Belatedly, I posted my review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate to 1UP yesterday. I kind of figured hitting the review embargo/release date didn’t matter so much given that hardly anyone is visiting 1UP these days, but I did want to get the article up.
Actually, it would have been up on deadline if I’d posted my original draft of the review. But here’s the problem with that: The original draft was a pretty crappy piece of writing. I’m proud of the piece I did publish, because it’s harsh but not ranty or fanboyish. You may or may not agree, but I feel like I made a successful case for Mirror of Fate being a sincerely mediocre piece of software and backed up my assertions with concrete support. Not “it’s so baaaad” but rather “here’s why it’s bad.”
It didn’t start that way, though. That tone was always my intention, but my first go-round was the exact kind of fannish rage — the “I know better than these guys” indignation — that I wanted to avoid. I had my head up my own butt about the Anatomy of Castlevania series. It happens, sometimes. I rarely outline or rough draft my writing, preferring instead to look to a thesis as the goal and travel an uncharted route to get there. I may know a waypoints I want to visit, but writing for me is a process of revelation. I discover what I want to say as I say it. That means that some articles go in directions I don’t expect. Sometimes it means a piece goes in a direction I don’t want. This was one of those cases.
When that happens, I typically delete the entire piece and start from scratch. This time, though, I held off on hitting delete and instead started over in a new text file. The incomplete version I abandoned serves as an interesting case study in how two articles can say the same thing and make many of the same points, yet one can be really good and the other can be awful. I can’t imagine this exercise will be interested to many people, but if you’re one of the weird ones, please feel free to check out my abortive first draft and marvel at how sometimes an article can be so absolutely terrible you just have to start from scratch on a second version. Behind this jump cut, I give you a mulligan.
Over the past few months, I’ve revisited the original Castlevania trilogy to replay the games to completion for the first time in 20 years. This wasn’t some nostalgic romp, the act of some doddering old man clinging to the favorites of childhood for comfort in light of looming reality; I was sincerely curious to see how well those old games hold up, and why. To my satisfaction, I discovered that — by and large — they hold up nicely. Certainly they have their off moments, and sometimes their creators’ creative ambitions caused them to put the cart ahead of the horse. Yet overall, Castlevania and its 8-bit sequels have weathered the test of time in a way few NES games managed.
Classic Castlevania stands on four pillars of design. Its strength lay in giving players a consistent and reliable, if limited, set of skills and tools; carefully building level architecture and hazards such as enemies around those limitations to provide a challenge without being unfair about it; using stage design and small visual flourishes to communicate a sense of a concrete journey through a real setting; and freaking awesome music. Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate manages to succeed at exactly <em>one</em> of these things.
In fairness, Mirror draws equal influence from the “metroidvania” chapters of the series, particularly Symphony of the Night. Those entries revolved around a different set of priorities than the pure action games they evolved from: They downplayed raw platforming challenge in favor of exploration and remembering key points to return to; added a vast arsenal of powers and weapons to allow players to tackle the adventure with their own play style; allowed players to rely on either skill or simple level-grinding to succeed; and set it all to freaking awesome music. Mirror makes a flaccid attempt at incorporating exploration by forcing you to occasionally warp backward to find a tool to facilitate your otherwise linear march foward, but on the whole it doesn’t really succeed at hitting on any of the key traits of the Symphony-esque chapters of the franchise, either.
So where does Mirror get off calling itself “Castlevania,” you may wonder? That’s a fair question, and in a lot of ways Konami is probably doing more hard than good to Mirror by anchoring it to the coattails of a 25-year legacy. Love or hate Mirror’s predecessor, Lords of Shadow, at least it took its Castlevania trappings and did something new and different with them. Mirror squanders its resources on something that more closely imitates Castlevania as fans think of it, but it merely serves up a hollow mockery of the franchise. It adopts a great many of the series’ trademarks and bullet points, but it fails to commit to any of them. Worse, it all seems to have been built without a proper understanding of why the elements it half-heartedly co-opts worked in the first place.
You run and jump to explore the castle here. You whip foes and toss fire bombs at them. Yet these actions feel like hollow imitations of bygone days: Perfunctory performances that never recapture the thrill and tension of older Castlevania games.
Consider combat. In the 8-bit era, battling Dracula’s legions combined precision offense with perilous leaps. The threat posed by your foes came not only from the attacks they wielded but also from their careful placement within every level, the spawn point of each foe calculated to post the maximum threat in any given situation. You couldn’t simply march forward, because a Medusa Head or skeleton would appear at the apex of your blind leap to swat you out of the air and into a deadly pit.
That never happens in Mirror of Fate. The developers have scrupulously segregated combat and exploration so that conflict primarily transpires within partitions. You rarely need to worry about bad guys interfering with your traversal of the environment, because genuine threats only appear in flat arenas walled off by magical sigils. Fighting comes down to performing God of War-inspired combos and juggles, but it never requires more than the most basic mechanics. Simon and company gain new skills and attacks every time they level up, but despite the added range of motion they afford (not to mention the emphasis on grappling through stages a la Super Castlevania IV), you’ll rarely find battles that go beyond “kill a bunch of guys to unlock the door.”
Boss encounters attempt to be a little more ambitious, but they emphasize cinematic thrills over meaningful play. Basically, this means many boss encounters are broken up into multiple segments, with mandatory (and very awkward) quick-time events marking the phase transitions. Some of Castlevania’s coolest fights have thrown you into combat with multi-part bosses, but nothing here has the fluidity and impact of Death throwing aside his scythe in favor of kung-fu atop the pirate ship in Rondo of Blood. Mirror’s battles feel rote at best, graceless and gimmicky at worst.
This same lack of real Castlevania substance permeates Mirror’s story, which feels like a slapdash effort to throw as many franchise references into a melting pot as possible. The plot revolves primarily around Trevor Belmont and his son Simon, descendants of Gabriel “Dracula” Belmont. Alucard shows up for a stint, as well as familiar names like Sypha Belnades and Reinhardt Schneider. Lord knows the Castlevania series has never thrived on its meaningful plot — the games started out as a piss take on Universal’s classic monster movies — but the one thing that the series did right was conveying a sense of an eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts through the ages. By tossing Simon (16th century) and Schneider (19th century) in with Trevor and Sypha (15 century), the one compelling story hook the franchise had to offer disappears.
I hate that Konami has shackled Mirror of Fate to the Castlevania legacy, because it proves to be a disservice to the game, the legacy, and to the fans alike. Were this presented as some other property, it wouldn’t seem quite so frustrating. Sure, combat would still be repetitive and dull, and exploration would mostly consist of traveling a linear path through dull halls and boring caverns, but at least it wouldn’t falter under the burden of expectations. After a quarter-century of numerous highs and occasional lows, the Castlevania name has come to mean something to many people, and Mirror of Fate is none of those. Instead, developer MercurySteam has treated the brand like a buffet of ideas to pick over with no real regard for the history or meaning behind those concepts. It plays only superficially like Castlevania of yore, and the murky mess of a story only gains meaning because of the glimmer of recognition inherent in the Belmont name — certainly not because the cast has been developed as interesting characters in their own right.
[At this point I reread what I’d written, exclaimed, “Oh my god, this is awful,” and opened a new file to start fresh.]