The responsibility of caring for a Japanese video game franchise stemming for the mid-80s is not to be taken lightly. Especially given the tricky intertwining storylines of a Castlevania game. Spanish developer Mercury Steam are not doubt pleased to have been given what appears to be a carte blanche to use whoever they want from the rich cast of characters, regardless of what era these characters originally belonged to.
In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate, a bridge of sorts between the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and the upcoming sequel, you're given the pleasure of playing as both Simon Belmont and Alucard. These two gentleman share a close blood relation, something that will contribute to a very memorable event halfway through the adventure. It's entirely possible some fans will take issue with the manner in which Mercury Steam treat the heritage, but personally I'm more troubled by the idea of multiple main characters as such.
I'm not opposed to all kinds of episodic storytelling, but I feel that Castlevania isn't best served by dividing the game into three acts with what is, in part, separate environments. Much of the charm of this franchise lies in exploration and a single act with a castle three times as large would have worked wonders for this game.
Even if the environments are as varied and beautifully drawn as ever, spanning catacombs, strange factories, tall towers, and underwater passages - I rarely get the sense of exploration. Instead the various alternate routes almost always offer choices like "go straight ahead to progress the story" or "jump off the ledge to find an upgrade for your health meter".
And while it offers me the choice of clearing the game quickly with few upgrades, or more slowly with more upgrades, I do miss the sense of exploration found in games from the good old days where I could lose myself in clocktowers and cellars with no idea where to go next or why. The more linear approach has its merits as this is a portable game, meant to be enjoyed in short bursts whenever you feel like it.
But Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate remains a good game at its core, with a distinct Castlevania feel to it. It's just not one of the highlights of the series. You still get the sense of exploring a new world, and many of the rooms are pure delights to experience, regardless of whether you were to come across them through idle exploration or if you made your way over there via a more linear path.
Finding new abilities to test as you battle one of many often difficult enemies is not something I grow tired of. The same is even more true when it comes to one of the most characteristic elements of the subgenre - upgrades and items - such as the ability to climb or use grappling hooks, that all of a sudden unlock new areas of the map. Once again, the semi-linear structure of Mirror of Fate sadly prevents this part of the game from reaching its full potential.
The fact that Mirror of Fate belongs to an alternative branch of the classic Konami franchise is most apparent when you take a look at the general design. The environments are, much like in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, older, darker and more medieval than we're used to, something that fits very well with the story and the characters. It comes to us in glorious 2.5D as it is popularly called - that is the characters move across a 2D plane, but as the environments are in 3D it allows for some fancy perspectives and camera moves.
The result is a visually pleasing game by 3DS standards, even if the framerate dips at times. The orchestrated score also complements the game well, as it has more in common with the visual style than with the music found in the old Castlevania games. It's dark and pressing, elegant and rarely distracts you from the action on screen.
The only thing I found troubling as far as the audiovisual side goes were the frequent cutscenes that carry the family feud that makes up the story of the game. The character design isn't to my liking when I see it up close. Perhaps it's simply because up close they don't look anything like what I imagined while playing and seeing them from afar? I also take issue with the heavy Scottish accents. Whatever happened to those hilarious Romanian accents?
In summary I really enjoyed my time with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate, simply because it remains as fun as ever to swing your way through damp castles and take the whip to a possessed piece of armour and leaving it in a heap on the floor. The controls are solid and precise, and the adventure doesn't drag on unnecessarilly - something that I've come to appreciate.
In fact, most of what I've criticised are things that I feel are not as well executed here as they are in the best games in the series, rather than outright poorly crafted elements. What I find most difficult to overlook is the rather anonymous design of the bosses and the philosophy that went into creating them. As a rule they are rather difficult to conquer, but each fight is divided into distinct stages or episodes. This means that if you're suddenly killed off by one of the bosses you will restart the fight with your enemy at half health. I would much rather have seen easier boss fights where you take them out in one go.
This is a major disappointment given all the fantastic monsters we've conquered in previous installments of Castlevania, but it would not do it justice to finish the review on a negative note when the game mixes traditional elements with innovation for a good end result. Truth be told I would rather see more daring attempts to innovate the series, than traditional and predictable Castlevania of old.