It's time to feed.
In my review of Konami's first Lords of Shadow game, I mentioned that its combat, fidelity, and spirit trumped any issues I took with the camera or technical hiccups in Mercury Steam's 3D Castlevania reboot. Like the pasty Transylvanians that inspired the franchise, Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate aims to bring the same jaw-dropping, visceral action to the 3DS, drawing blood from consumers so that Lords of Shadow 2 can deliver the killing blow (hopefully later this year).
Of course, Nintendo's dualscreen handheld (sans 3D) already had a number of fantastic 2D Castlevania titles, and the Game Boy Advance had even more before that. What can Mirror of Fate do that hasn't already been done? Can Konami and Mercury Steam blend the action-game mentality and classic castle exploration, or does the Belmont clan need to be whipped into shape?
Mirror of Fate first gives players control of Gabriel Belmont, star of Lords of Shadow, in a prologue sequence that introduces the character's fate and the base control scheme. I liked seeing the hero I recognized, but players will quickly lose Gabriel and begin exploring Dracula's castle as Simon Belmont, grandson of Gabriel and son of Trevor. Eventually you'll get to play as Trevor himself and even Alucard, but you'll likely end up not caring about the diminutive hero on your screen, due to all the switching around.
Vampire killers know that Simon Belmont originally slayed Dracula in the first Castlevania game, and Mercury Steam's play on the original whip-toting family tree is entertaining in its own right. Longtime fans of the series will enjoy the reimagined first steps of Simon and company. Cutscenes push the action forward and introduce new narrative beats, but the most entertaining writing in the game takes shape as the final words from fallen adventurers, left attached to their corpses. Mirror of Fate is not without its narrative missteps, but Dracula has died about a thousand times over the years, so dedicated vampire hunters will enjoy the story nonetheless.
Players get to use the combat cross and a range of other weapons against the zombies, imps, lycans, and more, but combat boils down to direct attacks and area attacks. Set on a 2D plane, whip-strikes lash out directly to either side or form a half-circle (depending on your orientation) and hurt enemies in the vertical space above your hero. Early on, I thought this system worked quite well. You'll have to jump and navigate the battlefield to reposition yourself, dodge enemy attacks, and continue your violent punishment of the undead. As you level up, more combos will unlock and you can begin to mix air combos or alternate between direct and area attacks for devastating effect.
Unfortunately, combat never hits the highs the original Lords of Shadow did and the closed arenas make engagements with each new enemy feel forced. Part of the joy in 2D Castlevania games on handhelds in the past few years is that enemies hide in all corners of the castle, not just in the big room where it's convenient.
Platforming challenges can also feel a little too programmed. As you explore the castle, players will find ledges to cling to, walls to scale, and grapple points that let combat-cross-toting heroes swing across impossible gaps. Then you'll come to set pieces that force you to run, jump, and dodge, or else you'll cease progression. This takes form early on in a carousel that boxes you in with electric guard rails, and then throws hazards high, middle, and low. You're supposed to run under, roll under, or jump-dash above these obstacles respectively, but if you mess up, you get knocked down and damaged by the electric gates on either side. Oh, and then after you complete it the first time, it speeds up and makes you tear your hair out all over again.
Castlevania games have always been quite challenging, but this one feels artificially so, as if the 10-hour campaign time needed padding to feel more like the massive, backtracking adventures we've had with Aria of Sorrow or its DS follow-up Dawn of Sorrow.
Regardless, if you've got a 3DS and want to stay informed on the Belmont clan's adventures in the new Lords of Shadow timeline, Mirror of Fate won't disappoint. Excellent use of the 3D effect and tons of cinematics make for a spectacle on the handheld's screen. Quick-time events occur frequently, and it can feel jarring to have such a modern, console-style experience on the handheld, but it's representative of Mirror of Fate at large.
The way Konami blends 2D and 3D Castlevania elements forces the franchise into very modern waters, away from the tried-and-true "whoops, the castle is mirrored now" and "head back 20 minutes after a boss" formula. It's not a total failure of the brand, but Mirror of Fate comes up short often enough to be disappointing for anyone heading into it with expectations based on recent 2D entries.
Regardless, Mirror of Fate has some beautiful visuals, nice voice work, and combat that frequently pleases, even if it does wander into button-mashing territory at times. Anyone looking to bridge the gap between the original Lords of Shadow and its sequel out later this year should consider picking up Mirror of Fate to quench their thirst for blood, while newcomers should steer clear. This is one family squabble not worth your time.