Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate brings the series back to Nintendo’s portable systems, where it thrived for a decade, after a lengthy hiatus. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a single glaring problem: It’s not very good.
Mirror tries to do a lot of things all at once — to be many different things simultaneously. Ambition is commendable, but developer Mercurysteam has taken such an inelegant approach to combining the game’s multiple influences that the end result amounts to muddled chaos. I suppose that’s thematically fitting given the role of Chaos as an anthropomorphic force in many Castlevania plots, but something tells me the devs weren’t working toward a clever metatextual statement.
As the title indicates, Mirror aspires to carry on the legacy of the Castlevania brand, which has sent players into the castle of Count Dracula to ram a stake into his heart for more than a quarter-century. It’s admittedly something of a sideways continuation of that legacy, as even Lords of Shadow producer David Cox has admitted his trilogy represents an alternate reality side story to the “main” Castlevania timeline (though there’s no indication Konami intends to continue that particular narrative thread, either). Still, with “Castlevania” right there in the title, certain expectations come hand in hand with the experience.
Unfortunately, Mirror fulfills those expectations poorly. It wears the trappings of Castlevania awkwardly, like a little kid in a suit he pilfered from his father’s closet. You have Simon Belmont and Alucard and whips and axes and succubi: Familiar elements all. But they’ve been mashed into the template of a game that doesn’t particularly play like Castlevania despite its name and superficial appearances.
Not that there’d be anything wrong with taking the series in a new direction; the original Lords of Shadow did precisely that, and — love it or hate it — you can’t deny its creators did precisely what they set out to accomplish. Where Mirror of Fate stumbles is in lacking its predecessor’s surety of purpose. It wants all at once to be the God of War-inspired child of Lords of Shadows, an old-school whip-frenzy Castlevania action game, and a reworking of the non-linear Symphony of Nightbranch of the series. If it settled for simply being one of these things, they probably could have knocked it out of the park. Sadly, they got greedy. In trying to cram so many pieces into a single game — and a seemingly low-budget one at that — Mercurysteam failed to do justice to any of them.
Mirror makes a poor successor to the classic, linear, action-driven Castlevania titles it initially appears to imitate. Those games distinguished themselves with exquisite level and enemy design that perfectly complemented the heroes’ limitations (stiff controls, few weapons) to pose a sharp but almost never unfair challenge. The environments and foes worked together in harmony to force players to consider each move carefully, to learn the rhythms and flow of each stage, to juggle multiple threats and strategize their choice of weapons.
You won’t find any of that in Mirror of Fate. What little platforming exists in Mirror feels perfunctory, and it’s agonizingly slow since most of it involves the protagonists grabbing onto shiny ledges and pulling themselves along rather than pressing forward at a brisk clip. Enemies never combine with the environments in interesting ways, unless they’re conspicuously placed as an arbitrary gate to progress to force you to seek out a new skill and return with your new “key” in hand. Most combat takes place in boxed-off areas that force you to grind through a seemingly endless procession of one or two enemies in order to move forward. There’s no rhythm to it, no sense of flow.
Still, there’s more to the Castlevania legacy than the focused combat of the NES days. Symphony of the Night took the series into a more RPG-inspired, exploration-based format where moment-to-moment battles were of less interest than than overall sense of progression. Mirror shifts to this style in its second act, but it does an equally poor job of delivering a satisfactory version of that experience, too. While you’ll find yourself backtracking occasionally, it barely registers. The level designs rarely branch in any meaningful way, and the occasional points that encourage you to return with new skills in hand only contain meaningless collectables (scrolls written by the spirits of previous explorers recounting their deaths — medieval snuff films, basically) or health and magic upgrades.
You’ll never need to go terribly far out of your way to progress along the main path, and you’ll never feel particularly compelled to revisit different areas because of the game’s suffocating visual monotony. The handful of thoughtfully designed rooms are outnumbered fiftyfold by drab caverns or dingy castle halls. The sumptuous art styles that set different castle sections apart in the Symphony-inspired titles is completely absent here. Mirror looks pretty lousy on a technical level, with poorly detailed characters and stuttering frame rates, but its real visual failing comes in its utter lack of compelling artistry. It has the cheap, cramped look of so many 2D games built with 3D graphics. Granted, not every game can be as gorgeous as Bionic Commando: Rearmed, but the combination of low-res graphics and uninspired art design makes this easily the worst-looking Castlevania game since the N64 days.
The underlying appeal of Symphony and its successors came from those games’ emphasis on leveling up. The powers, weapons, and items that former protagonists like Alucard and Soma accumulated over the course of their adventures provided the addictive hook of an RPG. You’ll find little of that in Mirror. While the protagonists do level up, that simply amounts to unlocking new whip skills. Besides the whip, each character also wields an extremely limited set of supplemental skills that never evolve and end up being reset to zero every time the story switches its perspective to a different hero.
And even that wouldn’t feel like such a letdown if not for the fact that Mirror of Fate is as poor a God of War clone as it is a Castlevania game. Levels consist largely of empty spaces dotted with occasional low-effort platforming sequences, forced combat in locked-off areas, and a handful of conspicuously contrived puzzles to solve. While you acquire dozens of whip abilities in the course of the game, you rarely need anything more than the two basic attacks, your quick-dodge, and the ever-present air juggle. Outside of bosses and the very few basic enemies that can’t be knocked into the air, practically every enemy encounter boils down to “soften them up, launch them, juggle them, and perform a pointless quick-time event finisher for extra experience points.”
Bosses provide the only real break in the monotony, but they trade tedium in return for frustration. These encounters take the form of multi-stage cinematic affairs divided up by arbitrary QTEs that you activate to initiate the next phase of the fight. The QTEs have a tendency to pop up unexpectedly, and the interface is so dull (grey buttons that fade into the muddy neutrals that dominate Mirror’s palette) that you can easily miss the prompts. But hey, no worries: If you screw up and die in a boss battle, you’ll be checkpointed right back to the beginning of the most recent QTE with most of your health and magic topped off to try again as many times as you need in order to win. This seems like a brazen admission that the battles are badly designed, and any sense of stress evaporates when you can keep banging your head against these sequences’ arbitrary rules until you win. Don’t expect anything like the knuckle-biting tension of classic Castlevania battles with Death or The Creature.
Mirror fails as a God-of-War-alike because, as it turns out, God of War-style combo-driven action doesn’t work in two dimensions. Without that third axis to maneuver in, combat goes from being a wide-ranging, challenging affair revolving around crowd control and deft maneuvers through throngs of foes to simple hit-juggle-repeat affairs against a meager two or three monsters at once. Mirror of Fate fails where Lords of Shadow worked because it literally lacks that game’s depth.
The tragic crown for this entire lackluster affair is that it doesn’t even get the superficial trappings of Castlevania right. The plot is a nonsensical mess that resembles a sloppy fanfiction, and what little music exists in the game rarely rises beyond a muted, forgettable drone. Not long ago, former series composer Michiru Yamane told me that when she first came on board to work on Castlevania Bloodlines, a coworker warned her that she had a grand legacy to live up to. Clearly, things have changed.
Of course, as a long-time Castlevania fan, I approached Mirror of Fate with unavoidable preconceptions and baggage. Still, I tried to be open-minded and fair — for the first few hours, I was even happy to defend it. Yet the experience degraded the longer I played, and by the end it all amounted to little more than a huge misstep: A monotonous, ugly attempt to reinvent Castlevania that seems have been created without anyone stepping back to really ask themselves what about the series endures, or how best to combine it with more contemporary game tropes. I’m not surprised I didn’t enjoy Mirror as a Castlevania sequel, but I’m disappointed that it’s not much fun as a game, period.