Review by discoinferno84

"We're gonna have a good time then..."

It wasn't going to end well. Trevor Belmont knew it the moment he began his quest. Thanks to the Mirror of Fate, he'd already seen what future lay in store. Not merely his own, but his family as well. His father – no, the thing that used to be his father – reigning supreme over the forces of darkness as Dracula. Simon, his only son, forced to continue the fight in his stead. That was the ultimate destiny of the Belmont clan: a newly-christened warrior for each generation, sent to kill their immortal and ungodly evil ancestor. Their legacy would be nothing but an endless line of assassinations fraught with horror and corruption. Killing Dracula now would be little more than a temporary reprieve; Trevor went into the castle knowing any of his victories would be short-lived. He could only hope that his descendants would fare better…and pray his efforts would mean something.

Castlevania: Mirror of Fate continues and builds upon the alternate continuity introduced in Lords of Shadow. It briefly explains that Gabriel Belmont eventually succumbs to the forces of evil and becomes Dracula. However, this game examines the consequences that come with his accursed existence: he is destined to be eternally fought and killed by his own descendants. For all the grief longtime fans give the rebooted series, such an ironic punishment is interesting and dramatic. It gives both heroes and villains the potential for more depth and development. The problem is in the way the story is told. Symphony of the Night had a similar narrative with Alucard, but was more nuanced and introspective in its approach. Mirror of Fate's biggest twist involves Simon Belmont discovering fate of his father, Trevor. While it's intriguing on paper, the game makes things obvious far too quickly; once you get a glimpse of a few characters and some background information, it's easy to figure out the mystery hours beforehand. As a result, the entire cast looks utterly incapable of rational thought.

At least they're better at fighting. You're given control over Gabriel, Trevor, Simon, and Alucard in a story campaign that spans several decades. They all share the same core moveset, focusing on fast-whipping and evasion. It's mainly based upon attacks and moves learned in Lords of Shadow, which in turn were heavily influenced by the God of War series. The lengthy, flashy combos make decimating hordes of demonic bats and zombies surprisingly fun. The dodging and countering techniques keep the battles fast-paced and engaging. If you get the timing down, the parrying mechanic can be immensely rewarding against even the toughest monsters. While the combat mechanics are solid, they lack variety and versatility. You gain longer combos whenever you level up, but you'll probably forget about them because the basic ones are more expedient. It's much simpler to button mash until a quick time event pops up for the finishing blow. Speaking of which, the bosses are ridiculously easy to beat. Those battles are separated into multiple phases, and the game typically revives you – along with considerable amount of health – without resetting the fight. It kills the tension when you can make mistakes without any consequences.

The game tries to make up for it by giving each character unique sub weapons and magical abilities. Simon can throw axes, toss flaming oil flasks, and summon a spirit to block oncoming attacks. If Trevor runs fast enough, he can gain enough momentum to jump over huge gaps. Alucard has new versions of his Mist and Wolf Forms from Symphony of the Night. While these features offer some variety, they're poorly utilized and limited in design. The whip combos are powerful enough to make the sub weapons nearly obsolete. Trevor's sprint slows down after a few steps, which hinders the possibility of quick backtracking. Alucard's Wolf Form, originally functioning as an alternative attack mode and speed running technique, is now nothing more than a way to break down certain doors to reach power-ups. These kinds of abilities should have been used to enhance the basic gameplay, not reserved for special occasions. Since the game barely requires the use of secondary powers, it's easy to forget them. It's a huge step backward in terms of gameplay mechanics; half the fun of the older games was experimenting with your weapons and techniques and developing your own approach.

Mirror of Fate also attempts to emulate the successes of the other handheld Castlevania games by focusing on map completion via simplistic platforming and item collection. Neither is particularly satisfying; while it is fun using the whip as a grappling hook and swinging around chandeliers, it's rarely demanding. The inconsistent hit detection can either result in you pulling off impossibly long leaps or missing simple jumps. Most of the paths throughout the castle are remarkably linear and crammed together; even if you're not going for a completionist run, it's possible to see nearly everything without trying. Granted, the last few handheld titles didn't have much in terms of engaging platforming, but at least they had the sense to spread out and give you the chance to explore. It gave the castle a much bigger sense of scale and foreboding, all while rewarding curiosity with dozens of extra items and rooms. This game occasionally sends you on fetch quests for some plot coupon…and shows you exactly where the item is on the map. You know, instead of letting you figure stuff out on your own? There are occasional puzzles involving movable crates and mirrors, but they're laughably easy to solve and drag the pacing of the adventure to a crawl. It's as if the designers wanted to make Mirror of Fate as good as its predecessors, only to completely miss what made them fun. Remember Castlevanias that actually made you think?

Instead, the game tries to distract you with its visuals. When you first enter the castle, it's easy to be awestruck at how small the characters are compared to the massive drawbridge and rows of demonic statues. The sheer size of the doors and windows is staggering; even if the platforming is mindless, Simon's slow ascent up the ropes and scaffolding of the main tower is mesmerizing. No matter how many times you get forced into a fight, the animations never get old. Given how much emphasis is put on reading enemies' movements, the amount of detail isn't surprising. The heroes practically dance across the battlefield, and their whips flow with smooth, efficient brutality. When you successfully parry an attack, the stylish slow-down in the action makes it wonderfully clear. Given how the story occurs in the same place over the course of several years, there are some creative backgrounds you'll likely only appreciate hours later. You might come across the gargantuan, rotting carcass of some otherworldly abomination laying under a pile of rubble; skip forward a protagonist or two, and you'll find out exactly how it got there. Having the various heroes' perspectives so intertwined is one of the best ideas the game has to offer.

Unfortunately, it's one of the few. Castlevania: Mirror of Fate has a lot of interesting concepts, but fails to capitalize on many of them. It's as if the game designers were torn between the action-based mechanics of Lords of Shadow, and the tried and true exploration and basic platforming of the handheld games. It's difficult to have it both ways, and the resulting combination is something less than either one. The combat and platforming are functional enough, but aren't utilized in fun and creative ways. Giving characters different abilities is great, but such things shouldn't be limited to only a few obstacles or puzzles. More challenging level design and exploration would have done wonders. Instead, the game puts too much emphasis on its predictable narrative; the new mystery of the Belmont family would have been interesting if it weren't so obvious. Hopefully the fate of the Castlevania series won't be nearly as bleak.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 03/29/13, Updated 04/02/13

Game Release: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (US, 03/05/13)


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