Rebooting a beloved franchise is always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, talented, perhaps underexposed developers get a rare opportunity to make their mark on a property that might have inspired them to get into the business to begin with; on the other, hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned. MercurySteam, whose latest title Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate launches this week for 3DS, is no stranger to alienating Castlevania fans, having kickstarted Konami’s current franchise reboot with 2010′s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game that, for better or worse, was absolutely nothing like Castlevania and absolutely everything like God of War. Mirror of Fate attempts to bring back those fans by marrying Lords of Shadows‘ fast-paced combat and jaw-dropping visuals with a design that hews closer to what most people expect from a game bearing the Castlevania name, and the result is one of the best (and best looking) action games on the 3DS. But is it a Castlevania game? The answer to that question depends largely on you.
The story in Mirror of Fate isn’t incredibly complicated, but I won’t spoil it here; suffice to say, the Belmont clan has once again taken up the quest to rid the land of Dracula, and you’ll take control of multiple generations of Belmonts as they traverse the labyrinthine environments in and around the vampire’s castle, laying waste to countless undead hordes and ultimately coming face to face with the dark lord himself.
Structurally, the game draws inspiration from the ‘Metroidvania’ subset of titles (Symphony of the Night, Dawn of Sorrow, etc.), with an interconnected map system replete with areas that can only be reached with the right equipment, out-of-the-way secrets to uncover, and characters that level up via combat. In practice, though, it feels a lot closer to Metroid: Other M than Super Metroid, with essential upgrades – the various spells and weapons you’ll need to finish the game – doled out along a linear set of checkpoints. You’re still given ample opportunity to backtrack in search of health upgrades and the like, but none of these are absolutely necessary to see the game through to its conclusion.
Still, it’s worth getting the most out of your time with the game, if only to see what MercurySteam’s artists have managed to coax out of Nintendo’s relatively underpowered hardware. Playable characters, monsters and larger bosses are all quite attractive, but the castle itself has been stunningly rendered, with crumbling battlements, decrepit tombs, cavernous theaters and abandoned merry-go-rounds all given an impressive sense of actuality by the 3DS’s unique display. And while you won’t technically be missing anything if you play in 2D, I can’t imagine wanting to. It’s really that good. Yes, there are isolated incidents where the system seems to buckle under the strain and the frame rate suffers a bit, but taken as a whole, there’s no better looking game on the 3DS.
This being a sequel to Lords of Shadow, character movement, combat and leveling have all been handled differently from what most fans are expecting; call me uncultured, but I actually prefer MercurySteam’s approach in most respects. With the d-pad reserved for equipment selection, movement is handled via the 3DS circle pad, which can be finicky during trickier platforming sections but works fine in most situations. The combat engine has been lifted wholesale from Lords of Shadow and can add a healthy dose of variety to battles that will otherwise feel repetitive (if you’ve fought one Posessed Armor, you’ve fought them all). The leveling system, which in previous entries was used for improving weapon proficiency, health, and the combat prowess of familiars, exists in Mirror of Fate solely for unlocking new combat abilities, which feels like a waste given that most enemies can be defeated with a generous application of the ‘button mash’ technique.
There’s a lot to love about Mirror of Fate, but it’s impossible to ignore the game’s greatest flaw: it’s just too easy. The most beloved Castlevanias of generations past punctuated hours of freewheeling exploration with boss battles that would creep up when you least expected them and blindside you with their difficulty; you’d dread every step you took for fear that some cathedral-sized monstrosity was waiting just beyond the next room, ready to pummel you into submission and mockingly obliterate whatever progress you’d made since your last save. In Mirror of Fate, there’s no real consequence for dying, because the game auto-saves after every significant action you take – including multiple times during boss fights. Even the game’s unlockable Hardcore difficulty is a cakewalk, as the only change it introduces is an increase in damage sustained from enemy attacks (but not, conversely, a decrease in damage dealt to said enemies.) The game is dripping with atmosphere, aided by an orchestral score that can be both hauntingly subtle and overly oppressive, but all the tension it builds up dissipates immediately when you’re dropped right back into the tail end of a boss fight with a large portion of your health restored. I don’t usually root for the bad guy, but it seems a little unfair.
So we come back to original question: does Mirror of Fate deserve to be called Castlevania? For you youngsters that fell in love with the series in 1997, maybe not. But for the rest of us old-timers – the ones who’ve watched the series grow and evolve over dozens upon dozens of successive releases – MercurySteam’s latest is a fitting tribute to the past, a testament to the franchise’s ability to thrive under disparate approaches to its core concept, and an excellent addition to the 3DS library. And if that’s not good enough for you, just remember: it could be far, far worse.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate was based on a retail copy provided to us by the publisher shortly before the game’s release.