I was pretty nervous about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow while it was in development. I’d played some decent 3D Castlevania games before (one of which was already a prequel), and I just didn’t know how well they were going to pull the new game off. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the game and the new direction for the series, so I was a lot more hopeful going into Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate (let’s call it Mirror of Fate from here on out, okay?). That only set me up for a fall, as the game is as dull and lifeless as the zombies that litter its hallways. Mirror of Fate aspires to many things, but does none of them very well.
Combat is the first area where I started to see some problems. For starters, I’ve never been a big fan of games that use these broad, sweeping attacks like God of War. I find they feel poorly-controlled and turn the player into some sort of angry, directionless top. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow managed to dispel these feelings, but Mirror of Fate brought the problem right back even though it only has a single plane to deal with. The 2D combat should be a lot more straightforward, but it still feels like every single attack makes you spin and whirl in pointless patterns that make it difficult to attack in any kind of calm, directed way.
Take a look at any of the other 2D Castlevania games if you want to know what I mean. In those games, you can very easily see your attack arc and your actual strike is very specific. I can tell exactly how my swing will go and its timing each time. Mirror of Fate works in a similar way, but your whip grows and shrinks depending on how far you are into the particular combo chain you’re using. This means that you have to keep track of what step you’re at in your combo if you want to be sure you’re going to hit something. It’s a fixable issue with practice, but I’d much rather have a uniform attack length so that I always know where I have to stand to hit something.
Due to the ever-changing attack length, most of the time I was attacking I was moving forward, pushing my swirling attacks into the enemies. It makes the game very aggressive and flashy while fighting, and I’m sure there are people out there who’ll love the game for that, but I found all of this visual fluff that comes out of attacking just made combat muddled and messy. I would be moving forward so I could catch something with my combo, but my character would be spinning and twirling so much that I couldn’t really tell what the enemies were up to. The whip and my character’s movements were taking up so much of the screen I was fighting in that I wouldn’t notice an enemy about to hit me. I took a lot of cheap hits from all this junk.
It doesn’t help that your character’s hit box seems a little bit too large for his sprite. This problem might have come from the game’s push to stay aggressive, leading me to stay a lot closer to the enemies than I should have, but it still seemed like I was taking hits when I was a decent distance away. Also, all of those combat flourishes and fancy attack animations the character was doing often confused me about where I was in relation to my enemies, so I could have mixed things up there. Either way, I still felt like I took a lot of hits in the game when I shouldn’t have, and it frustrated me quite a bit.
The enemies are also a bit too small on this handheld game to really know what they’re doing. There’s a pretty standard dodge/block function that would work in any other game, but in this one it was hard to tell when the enemies were attacking. Again, with all of that spinning and weaving from absurd whip combos, it’s just plain difficult to pick out whatever else is going on. Attacking enemies also don’t do much to give away that they’re attacking, so many subtle tells were lost on me and I took far more hits than I should have. The only obvious enemy attacks are the unblockable ones, thankfully, but these were the ones I couldn’t even use the dodge/block system on and had to jump out of the way. It makes the system pretty much useless.
I think the developers knew that, though, as they added in a few abilities to help you out. When playing as the first character you get a magical shield that will absorb hits, so I used that a whole lot while fighting through the castle. It was extremely handy but made things a little too easy, but the game strips it from you when you get a new character anyway. Instead, he had a couple of worse powers that helped me get far more in touch with how much the game’s combat was annoying me; like changing into a form that lets you disappear and reappear behind enemies instead. Yes, I’d take an ability that’s just a hair faster than jumping over the enemy over a shield any day. Beyond that shield these abilities don’t add much to combat, and feel like boring additions made for the sake of making additions.
The items are even worse than the magic, though. You collect a couple of projectiles over the course of the game, but I have yet to find a use for any of them. Your whip covers a great deal of the screen even during the first few attacks of a combo, often covering more distance than the axes, bats, or oil could hope to do. I could see someone coming up with a use for some of these items, but I just found they were the last thing on my mind when I had a perfectly good whip to use on the monsters. Maybe if they’d been made a bit more powerful or had better attack arcs then I might have used them, but they’re pretty useless as they are and seem like they were added just to evoke nostalgia for the older, better games.
All of the flashy attacks made me feel like the developers had been more focused on the visuals of the game, and it shows in many of the locations and character designs. Every bit of the game is flush with detail, with walls covered in statues and paintings and enemies covered in matted hair or other neat quirks. The dragons with the lower jaws filled with hot coals were a nice touch, as were the broken, creepy toys in the toymaker’s shop. The developers clearly have a very good feel for the weird gothic vibe that Castlevania is known for, which is why it hurts me to say that the game still looks terrible.
I despise 3D artwork on handhelds. I find the whole endeavor, even with all of its rich details and designs, still looks like an early PS2 or high end PS1 game. Many of the polygons have really sharp edges and just look like masses of blocks all stuck together when you look at them up close. The developers seem to hope you won’t notice this due to how small characters are on a handheld game, but they keep zooming in on them during cutscenes, making you bask in how blocky and ugly they are. They did the best job they could using this graphical style, but it doesn’t even come close to the more hand-painted styles of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This game could have looked stunning if someone had just decided to pick an actual art style instead of going with these ugly 3D sprites. Despite all of the work to detail the castle, it still doesn’t look good.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow surprised me with its music when it came out, so I was also hoping that Mirror of Fate would do the same. Unfortunately, it shows the same lack of attention or care as the rest of the game. The tracks are all very ambient, but have no sense of emotional impact. I don’t get any sort of creepy vibe from these tracks, no sense that I’m delving into a land of danger. Nothing seems to resonate with the areas they play in, and it all comes across as being generic versions of the better songs from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The sound effects were just as lame, as most attacks just sound like I’m slapping the enemies really hard instead of actually hurting them. Most enemy cries are also muddled and lifeless, making combat feel even more like the chore it is. The sound does nothing to help this game.
Handheld Castlevanias have always been good for secrets, though, so I thought I could gain some replay value from poking around the castle. Well, Mirror of Fate‘s idea of secrets is showing you exactly where something is hidden as you walk by it, but not giving you the item to collect it with until far later in the game. Backtracking for secrets in this game feels more like busy work, as each hidden item is in plain sight but just kept from you because you don’t have the right items. That means when you’re just about to clear the current act you’ll be given the item you need and can then go backtrack everywhere to get stuff. I never felt like I was exploring so much as checking items off a grocery list, taking all of the joy out of poking around the castle.
Everything about this game is competently done, but there wasn’t a single aspect about Mirror of Fate that made me want to keep playing the game. Everything about it was dull or needlessly tangled, making for a game that felt more like housework than actual fun. If it weren’t for the absolutely awful Castlevania for the Game Boy this would easily be the worst handheld Castlevania game that I’ve ever played. I think I’ll go play Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles to wash the bad taste of it away.