Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate review: Symphony of the Fight

If the multi-tiered title didn't make it clear, "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate" is a heavy thing. A glut of gothic gravitas manifests in a huge quest that peels out of its handheld frame, even while anchored by burly protagonists and sullen environments. It's a fine action game fueled by fervor, but in need of some finesse.

Mirror of Fate invites a fair comparison to older Castlevania games like Aria of Sorrow, which made light of a somber premise with whip-smart heroes, Michiru Yamane's upbeat score and a crisp, unfurling map of interconnected rooms. Dracula's dire abode was buoyed by brisk exploration, by coloring in each room on the diagram and expanding your navigational knowledge as you went about the business of slaying monsters. The combat found complexity in a large variety of swords, lances, axes, maces and daggers, each of which offered simple, easily decipherable changes.

This trip through the horror catalogue curtails the equipment to the chain-whip "Combat Cross," brandished by Gabriel Belmont in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, as well as a small but powerful set of exhaustible sub-weapons. There's more interest in ferocious fighting than traversal, and a far greater demand for concentration and finger gymnastics than you might expect.

The basics of attack and defense are consistent across all four separately playable characters: Gabriel, Trevor and Simon of the Belmonts, and Alucard, the key figure connecting this game to the upcoming Lords of Shadow 2.

Mirror of Fate effectively flattens the fighting from Lords of Shadow to match the 2D perspective, making it a gripping game of attacking, blocking and rapid repositioning. A well-timed block connects to a counter-attack, while an evasive dash – on the ground or in the air – is crucial in guarding your health. The re-imagined creatures from Castlevania's creepy menagerie don't demand more than a mastery of the essentials, but they do punish lazy flailing.

Good, self-earned skillfulness comes after delving deeper into combat: each slayer can expend magic to augment damage or reclaim health, toss sub-weapons to weaken certain enemies (axes can disable flying foes quickly), and unlock brutal blows to break through armor or stutter ground-bound beasts. It's a different level of genuine involvement for a handheld Castlevania, even if the regular 3DS screen can make it tough to discern telegraphed attacks. (Also: enemies flash white when they're about to launch unblockable attacks, and when they're stunned. Buh?)

Developer MercurySteam has done a tremendous job in bringing its technology to the 3DS. The color scheme may be too drab too often, and the polygonal presentation will age in an instant compared to the Dorian Gray of sprite-based Castlevania games, but push up the 3D slider and you suddenly feel very small in a big hall. The immense separation between foreground and background is worth it, provided your eyes don't mind the effect.

Unfortunately, it feels like the engine's accomplishments also undermine other, crucial aspects of the game. The game as a whole feels sluggish and leaden at times, with jumping and climbing seemingly weighed down by extra, inescapable gravity. Even when he transforms into a mist, Alucard is more chunk than hunk. The feeling dissipates whenever the framerate speeds up, but it must be tolerated for the most part.

The castle itself is a staccato Symphony of the Night, with significant black loading screens not only interrupting the flow of exploration, but creating a feeling of disjointedness. The sense of progression is constantly jolted, as if you're stepping into different rooms and passages without ever getting a sense of how they connect. There's nothing inherently wrong with linearity here; Mirror of Fate is just lacking an easily discernible big picture, and often conflates errand-running for intricacy. It's also unevenly paced, with all the solid puzzles sedimenting in the game's middle.

Though the jumping, climbing and swinging may feel awkwardly moored by the engine and the dark atmosphere, this batch of Belmonts brings an appropriate heft to combat. As a challenging companion to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate is just about worth its weight in subtitles.


This review is based on a final downloadable version of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate for 3DS, provided by Konami.

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