Castlevania has a serious identity crisis.
Ever since we first watched Simon Belmont whip Dracula and whip him good back in the NES days, our adventures into Castlevania's gloomy world have been strange and inconsistent. Some Castlevania games are linear action-platformers. Others are open, item-centric RPGs. Some helped form a whole new genre.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate, which is the dumbest name for a video game since Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance or Bravely Default: Flying Fairy—really, can we get some QA on these video game names?—is not like many of the other Castlevanias. It's a heavy-duty action game, like God of War set in a gothic castle.
And while Mirror of Fate might not bear a ton of resemblance to fan favorites like Symphony of the Night or Circle of the Moon, it's a fun, challenging game and a decent entry in the longrunning vampire-slaying series.
Let's start from the beginning. Mirror of Fate, like all Castlevania games, tells you to go slay some undead with a whip. To do this, you can alternate between the Y button (for strong attacks) and the X button (for weaker attacks). You can also use combos, launch enemies into mid-air, block, counter, and use specific special powers—like throwing axes and energy bombs—depending which character you're using. The back of the box for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate describes this as "intense whip combat and platforming." Intense whip combat.
There are three main acts in this Castlevania, and each tells a different character's story. These stories are generally incoherent, which you might have come to expect from a series in which you use a whip to kill vampires. What's strange about Mirror of Fate's story is that it acts like you're supposed to take it seriously—there are near-endless lines about fate and revenge and the power of a mirror shard hanging around Simon Belmont's neck and all sorts of other nonsense that really should have been left in a notebook somewhere.
Most of the time, though, you'll be whipping and jumping and maneuvering your way through a giant castle, which houses not just undead monsters, but puzzles and traps and lots of dead adventurers, whose bodies you can loot for easter eggs and ridiculous messages. ("I was killed by this dragon. If only I knew about the weak spot on its neck!") You'll slide down walls, swing between chandeliers, and eventually learn how to power-jump across giant pits. When you're not trying to make tricky jumps or navigate fireball and electricity traps, you'll be whipping away at enemies using the game's surprisingly satisfying combat system, which sort of feels like a less gory version of God of War.
You'll also have to smack down a number of bosses ranging from the macabre to the... really macabre. These battles are the highlight of Mirror of Fate—all are creepy, and all follow patterns that are fun to discover and abuse. There's something really appealing about launching a boss into the air and unleashing a flurry of whip attacks, then jumping back because you know he's about to charge at your head.
Well, until you get to the button-mashing. This game loves to make you hammer buttons. Want to pull open this door? Mash X. Want to open a chest? Mash B. Want to finish off this boss? Slam your palm against the 3DS as many times as possible. A large chunk of the game is dedicated to these quick-time events. Sometimes they feel genuine, like when your character leaps onto a flying snake-dragon-thing and you have to quickly dance through a sequence of button taps in order to ensure that he won't fall off. Most of the time, though, it feels like the QTEs are there for the sake of tradition, or obligation, rather than any sense of logic or coherence or fun. They rarely work.
Perhaps because of this button-mashing, Mirror of Fate does not allow you to skip cut-scenes. This is an unforgivable sin that really deserves its own entry in the video game commandments, like "thou shalt allow me to turn on subtitles before the game actually starts" and "thou shalt murder." None of the cut-scenes in Mirror of Fate are particularly good, or interesting, or well-written, and if you'd like to sum them all up, just break a mirror and shout something menacing about vengeance. "I shall have my revenge!" Bam, you've got a Castlevania cut-scene.
So if you're a Castlevania fan, what you're really probably wondering is, is this a Metroidvania? Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, is a term generally used to refer to an action-adventure game set in an open world that's filled with all sorts of secrets and hidden passages, which you can gradually unlock as you progress and collect new items and powers.
Mirror of Fate is... sort of like a light Metroidvania. "I Can't Believe It's Not Metroidvania." That sort of thing. While the levels are really quite smart, designed so that you're crawling through new crevices and exploring new passages even as you're plodding through the same grisly sections of the castle, this is also a linear game. You'll always know where to go next, and there isn't much incentive not to just follow the next quest marker wherever it leads you.
Also, since the game is divided into three acts, you can't just backtrack whenever. If you want to hit 100% completion, you'll have to do it one act at a time.
When I picked up Mirror of Fate last week, I didn't think I would enjoy it. I thought it would be a mess of a handheld spin-off, a hackneyed bridge between Lords of Shadow and its sequel (out later this year) made by some B-team at MercurySteam, the developer behind all three games.
I was instead pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed Mirror of Fate quite a bit. It's a competent, pleasant action game that doesn't quite live up to the great Castlevanias designed by Koji Igarashi and crew, but is fun in its own fashion. As long as you don't mind mashing a few buttons.