also not without its charm. While it’s no where near the same level of quality as the DS Castlevania installments, fans of the long-running franchise - both old and new - will find something to like here, even if they have to dig a bit to find it.
This review is based on a retail copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate for the Nintendo 3DS.