When Koji Igarashi‘s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released on the PlayStation and Saturn in 1997, it was hailed as a revolutionary bit of genius. Reinventing the traditional action platformer as more of an exploration-heavy RPG, it also had the unfortunately effect of splintering the fanbase in to those who favoured the Metroid-styled backtracking, and those who preferred killing beasties as they traverse from one side of a map to the other.
Since Symphony of the Night, nearly ever Castlevania game has followed the former formula; exploring castles, gaining new abilities, and backtracking through previous explored areas with those new abilities in tow. The handheld Castlevania games: Circle of the Moon, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia were all fantastic adventures that stuck to that script.
Two and a half years ago, the Castlevania franchise was reborn once again (splitting the fan base a second time) as Lords of Shadow, the first successful attempt at bringing the franchise to life in 3D. It managed to blend that wonderful sense of exploration with brutal and slick God of War-styled combat. Terribly underappreciated, it still stands as one of my favourite games from this generation, telling the story of the once noble, even clerical Gabriel Belmont’s decent in to darkness.
Continuing the tale of the beleaguered and cursed Belmont family, Mirror of Fate takes place nearly 3 decades since Lords of Shadow, but it’s hard to delve in to the game’s narrative without ruining much of the game’s story. An entertaining, if somewhat light intertwining tale that spans generations, you’ll be playing as a number of the Belmont descendants – as well as the monsters they’ve become in four separate, yet connected acts; each as a new character with new abilities. Exposition, such as it is, is jarringly delivered through a series of aesthetically catching, but wooden cell-shaded scenes, hopping through time, delivering most current events first, then working its way through history, like a gothic Pulp Fiction. It borders on being convoluted, but the emphasis here isn’t on story.
Mirror of Fate, set in the Lords of Shadow universe, doesn’t play like the handheld Castlevania game you’d expect. Instead, it tries to marry elements from all three styles of Castlevania; the mostly linear levels from Castlevania games of yore; RPG elements and exploration from the Igavania games and brutal combat chains from Lords of Shadow. It very nearly succeeds – but in trying to appeal to the entire fan base, presents a diluted version of each.
It most successfully captures the spirit of its namesake, bringing the God of War-like emphasis on chaining together combos – only within a two dimensional space. Tearing apart the undead, werewolves, Mermen ad possessed puppets is both satisfying and rewarding, made all the more enjoyable with new attacks that unlock as you level up. Unfortunately, that’s essentially as far as the RPG system goes; your stats are never buffed, there’s no equipment to modify your prowess and you’re really only ever in possession of one single weapon; the whip-like combat cross. Stealing a little more from God of War, your health and magic bars are upgraded when you stumble upon chests that require, yes, quick-time events to open. they’re also not the only QTE’s you’ll encounter; nearly every boss fight has some implementation of that overused mechanic, many of which feel forced, and are counter-indicative of being fun.
Exploration isn’t quite as fleshed out as the sort you’d find in Igavania titles; though there’s a map, and a number of items that can only be accessed with the right abilities, the game is largely linear, with a great big arrow on the map always showing where you need to go next, so those looking to search through every nook and cranny of Dracula’s Castle are set for disappointment. Puzzles, likewise, are very unlikely to leave you scratching your head in search for solution.
Mirror of Fate is also probably the most accessible Castlevania game to date. Utilising a checkpoint system, death is never much of a setback, and you’ll never be too far from where you left off should you meet your untimely demise. Boss fights retain the series charm, and though you could pay close attention, watching for patterns of movement and attack before countering them, you could just as easily destroy them with brute force, because that checkpoint system is in place there too; you’ll be back in the fight with life and magic bars in tact, having already chipped away at your foe’s health.
Visually, Dracula’s Castle is a marvel for the 3DS. It’s dark, gothic and intricately detailed – and the game’s employment of a 2.5D perspective helps translate Lords of Shadow’s aesthetic remarkably well, with some impressive lighting effects highlighting the 3DS’ strengths. It’s also one of the very few games for the system that I couldn’t imagine playing with the 3D slider on full tilt, thanks to some pretty impressive stereoscopic effects. Most notable during the game’s many set pieces, the 3D adds an incredible sense of depth. It’s one of the best looking games available for the 3DS.
It’ll take you a good 8 to 10 hours to play through the game, after which you can jump through each chapter to find all the hidden collectibles; mostly scrolls to be found on long-dead warriors (including one that cleverly tips its hat to the Mario franchise) and pages that add to the game’s encyclopaedic bestiary. None of them are particularly hard to find, as the map displays the locations of all of them – but there’s really little incentive, beyond unlocking a new video, to do so after the credits roll.
It might be a little diluted, but Mirror of Fate pays homage to Castlevania games past, cherry picking elements from the series best, while remaining firmly in the present; retaining its own identity. Control issues and the overabundance of quick-time events aside, it’s a must-play for the discerning Castlevania fan, even if it is a hard sell for those expecting another Symphony of the Night.