By BlazeHedgehog 24 Comments
If it wasn’t obvious by the fact this game has TWO subtitles (the full name is “CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE”), Konami is being very, very careful not to attach Mercury Steam’s Castlevania games to the rest of the franchise canon, and with games like Mirror of Fate, I don’t blame them.
Castlevania is not unlike Sonic the Hedgehog in that its gameplay is very much a product of the 2D viewpoint in which it used to be typically viewed. When you shift the perspective to 3D, all of the rules change so dramatically that you have to rethink nearly every piece of how the game is constructed. The NES Castlevania’s whip motion is not something that can be directly translated to 3D.
This is why, for so many years, you had bad 3D Castlevania games. Nobody at Konami could figure out how that game was supposed to work in the third dimension. Then came along David Jaffe and his team made God of War, a game that, when you really boil it down, is “Castlevania but for Roman Mythology”. Kratos’ dual chains are really just Castlevania whips, but rather than a forward striking motion, they become sweeping area attacks that hit multiple enemies in a radius around the player - something essential for combat in the third dimension. He cracked the code.
And so Mercury Steam decided to “borrow” from God of War to make Lords of Shadow, which appropriates all of the sweeping area attacks for its whip-based gameplay. And, to a certain extent, it worked! It was a bit clunky and probably overstayed its welcome, but it was the best attempt at a 3D Castlevania Konami had ever put out. Mission kinda-sorta accomplished, I guess. The problem being is that Mercury Steam’s Castlevania has now apparently superseded the “real” Castlevania games, and instead of your typical Koji Igarashi 2D Castlevania romp, we get a pale imitation in the form of Mirror of Fate - a game that perhaps exposes Mercury Steam’s total lack of understanding of what makes a Castlevania game.
Mirror of Fate mistakenly tries to take the 3D gameplay of Lords of Shadow and flatten it down in to a 2D plane. Now you’re playing a God of War game where you cannot dodge side to side, only forward or backward. And despite the move to the 2D plane, Mercury Steam decided to retain the combat system from the 3D game - Trevor has “direct” attacks and “area” attacks, but what this generally means is that you have very little incentive to get up close and personal with enemies because area attacks literally hit just about anything on screen in a single swipe. I’m assuming direct attacks do more damage, but I never cared enough to check because area attacks did the job well enough.
Because of this, often your attacks don’t even phase enemies. this is to stop you from just tearing through everything and force the player to actually bother to dodge or block an enemy’s offense. And you’ll want to - enemies seem to deal almost a quarter of your lifebar if they manage to land a hit on normal difficulty. In 2D Castlevania games, enemies were not something you had epic, protracted battles with, but Mirror of Fate really wants you to stand around and whip giant shielded skeletons for minutes at a time - but there’s no finesse to it, no depth. Mash until it dies, maybe wait for it to lower its guard so you can attack it directly. Ho-hum.
The rest of the demo doesn’t fare much better: platforming is extremely poor, and not explained terribly well. So much of the demo holds your hand, telling you exactly where to go and what buttons to push at any given time that the couple of times where they don’t do that lead to me running around in circles for ten minutes wondering where to go and just sort of mashing random buttons until the right thing happened. Case in point: Once you get through the opening area of the castle, you get inside a cathedral to find your first sub weapon and fight some bats. Clear the bats out and now you have to scale the interior. The problem: there’s a flashing ledge that you clearly need to do something with, but my initial attempts to grab on to it yielded no results.
In Mirror of Fate, the R button is the designated “grab stuff/read stuff” button, but for whatever reason, Trevor Belmont simply refused to grab the ledge. Eventually I found that when I dashed in to it and held the L button, he grabbed - though I would later find out that the L button was completely unnecessary for ledge grabbing; for whatever reason (a bug, perhaps), Trevor just refused to grab the ledge the first five times I touched it.
So now I’ve grabbed the ledge and I’m on an alcove and… now what? There’s a flashing blue rope to my right. Seems pretty obvious to me that this is a grapple point, so much like Super Castlevania 4, I jump off and whip at the glowing point on the rope. Nothing happens. I try again, getting closer. Nothing. Maybe it’s the wrong kind of whip? Direct whips don’t work, area whips don’t work. Jump at it and dash. Nope. No good. Eventually I have to pause the game and look it up that the R button is for grapple points - even though everything else in this demo so far that uses the R button comes up with specific text saying, “PRESS THE R BUTTON RIGHT NOW TO DO A THING”. Not this time, apparently.
Furthermore, once grappled, the only way to jump out is… not to press the jump button, but to press R again. Now, this isn’t a huge deal, but it’s one of those little aggravating things where you just go “Why would you do it this way?” The solution is functional but not ideal, because my first instinct to jump out of an action is ALWAYS going to be pressing the jump button. Doing it any other way makes the developer look like they are staffed by space aliens who don’t know how earthlings work. And after the sequence of events I just suffered through - mysterious, unclear game mechanic after mysterious unclear game mechanic, that does not seem too far off from the truth.
So I grapple and jump across these chandeliers and get to the other end of the cathedral where the platforms get much smaller and the distance between them gets to be much larger. I’m supposed to use the grapple here, but because of level geometry, a grapple point gets obscured and I end up trying to make a jump using a complicated ledge grab, which actually works - but after I safely make the jump, only then do I notice the glowing blue grapple point. Figuring it’s an item I can pick up, I jump off the platform, collect nothing, and fall straight back to the ground floor again - taking fall damage on top of it all.
Fall damage. In a 2D Castlevania game. I almost shut my 3DS off right there.
Fall damage is typically reserved for games which are trying to be “realistic”. Super Mario Bros. did not have fall damage, but Prince of Persia did, because Prince of Persia was about a real human person going through a dungeon to save a princess. Super Mario 64 had fall damage, but quickly thought better of it for future 3D Mario games. Castlevania, in all of its incarnations, has never been a “realistic” game. Not even Mirror of Fate, which has you fighting giant demonic bats using a whip and electrically-charged Romanian ninja stars. But here it is, and here I am missing half of my health bar because somebody can’t design levels to be clear and understandable. It wasn’t a jump that looked like I needed to be use the grapple to reach it, so why would I even try? And obviously I made it without needing to grapple, to boot! On my first try!
So after some more swinging and ledge grabbing I finally make it up to this gear which opens the path somewhere else - at this point I will admit to not really paying attention all too well to what was going on, as I had passed my frustration threshold a while ago. What I do notice, however, is that a new grapple point has appeared up by the gear. I use it and swing across to a grab-able ledge I used to get up here. Except… wait. Trevor doesn’t grab the ledge. Instead, he plummets straight to the ground - the fall damage so great, that it instantly kills him. Great. Thanks.
It restarts me back up by the gear, and only now do I notice the problem: the ledges I used to ascend up to the gear are no longer flashing. Ostensibly, Trevor has decided he doesn’t need to use those ledges anymore, so you can’t grab them to make your way back down. Just to make sure, I swing out to those ledges again, and Trevor completely ignores them, going from a full health bar down to zero thanks to fall damage. I’m flabbergasted. I have no speech.
Is this game design? What is this? It’s not fun. It’s not even logical. The grapple point even suggests that I’m SUPPOSED to swing out to those ledges, because there’s certainly nothing else to swing to. Using a safer, more clunky method, I climb down and continue in to some sort of catacombs or crypt. It’s rather unremarkable save for moments where I can’t tell the background apart from the foreground and flashing walls to clearly denote “HEY, YOU CAN WALL JUMP HERE, AND ONLY HERE”. I didn’t want freedom anyway.
Which is a re-occurring theme. Eventually I hit some kind of symbol - the game tells me to press the R button while standing over it, in which I am told: “This requires Shadow Magic. Come back once you get it.” A statue later in the demo tells me the exact same thing - but instead, it wants Light Magic. It’s the notion that it has to tell me to come back that’s the problem - Super Metroid never spelled it out in human english, “you need super missiles to open this door, come back later”. That was a mystery you had to deduce on your own. Apparently people were smarter in 1994 than they are now.
The demo is capped off with a boss encounter - and it’s one of those bosses with a health meter that is entirely too long for as simple as it is to bait in to a pattern. As long as you keep your distance, the boss will charge in to a wall and dizzy itself, giving you a significant opening for counter-attack. Repeat ad nauseum.
While you could just say, “it was a bad demo”, there are things in this demo that showcase a developer that seems fairly clueless as to how to make a game like this. The only thing that would save it in my eyes would be the promise of them either delaying the game or issuing a patch - but it would have to be a pretty significant patch, all told.