As someone who grew up with the Castlevania games before they became exploration-heavy, action RPGs like Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow, I have to say it's really nice to have a true, 2D action-oriented Castlevania title. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate is a worthy successor to the original 8 and 16 bit titles of the series' true heyday.
This new 3DS entry (I'll be damned if I'm going to type out that long winded title over and over throughout this review), is what you would get if you tossed Super Castlevania IV, Symphony of the Night, and God of War into a blender. The combination provides a surprisingly tasty smoothie of gameplay that any Castlevania fan should enjoy, some perhaps more than others. Just don't do into this one expecting to explore every nook and cranny of a giant castle like you do in other 'Metroidvania' entries in the series.
The storyline deals with the vampire slayer Belmont family lineage. The game opens and you play as Gabriel, the hero from the solid Lords of Shadow 3D entry. After some exposition, players take control of series' mainstay Simon Belmont as he attempts to invade Dracula's castle to end his scourge once and for all. As the story progresses, players are made privy to some pretty emotionally affecting moments as they explore the Belmont family tree by also playing as Alucard and Trevor Belmont, son of Gabriel and father of Simon. While the aspirations of the storyline are admirable, they become fairly muddled and nonsensical to all but the most fervent of Castlevania die hards. Just realise that you're trying to destroy Dracula on behalf of the Brotherhood of Light while exploring the Belmont family tree, and you should come away with some semblance of the direction and main thrust of the story. It's also interesting that the story starts with Simon and works its way backwards chronologically from there.
Gameplay in Mirror of Fate is rock solid. The entire game takes place on a 2D plane, with highly detailed 3D background environments. There's some minor exploration to be had as to you navigate through the dark corners of Dracula's castle, but this isn't a wide-open, exploration based entry in the series. It's not as deep and easy to get lost as it is in Symphony of the Night, and a very handy map system with objective markers ensures you're never truly lost. In a nice touch that would have been more useful in more exploration-heavy entries, you can use the 3DS' touch screen to leave notes on the map to check out inaccessible areas later. There's also some pretty clever puzzles to contend with throughout the adventure as well. The puzzles are generally fun and challenging, and you're given the opportunity for organic in-game hints if you really get stuck.
Controls for exploration are generally very responsive, especially in combat and while swimming. The game does force players to use the analog circle pad, while the d-pad is reserved for weapon and magic switching.
The bread and butter of Mirror of Fate lies in its combat. All three playable characters wield a whip that can be lashed out with both strong vertical attacks and quicker horizontal strikes. The combat requires a deft mix of blocking, dodging and combos, almost exactly how you would expect a combat heavy title like God of War to play if it was limited to a 2D plane. Each character has their own selection of spells and special weapons like throwing axes, flammable oil lanterns, bats, ghosts that block attacks and that sort of thing. Both abilities and special weapons use ammunition or drain magical power. The fact that each character has different abilities keeps things fresh during the game's 8-10 hour runtime.
Enemy designs are a little bog-standard for this sort of thing, but the bosses are very clever and challenging. Or, at least they would be if you weren't given mid-fight checkpoints in the boss battles. It's kind of a shame, because on their own the bosses use devious patterns and will keep you on your toes. Unfortunately, the too generous checkpoints mean that most boss battles devolve into battles of attrition and patience instead of the intense nerve wracking battles they could and should have been. This is especially true considering Castlevania's history as some of the most challenging and difficult games of the NES and SNES eras. One annoyance in the title is prevalence of button mashing quick time event prompts that will annoy some players more than others, especially when you have to mash the B button to do something as simple as opening a chest.
There's a pretty simple and straight forward experience system in the game too, but you can pretty much ignore it. Building experience and gaining levels results in new combos and moves for your characters, but you have no real say in what those new abilities are. It's a linear list of moves that carries over from one character to the next. Experience is gained by finding hidden scrolls and destroying enemies. Speaking of the scrolls that are usually found on corpses throughout the castle, they're an odd mix between bone-chillingly terrifying and incredibly goofy. I had certain scrolls, such as one in a prison where a tale was told of how a man was forced to eat his comrades or starve, totally got under my skin. Another I found underwater talked about how he was drowning, yet somehow he found the time to write about how he was drowning. It's all over the place and undermines some of the game's generally excellent atmosphere.
In general, Mirror of Fate's presentation shines, storytelling missteps not withstanding. The graphics and environments are generally spectacular. Considering large chunks of the game take place indoors, its surprising how much environmental variety there is to be found in the game. My favorite was a chilling carnival setting that spawned knife-wielding dancing puppets. Both enemies and heroes are gorgeously animated, which is important considering the smooth flowing combat. The cutscenes are hand drawn, starkly colored vignettes that generally look fantastic in their charcoal-like visuals. It is a little disappointing that the mouths don't move during dialogue though. Whether playing with the 3D effects on or off (which I did both in equal measure), Mirror of Fate is easily in the upper echelon in 3DS graphical presentations.
The acoustic presentation is generally very good, with solid voice acting delivering some rather hackneyed dialogue at times. The sounds of combat sound exactly like they should and an excellent-at-best, non-intrusive at worst orchestral soundtrack rounds out a solid audio package. This is definitely a title worth playing with headphones on to appreciate the atmospherics.
Overall, Mirror of Fate is a jack-of-all trades entry in the long, long running series. There's certainly some flaws to contend with, but the positives of this title far outweigh any nitpicks and annoyances that present themselves. It may disappoint those who are looking for yet another 'Metroidvania' style 2D Castlevania; but those looking for a return to the action-oriented roots of the series while including some modern design sensibilities, this is a trip to Dracula's castle that is well worth making.