Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate: Good Ideas, Bad Design
I really liked Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. I really enjoyed the game’s combat and the majority of its story, so I was pretty excited by the prospect of Mirror of Fate, which takes place between Lords of Shadow and its upcoming sequel, Lords of Shadow 2. When I found out about the game, I thought a side-scrolling Lords of Shadow could, in theory, combine the precision platforming that old-school Castlevania was known for with the combat I loved and keep telling the Lords of Shadow story (which got significantly more interesting with its epilogue).
Here’s the thing, though. Mirror of Fate is built in a way that undermines the things it’s trying to do. Challenging platforming segment with damaging pillars of electricity between you and your goal? Why worry about carefully watching for the patterns in the movement of the electricity when you could just plow through it to get to the other side? If you die, you’ll just reappear on the platform that you needed to be on and your only punishment for death is a load screen.
Whereas older Castlevanias would use death as a teaching mechanism, death is so insignificant in Mirror of Fate that simply trying to dash through the obstacles in front of me while taking damage was faster and no less effective than patience.
Combat is similarly handicapped, focusing on the wrong elements from Lords of Shadow. LoS used “direct and wide” attacks as opposed to your standard light and heavy layout, which gave you a bit more control over how you managed crowds of enemies. Wide attacks were slower, but allowed you to hit multiple enemies at once, and there were a number of interesting combos on offer if you wanted to mix things up. There was also a reward system in place: build up an unbroken combo and you’d fill up a gauge. When it was full, each strike would provide you with extra magic, which could then be channeled into light magic, which would fill up your health with each hit, and dark magic, which would make you more powerful. Both magics would also provide access to different attacks. It was really clever and provided something that I’d never seen in the genre before.
With the jump to 2D, Mirror of Fate has removed the rewards for extended combos, but kept wide attacks. This is completely pointless. Wide attacks fly in slow, overhead patterns, do less damage than direct attacks (that can also hit multiple targets), and don’t even hit behind you until the third hit of a combo. There’s no reason to use them instead of direct attacks. It’s poorly thought out, and that lack of balance makes it so you just use your one direct combo more than anything else (at least until you level up to get a couple more useful attacks, but wide attacks are still largely useless). The last act of the game’s move set is a bit more flexible, incorporating heavy versions of direct and wide attacks, but the final move set feels like it should have been the game’s starting point.
Fortunately, bosses force you to get a little bit more out of the combat. They’re often wars of attrition and pattern recognition that teach you to use your magic properly (light and dark magic make a return with one character, but the other two each have one defensive and one offensive magic, even though nothing expands each character’s moveset substantially), learn how to parry attacks for the (practically necessary) damage boost, and even occasionally utilize the new tools you’ve found to survive. While these fights can be fun even with the limited moveset, it’s disappointing that standard combat is basically a matter of putting all the enemies on one side of you and wailing away, with occasional launchers or magic use to change things up.
On the downside, each boss fight also ends with a rather grisly (but typically entertaining) QTE finisher. I’m not opposed to QTEs when they’re used cleverly. However, they are not handled with any sort of care in Mirror of Fate.
Each boss required a QTE sequence of some sort to finish it off, using the incredibly annoying “we will put the button prompt on the corner of the screen that corresponds to the relative position of the button so you don’t notice it while you’re watching whatever we painstakingly animated and fail the first time it pops up” approach to QTEs that God of War III popularized for some terrible reason. That would have been bearable if not for two things. First of all, Lords of Shadow had a really clever alternative to standard QTEs where you could press any button with the right timing to perform the QTE-style finishers, and it’s a disappointment that they didn’t bring those back. Secondly, finishers aren’t the only QTEs in the game.
There was a point where I had to do a QTE to open a door. You know, those QTEs where you hold a trigger, and mash a button while your character strains to open whatever they’re trying to open and the only punishment for failure is having to attempt the exact same QTE again? Well, the only thing behind that door was a treasure chest that I had to open with a QTE on a different button. This was in the middle of a fetch quest to find the second of two macguffins that opened a door. Now, one would typically think getting the second macguffin would involve a boss fight, a puzzle, or something to justify my backtracking through the castle. Not here. Instead, I had to perform another identical QTE to wrench the macguffin out of the hands of a corpse. That was it. Then I could go back. There is no reason for backtracking in a game to feel that much like padding, and the annoying QTEs did nothing to make the experience less tedious.
So the platforming pales in comparison to classic Castlevania, the combat pales in comparison to Lords of Shadow, and forced exploration feels completely useless. What else is there? Well, I found that I kept playing just to see how the story played out. As simple as the plot is, I really liked the interaction between the three generations of Belmonts. The very pretty cutscenes and environments didn’t hurt matters either (despite the rather uneven framerate). While I’m happy to see the story continued and I’m looking forward to Lords of Shadow 2, that shouldn’t have been the only thing that kept me going.
Food for Thought:
While exploring occasionally nets you collectibles, more often you find scrolls detailing the way that the various corpses of soldiers you find lying around died. Humorously, another scroll explains that the scrolls are magical and designed to capture their final thoughts to help other travelers… but there are certainly a lot of corpses everywhere in Dracula’s Castle.