See Alucard Fighting (ooh ooh ooh) Bats and Jackals
While it’s obvious first-party releases are the bread and butter of Nintendo’s long line of handheld gaming systems, when it comes to the efforts of third-party publishers, one of the names most synonymous with those platforms has been Castlevania. I still remember sitting in high-school study hall sneakily playing my copy of Castlevania: The Adventure on the original Game Boy, and Nintendo’s later portables would play an important role in keeping Koji Igarashi’s love for classic 2D Castlevania alive.
In fact, those “metroidvania” efforts on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS were so beloved that it’s hard for me to think of a portable Castlevania being anything else. Times have changed, however—and in 2013, the series that brought us the struggle of the Belmont clan and their quest to take down the Lord of Darkness is reinventing itself for a whole new generation of players. This reboot began with the 2010 console release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and that infusion of fresh(-ly sucked) blood continues on the 3DS with the direct follow-up, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow—Mirror of Fate.
With Lords of Shadow, we’ve been introduced to an entirely new Castlevania mythos, and Mirror of Fate serves to expand some details while introducing others. To tread as lightly as I can in the realm of spoilers, we’re given four main characters here: three Belmonts—Gabriel, Trevor, and Simon—as well as the son of Dracula, Alucard. One at a time, you’ll play each of those whip-wielding heroes, and guiding them through their adventures reveals more about how their lives—and fates—are intertwined.
To be honest, I hadn’t expected Mirror of Fate to provide as much lore and character development as it does—and it’s refreshing to see a portable chapter of a series treated as importantly as its console siblings. Far too often, games such as Mirror of Fate are looked upon as throwaway side projects, so kudos to both Konami and MercurySteam for not going that route here. Offering the various characters and their own pieces of the story is an interesting way to help flesh out the new Castlevania timeline; equally interesting is the different looks we get at Dracula’s castle as this all plays out.
I’m conflicted on how the game actually handles the characters themselves, though. Each gains their own special abilities and sub-weapons during the course of their chapters, and some of them present some legitimately unique ideas and twists. Unfortunately, when it comes to basic moves and attacks, there’s no actual difference between Gabriel, Trevor, Simon, and Alucard. The result of this is—outside of those secondary skills—a constant feeling that you’re controlling the same character for the duration of the game. I can understand some similarities with the Belmonts, but this concept had the potential to give each of them their own novel twist; Alucard eschewing his trademark swordplay for a Combat Cross the same as the Belmonts’, however, is pure heresy.
That lack of real depth in the core movesets of the main characters really is a shame, especially given that the combat engine MercurySteam has produced here has a lot to offer otherwise. It feels, at times, like a mix of old-school Castlevania and the flashy, stylish action you’d expect from Lords of Shadow. Moves can be chained together, new abilities are unlocked to expand your repertoire, and you not only have a dodge available, but also a parry. Yes, a parry. In a 2D, side-scrolling Castlevania game. I loved having it, but it feels weird to even type that.
Again, sadly, I have to bookend my expression of positive opinions with negative ones. I not only got used to the game’s combat, but I came to legitimately enjoy it—and yet, the 3DS didn’t always feel capable of doing everything MercurySteam was asking of it. Mirror of Fate’s locations are often quite impressive, presenting a level of grandeur and personality that serve as a nice contrast to the hand-drawn detail of classic 2D Castlevania. Every new location feels different, and little touches abound around every corner—even when they’re hidden away in the background, where many players will never notice them.
Why am I mentioning all of this now? Because I believe that push for impressive environments took a toll on the game’s overall performance, and I couldn’t escape a feeling of “this is all running slower than it really should be.” Most of the time, that sense of slight sluggishness doesn’t break the game, but it did drive me to curse obscenities when I was surrounded by a handful of monsters and was swearing that I should’ve be able to react faster than I could.
My other major complaint also ties into combat: MercurySteam’s approach to how combat is doled out in Mirror of Fate is one I’m against. In nearly all previous side-scrolling Castlevania titles, enemy encounters were organic to their environments. As you went about your business platforming and puzzle-solving, Dracula’s minions existed alongside those other elements. Skeletons patrolled halls, bats zigzagged over bridges, ghosts wandered aimlessly among the shelves of ancient libraries. Then—at times—bosses would appear, or specialty creatures would break free from hidden chambers to test your might.
In Mirror of Fate, enemies are rarely there as a natural part of the experience. The various chambers of Dracula’s domain are quiet and empty, until—upon your arrival—something pops out. Or, typically, a lot of somethings. The flow is constantly broken up by encounters that make you stop what you’re doing at a moment’s notice. Even worse, this often plays out as a requirement, as magical barriers that didn’t exist before suddenly appear in order to block your progression (or retreat).
It reminded me more than a little of the days of beat-em-ups such as Double Dragon or Streets of Rage, where the game constantly asked you to stop and start, stop and start, as you cleared each section of foes. There’s another connection to titles such as those in Mirror of Fate: Enemies here are typically what we’d call “bullet sponges” in other genres. The first time you fight that hulking suit of living armor, it’s an engaging foe that takes a lot of quick thought and strategy to best. Then, you fight it again—and again. And then, you fight two of them at once, in the same small, enclosed space. You’ll be at a point where you just want to go collect that item that you know is only a few rooms away, but there you are, stuck in this fight that just takes way too long to be over.
The thing that makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow—Mirror of Fate succeed is also what makes it fail: This is a 2D Castlevania adventure by a developer who’s never made a 2D Castlevania adventure. The good in that is coming at the project with a fresh outlook on what making such a game means. In that regard, MercurySteam offers some absolutely worthwhile concepts and ideas—and I know that, with more time and experience, there’s a lot of good that can come from this reboot of the franchise’s portable efforts. For now, however, it’s about what we have, not what we might get down the road. What exists in our hands today is a game that shows a serious and unquestionably earnest attempt to carve a new path for vampire hunting on the go—while also honoring the now-legendary Castlevania name.
Of course, the bad is that the folks at MercurySteam have also tried too hard to integrate what works on consoles in the big, brash Lords of Shadow into what fits on a smaller-screened 2D action-platformer. Excessive button-mashing, constant quick-time events, drawn-out battles, an awkward balance between offering exploration while also being linear—those are elements that need some real rethinking and reworking if they’re to exist in upcoming portable chapters of Castlevania, or they’re elements that need to simply not exist at all.
|Developer: MercurySteam • Publisher: Konami • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 03.05.2013|
|6.5||MercurySteam has attempted to take the success of their console Castlevania reboot, Lords of Shadow, and blend it with the more old-school legacy of previous portable releases in the franchise. The result is Mirror of Fate—a game that redefines our expectations for a handheld Castlevania in a number of positive ways, but which also, unfortunately, tries to fix other elements that simply weren’t broken.|
|The Good||An ambitious attempt to make handheld Castlevanias a bigger piece of the franchise.|
|The Bad||Some of that ambition was misguided or mishandled.|
|The Ugly||The hideous creature this game calls Alucard (when compared to the work of legendary Castlevania artist Ayami Kojima).|
|Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate is available exclusively on 3DS.|