Evil.JP: Castlevania – More Bark, Less Bite

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I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Mercurysteam’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, and I’m struggling to make sense of the game.  While it certainly makes strides in the right direction in terms of recapturing the look and feel of the original Castlevania series, I can’t help but wonder whether this new, Western-focused design direction for Castlevania was truly the right choice for the once-stagnant franchise.

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It’s not the inflated budgets that the titles in the Lords of Shadow saga have gotten, nor the changes to the Castlevania mythos that these new titles have introduced (though the Anakin Skywalker-esque all-too-quick shift to the darkness at the end of the original Lords of Shadow‘s Reverie DLC campaign left me scratching my head a little) that are causing me to question the direction of the series.  Rather, I feel that the gameplay elements themselves are more at fault.  The original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow had an incredible art style and an amazing voice cast, along with a storyline that (up until the aforementioned DLC campaign) put a much needed serious spin on what was becoming an iterative, repetitious, anime-esque series that injected more and more ridiculous plotlines into a series that was always more about gameplay than story and characters.  The final arc according to the original Koji Igarashi Castlevania timeline took place in a cultist recreation of Dracula’s castle and had the player taking the role of Dracula’s reincarnation (which also happened to have a Spanish name and reside in Japan…?!).  There’s no denying the series was in desperate need of a narrative overhaul.  Big time.

It was eventually decided to hand over the reins of the franchise to Western developer Mercurysteam with Kojima Productions acting in a supervisory role.  The reboot that resulted from this partnership – the original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – took the problems contained in the last few portable entries of the series and threw them out the window completely.  In doing so, however, they created new ones.  The largest issues with Lords of Shadow stem from the gameplay itself – a QTE overloaded God of War play-a-like that contained very few traces of the features that made the original Castlevania titles so addictive.  Absolutely no offense intended for those that enjoyed Lords of Shadow, but for me the gameplay was hollow, uninspiring, and frustrating at times.

It is unfortunate, then, that the very same elements that I had issues with ended up making their way into Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate.  While Mercurysteam’s recreation of Dracula’s castle, their wonderfully diverse enemy and character designs, and the overall “mood” of the game weave a tapestry that manages to marry the look and feel of the Igarashi Castlevania titles with the Lords of Shadow mythos, their gameplay mechanics do not.  Unfortunately,  everything I disliked about the combat in the original title has found its way into this pseuedosequel, and as a result the combat does not work well in a 2D environment.  Even “fodder” enemies like skeletons and zombies take several hits to go down and require liberal use of the game’s blocking and rolling mechanics, often making battles drawn out and more frustrating than they need to be.  The game’s boss battles are not much better, with unnecessary QTEs that mar the experience.  Character growth has also been substantially tweaked to resemble the original Lords of Shadow.  Leveling up in Mirror of Fate provides characters with new moves and combos, but upgrades to equipment and stats are handled via items in the environment only.

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Playing through Mirror of Fate was difficult for me, because it was easy to see the care and respect that Mercurysteam poured into the title.  The design decisions made to differentiate the game from the pre-reboot titles in the saga, however, make the game a lot less fun.  Those wishing for another Symphony of the Night won’t find it here.  They will find a respectable 2D action game that furthers the mythos of Mercurysteam’s new Castlevania but which doesn’t quite live up to the expectations of its portable predecessors.  If Mercurysteam can continue to refine their formula, they stand to be one of the few Western developers (along with Ninja Theory with their stellar re-interpretation of Devil May Cry) to successfully reboot and modernize a beloved Japanese franchise — they’re just not quite there yet.

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Evil.JP is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly romp through all things Japanese gaming. Follow this column’s author Michael Migliacio on Twitter here.

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