Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow - Mirror Of Fate

The reboot of the Castlevania series, Lords Of Shadow, was met with mixed reception – people enjoyed it for its refreshing take on the Castlevania series while people whinged about it for being a reboot, being too unoriginal and/or – and this is classic – not being a real Castlevania game. Really, I thought that this was about as close to being a true Castlevania game as it got, and by true, I mean more like the NES/SNES Castlevanias than being Symphony Of The Night. However, Mercury Stream thought that people wanted Symphony Of The Night with Lords Of Shadows' combat engine, because hey, it's on a Nintendo handheld and by law, it better be like Symphony Of The Night! Well, too bad that, more often than not, it just doesn't quite work as well in their favor as they would like it to. It's not so much about striking a middle ground between 2D and 3D – I mean, there are a couple of instances where that sticks out in a bad way – but it's more about the design choices in general. Really, this could've been a great game, but it feels like Mercury Stream didn't quite capitalize on much, if anything that they had at their disposal here.

Before you play Mirror Of Fate, you're basically required to play through Lords Of Shadow on the PS3 or 360 because its story revolves around the plot twist at the end of Lords Of Shadow. Yes, I'm aware that the beginning more than fills you in, but really, everybody should play through Lords Of Shadow. It might not have the best puzzles or beast taming mechanics, but the combat, the bosses and the story are all fantastic, and since they're the focal points of the game, then have at it! Besides, other than filling you in on the story of the previous game, this game barely has any real story. Basically, it boils down to Gabriel Belmont setting up the scene, which then boils down to Trevor/Simon Belmont needing to take down Dracula. Seriously? I get that this is a sidestory that takes place between Lords Of Shadow and its eventual sequel, but a little more oomph wouldn't hurt. There was plenty in Lords Of Shadow and it was a compelling narrative because of that; this is more like Mirror's Edge and Dishonored where there is fuck all to it, except some shit about the Mirror Of Fate and souls and really, I just lost interest in the story. None of the characters are particularly interesting and the story is just boring. Compounding this are unskippable cutscenes. No, fuck you, this is 2013, not 2003; this shit is inexcusable.

Mirror Of Fate is just weird. It wants to play like the 2D Castlevania games, but it has the feel of the 3D Castlevania games. It wants to be like the Metroidvania games in that there's a huge castle to explore, but given that you're playing as three different characters at three different time periods, some downsizing had to be done. As a result, it hardly feels like you're actually exploring the castle; instead, it feels more like you're a gerbil in a linear maze with a few small nooks to give the illusion of open endedness. A lot of the time when you're presented with a seemingly impassable obstacle, you're usually required to get a new item that you'll find at some point in the parts of the castle that you can explore. Even then, you'll only ever really find HP and MP upgrades, sub weapon ammo and experience points you can use to purchase new attacks. You can also acquire experience points from defeating enemies, but more on enemies in a sec – a lot of the time, it feels more like a superfluous detail than a legitimate design choice.

It wants to be like the Metroidvania games but it, more or less, has the linearity of the first Castlevania game on the NES, but yet it has lots of backtracking like a Metroidvania game... it feels like they couldn't quite think of a way to create an ingeniously designed set of castles so they just went “fuck it” and did the first thing that came to mind. “Exploring” this castle feels like a chore, like it would've been better suited as a set of levels rather than one big level that changes when the game decides to arbitrarily change your character every few hours. Before anybody cries “it's on a handheld”, I'll just say that Aria Of Sorrow, which is my second favorite Metroidvania game for what it's worth, was on the fucking Game Boy Advance and it had a much better designed castle than this hunk of shit! In fact, it was a better game on the whole, and that's because it understood basic game design principles, something Mirror Of Fate didn't quite get.

While we're talking about design, it's pretty cool that you can use your whip to swing on chandeliers, although it seems more like a cool afterthought than anything else as it doesn't require anything more than basic timing. In fact, platforming as a whole seems more like an afterthought than an integral design choice. I've played Kirby games with more demanding platforming! But hey, at least it's a cool afterthought, which is more than I can say for the sub weapons and special powers each character can possess – not even going to bother listing them because you'll either only ever use them to get through parts of the castle that you couldn't get through by other means or you'll use them like once before resorting to using the whip. Well, I guess I'd be willing to use Trevor's super speed more to make the one or two backtracking sequences less boring if it lasted for more than like 5 steps. Nope, it's just there to jump gaps, but you'll probably forget because you never really use these abilities. Oh... did I mention that you don't use each character for longer than maybe 3 or 4 hours? Don't get too used to them, you hear? Probably explains why they fight with the combat cross (or the whip as I kept on calling it) eerily similar to one another...

The combat is such a mixed bag, that it almost hurts the game in a way. For one thing, combat happens at pre-determined points. Instead of fighting enemies along the path, you'll get into what would appear to be an arena setting and fight a group or so of enemies. Another thing is that defense oriented gameplay is somewhat encouraged. Much like Revengeance and the original Lords Of Shadow for that matter, Mirror Of Fate isn't above letting the enemies pummel you into dust if you don't either dodge or parry. Thankfully, parrying is as simple as pressing block at the right time and then allowing you to let it rip while dodging has you press left or right while holding the block button. It can be easy to get cornered though, so watch your footing.. or rolling in this case. However, I did say that a defensive style of play is only somewhat encouraged; unless you notice that you're about to get hit, you can pretty much mash the X and Y buttons, only blocking or dodging before you get hit. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit too clear that this doesn't quite work on a 2D scale, mainly because when I look at the 3D graphics and watch the dance of life that is the combat, I can't help but want to dodge anywhere but towards and away from them. Not just that, but between getting cornered at times and just plain being locked on a 2D scale fighting mobs of enemies that magically appear as opposed to fighting enemies as I travel through the castle, fighting enemies is just... boring.

Look at it this way - in Aria Of Sorrow, you fight enemies that roam around the castle – whether they're shuffling about or flying from the sides, there's always something to fight, even if you don't expect it. There was always this whiff of tension to it, like you never know what's behind that door. But there was always a chance to escape or bypass the enemy on your way to the next room... maybe even the save room to heal up and then take that big bad living doll down while Medusa Heads come from the sides. But in Mirror Of Fate, you fight mobs of enemies and you have to kill them. Oh don't worry, there's a checkpoint/autosave system in place, and it's one of the most liberal checkpoint systems I've experienced in a while – for fucks sake, during boss battles, if you die, you simply respawn and they don't regain much if any health! However, none of the enemies or bosses really do anything interesting to warrant giving a shit, and even though you learn new combos via levelling up... there's hardly a need to use them.

Oh, and this game employs quick time events. Not that a single one is used for cinematic purposes or anything; they're just slammed onto the plate because hey, it's the cool thing to put into games. I especially love the ones encouraging the player to mash a button, because the 3DS can take it, right? It's not like these buttons are small and somewhat fragile, right? Oh wait... this drives me insane because the bosses are easily the highlight of this game. They hit hard, which encourages you to dodge and parry if you can while you seek the best time to wail on them. But then two things happen. One, liberal checkpoints that make the fights easier than they should be; and two, it takes like a million hits to beat any given boss, making each fight feel more like a test of your patience than a test of skill. Hey, you want to know how to make these fights challenging while making them fun? Get rid of the mid-fight checkpoints, lower their HP, and get rid of the quick time events! Just thinking out loud here obviously...

But hey, at least this game looks and sounds... alright, at least. In fact, Mirror Of Fate looks amazing on the 3DS, with some high quality textures and highly detailed models seriously showing off the 3DS's graphical capabilities. Needless to say, I was awestruck by the amount of detail put into everything, especially the animations. I didn't say “watch the dance of life that is the combat” for no reason; the animations are very, very smooth and detailed, which goes well with the defensive gameplay that Mirror Of Fate encourages. Not to mention, it's just plain mesmerising  like the Batman Arkham games and Sleeping Dogs, the animations manage to really suck you in. The scenery seems more like a castle featured in the Lord Of The Rings series rather than a piece of gothic architecture like in the older games – I mean, there are parts that are reminiscent of the old gothic atmosphere, but then there are parts that are plain and, despite the staggering amount of detail that surprisingly doesn't result in lag (unlike a certain other game I know of, right Kingdom Hearts DDD), it just isn't as immersing as it could've been. It's a shame – our characters' clothes and a lot of the monster designs are what you'd expect in old vampire slaying movies with maybe a few ripped from Lord Of The Rings (sorry, but Lords Of Shadow did make me think of Lord Of The Rings with its setting at first and that impression carries on here). Ah well.

The soundtrack at least has that gothic vibe, but it's more in the background than anything else. I guess it could've worked as the best haunting soundtracks are ones that lay in the background, ready to pounce – ask Akira Yamaoka! But where Silent Hill had masterful sound design, Mirror Of Fate simply has competent sound design. Well, okay, that's not entirely fair nor even true as the voice acting was good. Most of the vocal deliveries were convincing enough to work with a couple of scenes showcasing great voice acting, and some characters who could've been better. Simon Belmont is a standout amongst the crowd as he has an impassionate voice that suits his fiery demeanour  Most everybody else sounds good, but nothing noteworthy. It's a bit of a shame nothing else stands out because usually, Castlevania soundtracks – from the gothic yet upbeat NES games to the jazzier variants found in Castlevania 4, to even the Lord Of The Rings inspired Lords Of Shadow, there were tracks that stood out as fantastic, especially that one song in Castlevania 2 – you know the one I'm talking about. Here? Umm... it... doesn't blow every dick in a five mile radius...

Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate is Mercury Stream saying “you losers wanted old school Castlevania, well here you go – enjoy your shitty old Nintendo game you fat geeks!” - you know the type of attitude; that grizzled look on their face, with the somewhat gravelly tone in their voice or that loud, hoarse voice depending on how pissed they are with their fanbase, all the while thinking to themselves “those idiots will learn to love my style if I blend it into the style that they love”. It's odd however, because even if I was somebody who can't accept change and think Symphony Of The Night is what Castlevania should be, Mirror Of Fate just doesn't get it right as it's pretty linear despite giving the illusion of open endedness, like most SNES/PS1 JRPGs. As somebody who did enjoy Lords Of Shadow while also quick to consider making love to the Sorrow duo, I found Mirror Of Fate to be a rather... underwhelming mishmash of the styles and an overall mediocre game.

5/10 (Average)

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