What makes a Castlevania game? Every few years Konami figures out a new answer to that question.
It must always include Dracula; the rest is negotiable. Even the perennial heroes the Belmonts and their legendary whip the Vampire Killer have taken extended breaks from the series’ publication history.
This fractured history can be easy to forget with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate for the 3DS. Not only is this the sequel to 2011’s series reboot Lords of Shadow, it’s also – and perhaps more importantly – the first portable Castlevania game since 2008’s Order of Ecclesia.
Lords of Shadow told the story of the “birth” of Dracula, who was actually the fallen hero Gabriel Belmont. Mirror of Fate explores the ramifications of Gabriel’s transformation from the viewpoints of his son Trevor and grandson Simon, as well as fan favourite Alucard – Dracula’s… son? If that doesn’t make much sense at first, don’t worry – the explanation is probably exactly as silly as you think it is.
Newcomers to this rebooted ‘Vania world will have a difficult time understanding a good portion of the characters and their machinations. Lords references are made in beautifully animated cut-scenes without any explanation of who these people in robes are, or who that poor dead woman is. Thankfully, at its cold, centuries-still heart Mirror of Fate is a simple but compelling story about family. Gabriel-cum-Dracula’s choices have severe reverberations for the Belmonts that follow.
Mirror is split into three acts, one each for Simon, Alucard and Trevor, for a total playtime of around 10 hours. Each character explores a portion of Dracula’s castle, with new areas and different sections of a map in much the same format as previous DS ‘Vanias, which in turn owe their lineage to 1998’s Symphony of the Night.
But don’t expect a simple 3D re-skin of your previous games. Combat builds on the foundations of Lords, with every character whirling a long, steel whip with frenzied horizontal and vertical attacks much like in God of War. Sprawling inventories of weapons, armour and gourmet pasta are gone. Instead Simon can run, jump, roll, dodge, counter-attack and air dash from the beginning. As the game progresses you gain more skills such as wall-climbing and double-jumping. Each character has his own set of spells and sub-weapons, although many of them mimic each other’s’ arsenals.
Like Lords before it, you’ll mostly be taking on a small number of powerful and mobile foes with skills equal to your own. Armoured skeletal knights swing chipped bone swords. Enormous suits of possessed armour wield a chained mace with astonishing range. And tiny castle imps attack you in groups, often clamouring on each other’s shoulders to wield a metres-long pike.
All of this would make for a rewarding combat experience if everything worked properly. The best thing you can say about a game’s mechanics is that if you get beaten by an enemy, or you missed a jump, it always feels like it’s your fault and you learn to get better. Mirror is the exact opposite of this.
While the old 2D ‘Vanias had pixel-perfect gameplay, nothing here is as precise as it should be. Enemies move in jerky animations that give little indication of what attack you should be preparing to avoid. A flying vampire’s fireball, rather than a baleful sphere you have to deke and slide around to avoid, is a split-second flicker that may or may not damage you if you’re within 20 pixels.
The bosses fare the worst, knocking off half a life bar without the player ever grasping what happened. Generous checkpoints kick in at intervals during the battle, seemingly apologetic about its inability to present a fight you can win without excruciating trial-and-error.
Platforming plays a prominent role in Mirror, greatly improving its pacing and variety. An early upgrade allows you to swing with your whip Lara Croft-style, and the occasional puzzle room tasks you with solving a gigantic Rube Goldberg-esque series of challenges to get through. They’re cleverly designed and break up the action in just the right moments.
But still the imprecise controls get in the way. One moment you’re hit by a jet of hot steam when you’re standing two feet away, and the next you’re literally walking through a stream of fire. The screen’s small framing also hides hazards from your view far too often, leaving you to wonder if you’re dropping down to a lower ledge or a bottomless pit. It’s video game QA 101 and fails too often to be acceptable.
You may be gnashing your teeth at the imprecise combat, but at least you’ll have a gorgeous game in front of you. Levels may seem homogenous, especially compared to the Mega Man-like level variety in older ‘Vanias.
But the crumbling architecture and low-lit caverns paint a consistent portrait of the castle. The sound design is impeccable and there’s a solid operatic score — notably, the pitch-perfect sound effects made this a genuinely creepy experience, something I haven’t been able to say about any portable ‘Vania game before it. (As much as I love it, a skeleton bartender tossing you a Grasshopper ain’t scary.)
The 3DS’s effects work well, turning side-scrolling levels into cavernous caves or breathtaking moonlit vistas. Inside the theatre, filled with demonic marionettes built by the Toy Maker, Simon Belmont stands on the stage surrounded by demented clown’s masks with cracked teeth and painted eyes that seem to follow you around the screen – but don’t actually follow you, which works even better.
Castlevania: Mirror of Fate does many things well, and is a welcome addition to the series after a five-year drought for the Nintendo portable family. But a litany of technical problems mars the gameplay, when years ago it was smooth as silk.
A powerful and personal tale of the new Belmonts works better than you’d think, but it’s not enough to earn more than a reserved recommendation for the series’ most ardent whip-whirling fans.