Platform: Nintendo 3DS
In the end, it always comes down to blood. The Belmont bloodline has always been a pivotal part of Castlevania lore, and with Gabriel's shocking character arc flooring players at the end of Lords Of Shadow, keeping the clan intact has never been more important. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the reboot and its impending sequel, Mirror Of Fate explores how numerous Belmont generations (and a certain platinum-blonde vampire) sallied forth against the powers of darkness, elevating what could have just been a handheld spin-off into a core part of the new canon.
The premise might be incredibly ambitious, but MercurySteam didn't stop there. Rather than copying wholesale from Konami's peers, Mirror Of Fate strives to emulate the visceral brawling from Lords Of Shadow on a 2D plane, all while providing just enough exploration and platforming to lend it that classic Castlevania flavour. Like a wayward son, Mirror Of Fate wants its own identity, and broadly manages to find it.
Unfortunately, the same lofty ambitions that made Mirror Of Fate stand out also cripple the experience in several surprising ways.
After playing as Gabriel in a short introductory tutorial, you'll step into the shoes of his heirs, the barbaric Simon Belmont and pious Trevor Belmont, as well as fan-favourite vampire Alucard and another surprising familiar face. Each character has their own storyline that intertwines at certain key events, while all boasting a small range of unique ranged projectiles and abilities to bypass previously-inaccessible barriers. As a 2.5D platformer, you can naturally expect some punishing gauntlets of timed jumps, grabs and traps to circumvent in the dark recesses of Gabriel's castle, and chasms to swing over using the Combat Cross grappling hook. Though lacking the intricacy and wit of some of Castlevania's early iterations, Mirror Of Fate still offers plenty of generic boxes to move, hazards to overcome and optional backtracking, backed up by some accessible controls.
However, much of the game is dominated by hectic real-time combat, where Mirror Of Fate truly shines. Despite packing a handful of unique magical skills and projectiles (savage barbarian Simon hefts throwing axes, for example, whereas Alucard gleefully summons swarms of carnivorous bats), all three protagonists wield the versatile Combat Cross whip to devastating effect, tapping into a growing arsenal of ground-based and aerial combos. Early enemies such as slimy mermen and shambling zombies can be easily easily dispatched by relentlessly spamming aerial techniques that encompass the entire screen, but it won't be long before the odds shift decidedly in the undead army's favour. To survive, you'll need to utilise every trick at your disposal, from a dynamic block that can throw foes off balance to earth-shaking punches and an evade roll with both defensive and offensive applications.
It's tough and technical stuff, effortlessly responsive, giving you the power to defeat your enemies so long as you're fast and ruthless enough to nail the timing and pick your battles. Bosses up the ante yet further with complex move sets and multiple forms, some of which will test your reflexes and dodging over combo memorisation. Though fiercely difficult in parts, considerate checkpointing (no more save rooms, folks) and health/magic shrines mean that you'll rarely lose much in the way of progress.
My only major gripe with the core mechanics comes in the form of an embarrassment of Quick Time Events, which MercurySteam seem to deploy with merry abandon. Whether you're constantly repeating a boss takedown or glumly hammering X to open a chest, these archaic and obtrusive inputs never add anything to the experience. Instead, they date the game, often making it feel like a product of the nineties rather than the new millennium. At least you'll have to plenty of regular gameplay to whip through before they appear.
The excellent combat could have been the foundation for something greater, but ultimately, it ends up carrying Mirror Of Fate. A few crucial design decisions turn what ought to have been a superbly compelling experience into a deceptively shallow nine hours of solid brawling.
All four characters share the same incredibly streamlined and bare-bones experience system, which unlocks preset combos at certain levels. You'll find no alternate weapons to equip, no skill points to spend on abilities to suit your playstyle, and this simplistic approach feels like a major step backwards even from the original Lords Of Shadow. The lack of new gear and items makes for an incredibly dull selection of optional collectibles to backtrack for, with only a few incremental health and ammunition upgrades on offer alongside some bestiary bumf and po-faced scrolls dropped by dead soldiers.
Exploration, one of the key pillars of the Castlevania experience, has taken a massive blow here. Perhaps painfully aware that Mirror Of Fate offers little in the way of interesting upgrades and secrets to find, MercurySteam 'hid' their collectibles in the most obvious places possible, requiring little or no deviation from your route in order to find. Despite the fact that you can manually annotate a clunky map, you'll rarely need to use it since even the trickiest of unlocks are automatically marked anyway. This dearth of meaningful discovery and exploration makes Mirror Of Fate feel restrictive and linear, but it pales in comparison next to a single massive flaw. Or, more accurately, four.
See, Mirror Of Fate isn't really a single cohesive game. It's four incredibly short games in one. Each character has their own standalone act that lasts approximately two to three hours apiece, all of which abruptly end with little or no warning. Just when you're warming up to Simon or Alucard, when the game finally feels like it's about to open up into something truly amazing, you're ceremoniously dumped into another protagonist's shoes. There's no way to return to a previous character short of restarting their section from the main menu (a poor substitute for genuine replay value), and there's just not enough time for Mirror Of Fate to offer any sense of real progression.
Worse still, each act has its own dedicated small area of castle to explore. Instead of bringing new abilities to the same sprawling space, giving you new options and drive to revisit areas with different characters, the whole thing ends up feeling small, limited and oppressive. It's a shame that the campaign didn't focus on a single character with some unlockable game-complete scenarios focusing on other heroes, or weaved a longer, more intricate narrative like the excellent Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep.
The excellent combat, punishing bosses and surprisingly thought-provoking storyline are enough to keep you engaged throughout the nine or ten hours it'll take you to complete Mirror Of Fate, but you'll emerge emerge on the other side with mixed feelings of intense satisfaction and nagging disappointment. When unfairly judged alongside previous Castlevania games, rather than on its on merits, Mirror Of Fate resembles a distorted reflection rather than a change of tack.
It's not supposed to be another Dawn Of Sorrows or Order Of Ecclesia, but whether that's a good thing is entirely down to you.
Visually, Mirror Of Fate is an incredibly impressive mixed bag. It's clearly built using high-definition assets, showcasing detailed textures, models and backdrops (not to mention some excellent lighting), but the 3DS' 800 x 240 top screen isn't quite capable of displaying the action properly. If you get your eye in, you'll notice jagged edges and compression artefacts aplenty, despite the overall effect being rather pleasing. Mirror Of Fate still looks seriously good by 3DS standards, but you'll constantly feel it straining to cram too many pixels into too small a screen. Bizarrely, story cutscenes are delivered in sumptuous cel-shaded 3D cutscenes, an attractive art style that would have been a great fit for the entire game and easier on the hardware.
Cel-shading would have also made the castle look much more interesting. A far cry from the exquisitely colourful sprite-based locales of Castlevania games past, Mirror Of Fate tends to dwell on bland browns and moody greys. Much of this is down to the Lords Of Shadow setting, which presents a gritty dark fantasy take on the traditional series, but there's often a distinct lack of subtle detail in the hewn rock and stone of the gothic environments, and a stubborn unwillingness to present anything in the way of vibrant colour. Combined with the restrictive four-act structure, the castle never feels like a character in its own right; a world away from what we're used to from the franchise. It's just a castle. Not the castle.
Almost all is forgiven when you flick the 3D slider. Mirror Of Fate is one of the few 3DS games that is absolutely worth playing in stereoscopic 3D in its entirety, as the 2D foreground, characters and enemies pop into sharp focus against the parallax backgrounds, revealing hidden depths in what initially appears to be flat backdrops. Even at minimum intensity, the game gets a new lease of life, while the new perspective also helps to differentiates foreground platforms from the scenery. At the risk of sounding incredibly trite, it adds a whole new dimension to the experience. Barring Super Mario 3D Land and Excite Bike, this really is one of the most impressive uses of stereoscopic 3D we've seen on the system to date.
- Thoroughly excellent combo-driven combat, solid if generic platforming
- Surprisingly engaging and poignant storyline
- Utterly fantastic use of stereoscopic 3D... crank up that slider!
- It's four incredibly short and ultimately unsatisfying games disguised as one
- Simplistic levelling, limited collectibles and a bare minumum of exploration
- Feels constrained and linear beyond combat encounters
- Inconsistently bland art style outside of gorgeous cel-shaded cutscenes
The Short Version: Mirror Of Fate is a Lords Of Shadow tie-in rather than a fully fledged Castlevania game, and delivers plenty of exquisite combat to sink your fangs into. Sadly, it's also a fractured reflection of what we've come to expect from the series' excellent handheld outings throughout the years.
Solid but disappointingly simplistic in several key areas, franchise fans will have to reign in their expectations to fully enjoy what MercurySteam have brought to the table.