‘Castlevania: Mirror Of Fate’ And Making The Best of A Reboot
With the exception of Simon's Quest for the NES, I've been a pretty big fan of the Castlevania games for my entire life. That said, I walked away from 2010's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a reboot of the franchise that involved Metal Gear Solid's Hideo Kojima, thinking that it was one of the dumbest games I'd ever played. It wasn't the gameplay, which was a solid enough Devil May Cry-style action game, but the story that scrapped all the goofy stuff that I liked about those games and replaced it with ultra-serious twists and turns that ended up pretty laughable.
Now, the sequel has come out in the form of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate for the 3DS. Konami provided a review copy, and while it's a pretty fun game to play, I'm more fascinated with the way that the designers took the opportunity that came with a reboot and did their best to twist everything they could to tie their new continuity back to the high points of the past 30 years.In terms of gameplay, Mirror of Fate actually does do a pretty great job of blending the style of Lords of Shadow with the Symphony of the Night-style games that Konami's been putting out on Nintendo's various handheld systems since 2001. Like those, it's a side-scroller set in and around Dracula's castle, with exploration based on getting new abilities and backtracking to unlock new items.
That's where the first really interesting change comes in: While there's less of the actual backtracking involved for a given level, you end up playing through three different versions of the castle as three different characters, all of whom have different ways of getting around. As much as multiple castles have been around since Symphony of the Night blew everybody's mind by essentially having an entire second game show up at the end if you played it right, showing it at different times and giving you different ways to explore makes for a really fun challenge. There are plenty of times where I knew exactly where I needed to go, but kept wishing I was playing as the guy who could glide instead of the one who could double-jump. It's a simple twist on some pretty classic platforming, but that's one of the things that Castlevania as a franchise tends to do really well.
The thing is, even with three different castles with their own different sections, the game feels smaller than its predecessors in a lot of ways. Part of it comes from the relatively small number of enemies in the game. There's just not as much variety as there has been in the past, which sticks out when you consider that the original goal of Castlevania was to give you a game where you fought Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Medusa, death itself, and Dracula. The evolution to fighting every monster ever over the course of the game may have gotten a little weird, but scaling back to this point is pretty noticeable when you contrast it with its predecessors.
Of course, the tradeoff is that there's a much, much lower emphasis on grinding levels -- you max out at Level 20, and your health and attack power aren't tied into your levels. The only thing you actually get is new moves for combat, and the only ones that are really useful are the ones that just add additional attacks to the combos you were doing already. In classic Castlevania style, you stick with the whip -- excuse me, Combat Cross for the whole game, and that too feels a little limited when you compare it to the arsenal that you're walking around with in most of the Advance/DS-era games.
It's still a very fun game to play, though. Combat is generally fun and fast, the platforming puzzles are fun, and it looks great. There are, however, some truly awful design decisions going on here that pop up at the most frustrating times. For one, every boss fight ends in a quick time event, which, if you fail, just restarts ad infinitum. I don't like 'em, but that's at least understandable -- the desire to do a big finishing move to take out a boss is understandable, and if nothing else, QTEs make those interactive rather than just cutscenes. That said, whoever decided that opening a treasure chest should involve a quicktime event should probably not have a job making video games. It's the most utterly pointless, thoroughly frustrating thing I've seen in a game in a long, long time.
Beyond those (insanely frustrating) speed bumps (that, because it involves opening a chest, happen about 40 times over the course of the game), it's a pretty solid experience. It does a pretty great job of mashing up the gameplay experience of Lords of Shadow for the XBox with the style of the handheld games, which was probably the most important thing it could've done.
Really, though, I was in it for the story.
Lords of Shadow might've been dumber than a sack of hammers, but I'm enough of a brand loyalist for Castlevania games that Mirror of Fate's announcement was enough to get me to actually step up and buy a 3DS when I hadn't really been all that interested in what was out for it. More than anything else, I wanted to see where they were going with the reboot, and if they'd somehow manage to top it for sheer hilarity.
It actually makes a lot of sense that they'd want to do a reboot for Castlevania. There have been a lot of games in the series, providing a timeline that's even more screwy and impenetrable than your average comic book universe, filled with different gimmicks and variations on the central themes. Because it flourished on handheld systems that built on the accepted high point of Symphony of the Night, it was one of the few major gaming franchises that didn't have a big presence on consoles, and previous attempts to drag it into next gen gaming -- from the truly awful Castlevania 64 to the downright weird Lament of Innocence -- had fallen pretty flat. It's what they actually did that's the problem.
For those of you who may have dodged it, Lords of Shadow went back to the very beginning of the blood feud between Dracula and the Belmont family, casting you as Gabriel Belmont. There's a bunch of stuff in there about the Brotherhood of Light and the Lords of Shadow, but the key point is that at the end of the game -- and consider this a spoiler warning for everything that follows -- Gabriel is himself actually Dracula. As a twist, it's exactly the kind of telegraphed "what if the good guy... was actually the bad guy!" storytelling that usually gets discarded after the first draft.
There's also a bit at the end where you find out that it's actually the modern day! and Dracula's just been chilling in his castle for a thousand years, and that provided a pretty interesting opportunity for the developers behind Mirror of Fate: They got to go back and fill in that thousand year gap, and they did so by playing on everything long-time Castlevania fans like me knew and expected.
The most interesting thing they did came from the realization that making the Belmonts and Dracula one big family meant that they could twist that family tree in a bunch of new, weird ways, which all came together in the form of Alucard.
Alucard's presence in Mirror of Fate is probably one of its biggest selling points -- what with his starring role in Symphony of the Night, the commonly accepted Best Castlevania Game Ever that set the direction of the entire franchise for the next fifteen years -- but since I did my level best to avoid any spoilers before I went in, it hit me as a complete surprise. When he's reintroduced by walking dramatically through a door while Dracula says "Good of you to join us... Alucard!", I laughed so hard there were actual tears in my eyes.
It's ridiculously over the top, but that fits in with everything else about the Lords of Shadow-era aesthetic of these games. Everything's ramped up, with super ornate armor with faces on the epaulets, gigantic enemies that return from being cast into Hell as cyborgs (this is a thing that really happens) and a character who carries a weapon called Dark Pain, which we are apparently meant to take seriously. Also, the cutscenes are full of "Wallachian barbarians" with Irish accents. But that's not even the best part.
Since Dracula is actually a Belmont, that means that Alucard, the son of Dracula, is also a Belmont. Specifically, he's Trevor Belmont, which means that Alucard (star of the fondly remembered Symphony of the Night) and Trevor (star of the also-fondly-remembered Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse) are now mashed up into the same dude, this crazy New 52 version of Alucard. And not only that, but you play as both versions of the character in this game at different times, along with Simon Belmont (whose namesake was the star of the first two games in the series back in the NES days) thrown in for good measure.
If it sounds confusing, it's because it is. But it's confusing in a way that has completely hooked me. Imagine if DC rebooted and Harley Quinn turned out to be Barbara Gordon, or if Lois Lane was a redheaded photojournalist with a bowtie. It's that level of cobbling things together, trying to fit with something new while still preserving the names you recognize from the past, and it's just bizarre enough that I'm 100% behind it.
You've got me, Castlevania. I want to see where this goes, even if I'm not quite as thrilled as I was with Portrait of Ruin or Dawn of Sorrow. Just fix that treasure chest crap and we'll be fine.