Thoughts on CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE, or “How not to do a METROID-style game”

In what started as an arbitrary choice to dig up some Halloween-seasonally appropriate games from my back log – and what quickly turned into a series mini-marathon – I’ve been playing through the three CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOWS games. I had never thought or expected much of the games, not having much trust in reboots of Japanese game series outsourced to western developers in general, and perhaps even less trust in Konami’s late-era output in particular.

The original LORDS OF SHADOW ended up… well, if not impressing me, at least exceeding my (admittedly low) expectations in some ways, while in other ways being even more mediocre than I would’ve thought. Still, at the end of the day I definitely came away from it more positive than I went in.

The same, however, can not be said for the 2D spin-off game CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE.

MIRROR OF FATE was originally released for the Nintendo 3DS, a few years after the original LORDS OF SHADOW, and a year before the proper sequel LORDS OF SHADOW 2. The original LOS had been a bit of a departure from the nonlinear handheld games that had become the standard for the CASTLEVANIA series in the 00’s, instead going for an “epic” GOD OF WAR-style linear action adventure with elaborate combat, very slight exploration, and a bit of (mostly ill-advised) puzzle-solving. MIRROR OF FATE then, seemingly tries to sort of bridge the gap between the two, by transposing the LORDS OF SHADOW game mechanics onto a more conventional 2D CASTLEVANIA template. Even at the time, I thought this seemed like an awkward idea at best – it’s hard to imagine the kind of precise combat that 2D CASTLEVANIA is known for when the main character’s attacks literally cover the entire screen – but honestly the game manages to bungle that premise even worse than I expected.

METROID-style games come in a lot of flavours, with a lot of variations on the formula, but I think it’s fair to say that they generally tend to follow these two tenets:

  • The game takes place in an open-ended, nonlinear and interconnected world, which the player is allowed to explore as they see fit – with new sections of the world successively opening up as the player progresses through the game.
  • The player will gain new abilities throughout the game, often impacting both traversal and combat, but also doubling as figurative “keys” for the numerous “locks” gating player progress throughout the world.

Although the specifics of map design, combat, abilities etc can differ greatly between games in this genre, this core rarely changes. Perhaps the biggest deviation you tend to see among more prominent games of this type (including a few actual METROID games) is a higher degree of guidance for the player; de-emphasizing (but maintaining) a nonlinear structure in favour of more explicit goals and waypoints.

But regardless of whether the critical path forward is explicitly pointed out to the player or not – that second of the aforementioned tenets is pretty much what defines these types of games, and it’s rarely if ever messed with. And for good reason! One of the great joys of METROID or CASTLEVANIA is coming across areas you can’t yet access; you find the locks and are often left to imagine what kind of key will open it. And on the flipside, whenever you defeat a boss or find an item that gives you a new ability, there’s an immediate excitement to revisit some of those places to see what kind of new stuff you can access. Not to mention – new abilities are often fun and interesting to use in and of themselves, whether they give you tools for traversal, combat, or both.

LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE screws the pooch by essentially failing to live up to either of these two tenets. On paper, yes, you have a map to explore, and certain milestones award you new abilities which allow you access to previously inaccessible areas. In practice however, the game ends up kind of adhering to the letter of the law – but certainly not the spirit of it.

The map design is not great; there is not an awful lot of it to explore, exacerbated by the fact that the game consists of three separate chapters, each with their own player character exploring their own map – necessitating brand new environments as opposed to being able to re-contextualise and repurpose previously explored ones later in the game. But of course, the bigger issue is how the game fundamentally screws up the concept of gaining new abilities to open up new exciting avenues for exploration.

The core issue that MIRROR OF FATE gets wrong is that the upgrades and abilities you use to access new areas are really only ever used as keys for those particular locks. The abilities you gain are often context-sensitive, meaning for the most part you can’t even use them outside of their exact intended use, let alone to do anything fun, interesting or inventive. Imagine a METROID game where you walk up to a green door, and the game pops up a message saying “Press Y to fire super missile”, and that’s the only way you ever got to use super missiles. That’s MIRROR OF FATE!

The game tries to make it work with at least a few abilities; there are magic powers you receive throughout the game that can be used in combat as well as to open specific locks, such as Alucard’s wolf form. At the press of a button, Alucard can transform into a werewolf, increasing his damage output in combat, as well as allowing him to unlock specific “wolf doors” to access new areas. But even then, it’s never really satisfying or interesting, as there’s nothing specific to the wolf form that you can apply in order to unlock those doors – it’s literally just a single button press interactable that the game prevents you from activating unless you’re in wolf form.

And I think that’s the real crux of the issue. Because the game so strictly limits when, where and how you can actually use your new abilities, there is simply no room for the player to speculate, guess, or discover what they can do with their newfound powers. There is no joy of exploration, because outside of the strictest, most literal definition – no real exploration ever takes place!

Not to say the lock-and-key upgrades aren’t poorly thought out in and of themselves, but I think another reason the whole thing feels so half-baked is that upgrades to active combat abilities all happen completely irrespective of main plot progression. The game doles out XP whenever the player kills enemies or finds boring lore dump text logs (one of the game’s very few types of ‘collectibles’ – the lack of which further adds to the exploration being so joyless), and leveling up gives the player new combat maneuvers, similar to the mainline LORDS OF SHADOW games. What this means is that the game can never make assumptions of what combat abilities the player has learned based on where they are in the game – so the game effectively prevents itself from ever gating progression based on the kind of abilities the player can use freely.

Granted, the way the combat works and how the abilities are designed, it seems doubtful they could’ve made much use of it to create interesting navigational challenges (the upgrades barely work to make the combat any more involved or tactically interesting as you level up), but that’s hardly an argument in favour of not even trying. As far as I can tell, there aren’t even any optional challenges or avenues of exploration that make any use of the abilities you get as you level up.

The previously mentioned division of the game into three distinct chapters ties into this problem as well. Not only is the physical exploration of the game’s world split into three (mostly linear) chunks instead of one cohesive whole, each chapter of the game is played with a different character, with their own set of abilities and upgrades. Combat abilities do carry over between characters, but as established, that has no bearing on any of the explorative aspects – the “progression upgrades”, let’s call them, do not carry over, nor do they ever really add up. In other words, the player never really gets to experience that late-game satisfaction of being stupidly overpowered and having the means to quickly and easily zip around the map to discover and collect whatever has been left behind. Although that assumes there is anything of interest to actually collect, I suppose…

Frankly, the issues with MIRROR OF FATE are still bigger and more plentiful than I feel I’ve been able to outline thus far. In addition to making exploration abilities extremely narrow in their use and/or fully context-sensitive, and in addition to having a very simple and largely linear map that isn’t very fun to explore (or rather three small ones) – the game still finds ways to screw up that aren’t even really related to that flimsy foundation. Even on a micro level, moving around just… isn’t fun.

The game has plenty of platforming and climbing – a highlight in the other LORDS OF SHADOW games for me – but here it’s incredibly clumsy with floaty physics, dodgy collision detection, and constant animation bugs. To make matters worse, readability issues are ever-present, with ledges and platforms being hard to make out, and the path forward having to be deduced by the limited options provided by the map, as opposed to being guided by what you see on screen.

An arguably even bigger cardinal sin committed by the game is how – at several points – progression gates are overcome not by the player using a new ability, or even making any kind of active decision, but literally by stumbling into a cutscene trigger. Even more stupidly, the game even applies this inept approach when the player does get upgrades! At some points in the game, collecting an item that grants a new ability will grant access to new areas – but only by complete happenstance, collecting the boomerang somehow compelling the skeletons in the next room to bust through a previously locked door. Mechanically it’s highly unsatisfying, and narratively it’s highly contrived.

CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE is not entirely without redeeming qualities, but they sure are few and far between. It is not a good game. But even if you do enjoy stuff like the combat, the scenery, the storytelling or monster design more than I did, I think it’s undeniably that the game fundamentally fails at delivering the kind of experience it sets out to. It’s not quite as tedious and frustrating as the absolutely abysmal BATMAN: ARKHAM ORIGINS BLACKGATE, but it’s definitely in the same ballpark of “ill-advised at best, completely incompetent at worst”.

By all accounts though, MercurySteam seems to have somewhat redeemed themselves with their attempt at an actual METROID game, 2017’s METROID: SAMUS RETURNS. Having never owned a 3DS I’ve never had the chance to play it, but given the opportunity I would definitely love to check it out, both on account of its generally positive reputation, as well as to see how much (or how little, hopefully) of MIRROR OF FATE’s DNA you can see in it. With the guiding hand of Nintendo, not to mention the template of a proper METROID game to follow, I sure would hope it’s a lot better than this! In any case, I’m looking forward to giving it a shot and finding out for myself some day.

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