Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is one of my favourite franchises from this generation. However, in saying that, I almost feel like Dracula himself, staring into the abyss and wondering whether a legion of nostalgia fueled fans wait below with fire and pitchforks. Having grown up as a “Sega Kid”, I had no advance insight into the lore of Castlevania, and thus, whilst I have a good understanding of the design concept known as “metroidvania”, I mostly went into Lords of Shadow with an entirely blank slate. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what it is about the game, but it immediately resonated with me, and not just because I like hearing the sound of Patrick Stewarts voice. In fact, it’s likely the most interested I’ve ever been in a mythology that’s so closely tied to Christian theology. Although, more importantly, I really enjoyed the design, and ultimately, what the developers were trying to deliver.
Truth be told, I actually bought a 3DS with the sole intent of playing Mirror of Fate when it first released last year, but because I am one of “those guys” who doesn’t actually use public transport, it simply got forgotten about which was unfortunate. However, Konami has gifted me with another chance and a much more preferable option, and that is in the form of a HD re-release. Although, excuse me whilst I have a little rant about how ridiculous it was to initially release a tie-in title exclusively on a platform/brand entirely unrelated to the rest of the series. Honestly, I don’t understand it when these decisions are made, but at least it’s been rectified, and that is the most important thing. However, in saying that, I suspect this title will likely divide the fanbase more than any other as it has been built upon classic design principles, and thus, an invitation for “nitpickery”. I will not do that.
The first thing players will likely find intriguing about Mirror of Fate is that it takes place from the perspective of three separate protagonists, which of course, come together in the end to form a unified narrative and logical lead up to the events in Lords of Shadow 2. To clarify, this is achieved by separating the game into three distinctive acts, and then by cleverly weaving each of the individual stories together to provide the player with consistent revelations. It’s true that the game can be a little light on the dialogue and cut-scenes, but the story itself is quite interesting, and honestly, I’ve seldom had more fun with backtracking in a game. The metroidvania design is already well known for meaningful world development and secrets, but being able to retread the same path of the character you were just playing is really fascinating, and especially so when you get to experience the same events from an opposite perspective. It’s not often that level design is so successfully tied to the narrative.
Expanding on the initial premise, the game reveals that Gabriel Belmont had a son, Trevor, who was taken away at birth due to a revelation from The Mirror of Fate. With Dracula now at large in the present day and the Belmont bloodline still closely tied to The Brotherhood, who is out to destroy him, you will likely see the irony that fuels the lore of Castlevania. Moving forward, the story will take place from the perspective of Simon Belmont, the son of Trevor; Alucard, a mysterious vampire; and finally, Trevor, whose story is experienced 30 years prior. It might sound a little confusing when it is laid out in writing, but it all makes perfect sense as you make your way through, and there aren’t any major complexities that will have you scratching your head at the end. Ultimately, it’s an interesting tale that is a bit light in content, but for what there is, it works really well. However, with that being said, I have a feeling some revelations might put off longtime fans as I’m pretty sure they go against canon.
If there is one element that truly shines in Mirror of Fate, it’s the strength of the design. Taking positive advancements from the Lords of Shadow, the developers have also looked to the past, and more specifically at the metroidvania formula prominent during the early Nintendo era. If you are not familiar with the term “metroidvania”, essentially, it implies a platforming game that also includes roleplaying elements, inventory, and exploration; a term that was partly coined by this very franchise more than 20 years ago. In Castlevania: Mirror of Fate, the game actually utilises what’s known as a 2.5D playing field; meaning 3dimentional characters on a 2dimensional plane. Additionally, players will accumulate experience to gain levels, develop new abilities, manage inventory, seek out secrets, and explore large environments that will become familiar with time. Honestly, it is a proven formula that works incredibly well, and there should also be enough difficulty settings to satisfy purists.
I think it’s also important to note the clever use of puzzles, which are especially effective with this style of design; not taking into account how nonsensical their actual placement in the castle is. Additionally, the use of a nostalgic block-styled map works well once you refamiliarise yourself with how it works. It’s true that Mirror of Fate makes exploration easier by marking secrets on the map, but fortunately, this can be switched off in favour of traditional notes; which likely would have been more practical with the 3DS. Admittedly, without several perspectives to experience, the game could have been liable to tediousness considering it’s long playtime. However, this is not the case, and the definitive acts keep the experience feeling fresh. Players will carry across their level & combos, and instead utilise different play styles and build up a new set of abilities and inventory with each new character.
In a game franchise such as Castlevania, gameplay is a crucial element that can ultimately make or break the entire experience, and this is where I feel the game hits a few speed bumps. Whilst the combat is undeniably functional, I would also describe it as a little clunky. I don’t think every game needs to empower the player, but it never feels as if you can truly master it, and that’s something I really liked about the Lords of Shadow. Additionally, the difficulty will often spike from ridiculously easy to a few boss fights which come across as a bit of a cheap shot with the way you’re forced to encounter them. Oh, and that’s not taking into account the two quick time events that are absolutely out of place! With that being said, it’s still fun and isn’t impeded by any major issues, and thus, I don’t think it’s going to get in the way of enjoying the design, but it is clearly missing a certain level of satisfaction.
When discussing a HD remake, graphics will likely be the first topic to be discussed, and taking into account that the game was ported across from the 3DS, I think Konami has done a decent job considering. It’s still clear that the game was not developed for the platform as the characters lack the detail found in the Lords of Shadow, but as everything has been re-textured, it still looks quite nice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the games cutscenes are animated with their own unique visual style, and whilst I personally like this approach and have seen it done before, I think it will come down to individual preference whether it works for you or not. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s visually incredible, but it looks like Castlevania, and that’s what’s important. If I were to pick one of my favourite things about the entire franchise, it would be the music, and just like it’s predecessors, it’s as great as it ever was.
Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate HD (phew!) is a genuinely commendable effort that successfully combines the old with the new. Honestly, if it didn’t have the Castlevania name attached to it, I would go as far to say that it is an excellent metroidvania experience. And yet, it is a Castlevania game, and this means that it will definitely be subject to the scrutiny and nitpicking of longtime fans. However, speaking from the perspective as both a fan of the Lords of Shadow, as well as the genre as a whole, I think it’s a great effort that has been translated especially well from the 3DS. The combat can be a little bit unbalanced, and things can get a little clunky at times, but overall, it’s well designed, and a welcome trip into nostalgia. The three protagonists certainly help to keep things interesting, whilst the game successfully delivers an environment that you can become familiar with. There should be enough secrets to keep you busy, and options to satisfy the purists. Additionally, if you want to take it a step further, players can tackle a Boss Rush mode to find glory in the leaderboards. Ultimately, it might not be as good as some of it’s predecessors, but it is a change of pace that I enjoyed greatly!
Note: This review was based on the 360 version of the game, and provided to us by Konami via Mindscape Asia Pacific Pty Ltd.