In the past two decades, the Castlevania name has gotten two separate critically-acclaimed revivals: 1997's Symphony of the Night, and 2010's Lords of Shadow. The mouthful of a game Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate attempts to marry the two. It joins LoS' mythology and basic combat mechanics with SotN's exploration, not to mention an extremely popular character. But the game never truly decides what it wants to be, and that indecision ultimately leads it to meander aimlessly and fail to live up to either legacy.
This problem is most pronounced in the structure of the game itself. It's split into three acts, each featuring a different major character from Castlevania history: Simon Belmont, then Alucard, and finally Trevor Belmont. Each of the characters has his own unique abilities and his own avenues through the castle. This takes what is ostensibly a large open castle, and splits it three ways. Plus, long load screens frequently punctuate the separation between areas.
As a result of these factors, the castle itself never carries a cohesive sense of place, which prevents the game from having any feeling of discovery and exploration. The specialized abilities that unlock hidden areas feel more like house keys than multifaceted navigational tools. While backtracking throughout the castle is possible--even encouraged by a note-making tool with the touch screen--the game's plays much more like a standard level progression. This would be fine if the game had committed to this game type, but it's half-committed to Symphony's more open structure, and doesn't perform either one particularly well.
If the castle areas are too separate and distinct, the characters carry the opposite problem of being too similar. Each character gains two sub-weapons familiar to Castlevania fans like axes or holy water, and two magical abilities. Besides these distinctions, they all use the same main weapon and move sets, in almost precisely the same way. (Castlevania purists will probably find Alucard using a whip-like weapon extremely bizarre).
The trio even inexplicably shares power-ups and an experience pool, so reaching Level 10 by the end of Act 1 means Alucard will start Act 2 with the same combo abilities. Some, but not all, of the abilities found in relics transfer over too--for example, Trevor can double-jump since Alucard found the ability, but he can't glide like the half-vampire. The pace of the game suffers for this, creating an awkward sense of half-deja-vu. Each character plays with sense vague familiarity, but demands you learn which abilities made the transition between chapters.
What's worse, each chapter is a slow decline from the prior one. Simon's showed promise, but Alucard's got bogged down with clumsily-designed puzzles and even clumsier melodrama. By the time I reached Trevor's act, it felt like the game was simply going through the motions. The story took an even more bizarre turn at this point, as mischievous goblins stood in as the primary antagonists. Dracula seemed so aloof and uncaring by the end that the final confrontation lacked the appropriate bite.
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The game certainly has its high points. The combat mechanics were translated almost perfectly into 2D from the console Lords of Shadow title, making excellent use of the heavy impacts and combo-driven juggles that revived the franchise. That makes the first few hours with Simon quite enjoyable, before fatigue sets in. The game also escapes the problem of frustrating deaths with liberal use of checkpoints, which are especially helpful in avoiding fatigue from failing quick-time events. Plus, the cinematic sequences make impressive use of the system's 3D capabilities while compensating for its hardware shortcomings.
Finally, this is a continuation of the lore established in Lords of Shadow, and as such the ending packs a fun (if telegraphed) twist. It doesn't quite match the rug-pulling of the first game, but it was a decent attempt and casts a new light on parts of the universe. I'm especially curious to know how it will factor into the upcoming Lords of Shadow 2.
But I must admit, those high points are damning with faint praise. In its best moments, Mirror of Fate was a good-not-great action platformer with light touches of exploration and inventive world-building. Those moments were trapped in a game that didn't seem to know its own identity, and without a clear direction that casts it as a poor reflection of its inspirations.
This Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate review was based on retail 3DS code provided by the publisher.