Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda may be the most readily conjured examples of franchises whose legacies are beholden to single titles. Both have been marked by the release of a genre-defining game, followed by multiple entries hewn extremely close to the framework set by those seminal titles. Of course, this kind of identification of a game brand with a particular, iconic title is a mixed blessing. With Zelda, many players feel that most of the games that have been released since The Ocarina of Time haven’t quite hit the same mark and are eager for a change. Outside of Majora’s Mask, however, it can be argued that Nintendo hasn’t even tried a different approach.
But attempting to branch out can prove difficult as well. The pinnacle of Castlevania’s history was almost certainly Symphony of the Night. Although many have grown accustomed to the Metroid-inspired design that has served the Castlevania series so well since that groundbreaking title, few would argue that the franchise could not benefit from a fresh approach.
Yet, previous attempts to breathe new life into the Castlevania series, particularly efforts to bring it to the third dimension (both Castlevania and Legacy of Darkness for the Nintendo 64 as well as Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness for next generation of consoles) were mixed bags, largely doing a poor job of translating the exploration, character progression and platforming that were hallmarks of the best entries in the franchise.
While Castlevania as a series began to seem more archaic, new franchises with a similar aesthetic sprung up, demonstrating how best to approach these kind of supernatural/horror action adventure games. Devil May Cry and God of War both became blockbusters, spawning a number of sequels, largely due to their stunning design elements (which could easily be argued to have been inspired by Castlevania) and innovative combat mechanics. But Castlevania itself somehow never seemed able to follow step.
In 2010, however, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, represented a solid, well-received reboot of the franchise in the third dimension. Highly anticipated prior to its release, Lords of Shadow was praised for finally taking lessons learned from similar modern franchises and bringing them back to Castlevania. Though it suffered some criticism for not bringing enough new ideas to the table itself, it was a commercial success,and clearly represented a new start for the series.
Mirror of Fate for the 3DS follows directly from Lords of Shadow (with another more traditional sequel in the works for the 360 and PS3 scheduled to be released in late 2013 or early 2014. Interestingly, and likely due to the limitations of the system, the game flattens the presentation of Lords of Shadow back down to two dimensions. In other words, after many lackluster attempts to make a 3D Castlevania, the developers of arguably the first truly successful one chose to step back for the title directly following it. Again, though, this decision seems likely to be a function of the target platform more than anything else.
In a number of ways, Mirror of Fate tips its cap to the legacy of handheld Castlevania titles. But its exploration elements aren’t nearly as involved, largely due to the choice to split the game into multiple acts with different protagonists. As a tradeoff the combat, as in Lords of Shadow, is far deeper than in more traditional entries in the series. The design aesthetics, too, help to distance it from the sprite-based elements of previous Castlevania titles.
Indeed there is little, technically speaking, to complain about with Mirror of Fate. The game looks great, and a lot of effort clearly went into both in game presentation and the expository cutscenes. It runs well, with no slowdown to speak of. The audio, though perhaps a step behind the graphics, is still quite well done.
Those Castlevania purists who feel that the undeniably satisfying platform/rpg archetype that has really defined the series since Symphony of the Night are not likely to enjoy Mirror of Fate. But it’s certainly an enjoyable game and is recommended to fans of the original Lords of Shadow or anyone looking for fun action adventure game for the 3DS.
Perhaps a more interesting question would be what would have happened if Lords of Shadow had been released as a new intellectual property with no connection to the Castlevania series. Would it still have been received well and spawned a portable entry and full-fledged home sequel? The gameplay quality is certainly there.
In my estimation, with Lords of Shadow and Mirror of Fate, we have the beginnings of a solid series that has been saddled with the expectations that come with being tied to a long-running, venerated franchise. Mirror of Fate represents a more than capable scaling down of the concepts set forth by its home console forbear. For those Castlevania fans not dead set against a new direction for the series, these titles represent the best effort in years to breathe new life into the series.