Castlevania has one of the richest lineages in the history of gaming. While the story is certainly about as simple as they come, there is no doubt that the tried and true series has endured longer than nearly any other. A little over two years ago, Konami did something surprising after nearly two dozen titles – they handed the reins to another developer. MercurySteam, a developer out of Spain, shocked fans by blending more gameplay more similar to Soul Reaver than previous side-scrolling titles of days past. This title – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – was met with nearly universal praise. On the flip side of the coin are the handheld games. These titles have taken on what has been more commonly called “Metroidvania” style – a side scrolling exploration approach that had gamers leveling up, earning new weapons and spells. While those titles have been very popular with long-time fans of the series, developer MercurySteam is back to turn the series on its head once again. Picking up 25 years after Lords of Shadow, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate will serve to connect us to the upcoming 2013 title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Could a move to 3D have more success than previous attempts? It’s time to rejoin Trevor, Simon, Alucard, and Gabriel Belmont in another whip-toting adventure to find out.
Die monster! You don’t belong in this world!
For as simple as the storylines for previous Castlevania titles are, the handheld versions are deliciously complex. Most seem to end with the same boss battles across the board, but developer MercurySteam has decided to take the series in a new direction. The game is told across generations, giving us the true story behind all of Gabriel’s progeny. Trevor, Simon, and Alucard have a far deeper history to be told, and the twists and turns of their lives shape their battle against evil as members of the Brotherhood of Light. While some pillar points in the previous games get the retcon treatment in this title, the main plot piece remains – Dracula has risen again after 100 years and has declared war against the Brotherhood of Light. MercurySteam wasn’t content to stop there, so get ready for some twists and turns you might not expect.
While we’ve seen Castlevania titles on Nintendo handhelds before, this is the first outing on the 3DS. Obviously that means a 3D presentation, but the game is actually played on a 2D plane, not unlike old-school title Clockwork Knight. Cutscenes are presented in a 3D cel-shaded way that shows off the capabilities of the engine nicely, showing more detail than I’ve seen in most games on this platform. While I normally am pretty ambivalent towards 3D, MercurySteam has done a fantastic job of embracing it in a clean and subtle way. As you kill enemies you may knock off body parts, knock enemies into the foreground and otherwise crush your foes on the secondary plane. Monsters run across the foreground and background, making full use of the depth of the space. Super-huge boss battles that have become synonymous with the series are represented here, and as in previous handheld titles, they are grindingly tough – level up before you attempt them. The game is a graphical triumph for the platform.
As you progress through the game you’ll also find Bestiary cards. These cards let you see the 30+ different creatures you’ll encounter in your adventure as well as getting a short description of their history or capabilities. Unfortunately you can only see it when you exit to the main menu, so most players will see this as a collectable novelty, likely skipping it altogether. You can also check out any previously viewed cinematics from the main menu if you’d like to hear the various characters snarl out their lines one more time.
There are some new features, with one in particular more requested than nearly any other – a map you can annotate. This comes in handy when you find grapple points or other currently inaccessible areas, though most points are already market for you with a “?” already present. These areas typically have power up items such as increased health, magic, or other goodies to help in your battle against evil.
Each character has a base set of skills, with a fairly extensive list of new attacks, blocks, recoveries, spells, and more that they can unlock over a dozen and a half of levels. Similar to a fighting game, each move is shown with a relative power and speed level, as well as a displayed button combination to unleash it.
What a horrible night to have a curse!
Castlevania has long been an action title with challenging jumping elements, so obviously tight controls are critical. The controls on the 3DS are fairly straightforward with one exception – jumping feels like it should be on another button. After playing the game for a few hours I was quickly wishing I could remap the controls to reverse A and B. After you inadvertently toss a few dozen axes you eventually get used to it. The ledge-navigation controls reminded me very much of the Uncharted series – high praise indeed. On the other hand, the thumbstick controls for movement take a bit more practice when it bumps against the various jumping puzzles in the game. Some of this difficulty is actually purposeful – directly attributable to the character you are currently playing. Alucard is agile with his double-jumping ability, whereas Simon is a bit more rooted to the ground. Each character has special powers that can be used to unlock special areas (i.e. Alucard’s wolf form) but they honestly felt more like puzzle keys than special powers. This comes from a slimmed down system that doesn’t have the player focusing on equipment or spending skill points. I leave it to you to determine whether you consider that a boon on a handheld system or a blow to a previously more expansive system.
Combat feels like a decent attempt at recreating the wonderful experiences of the most recent titles. The challenges encountered are a constant pressure on the player to keep leveling and taking down foes. Using the roll function becomes a necessity as the beasts will overwhelm you quickly if you stand your ground. As in previous Metroidvania titles, the bottom map handles your map functions, but also contains your current level, an XP meter, currently selected secondary weapons, spells, and more. I found that ignoring the D-Pad to use the touchscreen was the best way to tackle weapon switching and powers on the fly.
Once you reach the castle (I can’t call that a spoiler, we always end up there…) you’ll find a bit more exploration than the linear start to the title would suggest. It’s not as much as Portrait of Ruin, but it isn’t bad given the perspective switch. Gone are the “save rooms”, instead replaced by frequent and forgiving checkpoints. To that end, this is also where the puzzles begin. There are some solid head-scratchers, but most of the puzzles are of the block pushing, mirror adjusting, or light manipulating type. They provide occasional, but often optional, distraction from the forward pressure of combat.
The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night!
I personally enjoy the 2D Castlevania titles, so I was skeptical to play Mirror of Fate. Of course, I was also skeptical of another developer taking over one of the most beloved franchises in gaming history, and that turned out pretty great. Now we see MercurySteam taking the same approach to the franchise in the handheld space, and again with decent results. Combat remains fast and furious, bosses are still super-huge, and the canon-bending 9-hour storyline gives us a new take on a game we’ve been essentially repeating since its debut in 1986. While there are some rough edges, there is enough here to recommend. Mirror of Fate also represents the best use of 3D that I’ve seen in a handheld game thus far. You’ve missed a few great RPGs if your Nintendo 3DS has been gathering dust, but adding this title to your library will solve that problem for you rather quickly.