In the continuity between Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and its upcoming sequel, the bloodline must not be broken. Mirror of Fate is that link, offering a handheld run-and-whip that maintains MercurySteam's decidedly Western aesthetic. Whether you think that departure from the traditional Castlevania template is a blessing or a curse, one unfortunate fact remains: Mirror of Fate feels like a missed opportunity that moves the Belmont clan’s gameplay back instead of forward.
That’s not to say that this reimagining is a complete wash--stylistically, Mirror of Fate shines. The story presents an intriguing new take on established characters, and builds on the Lords of Shadow narrative nicely. Though the character designs are a far cry from the typical anime-esque fare of previous Castlevania titles, you’ll appreciate the rugged look of your vampire-killing protagonists, as well as the classical monster bestiary full of ghoulish imps and gruesome mermen. The exposition-heavy cutscenes are equally easy on the eyes, evoking the look of a gothic Saturday morning cartoon.
Mirror of Fate owes its most stunning visual tricks to the namesake of the 3DS, with stage designs that utilize 3D parallax scrolling to make it look as though you’re holding a living diorama of Dracula’s castle in the palm of your hands. Though all the action takes place on a 2D plane, there’s a palpable depth to the baroque backdrops that makes each room feel much bigger than it actually is. You’ll often be enchanted by some of the small details hiding in some of the more elaborate settings, like dense graveyards and unnerving Victorian vampire portraits. The only adverse effect to all these depth of field illusions is that it can make the less ornate backgrounds (like caves and sewers) feel empty, seeing as you can never truly explore past the foreground path. Complementing the nifty graphics is some very atmospheric music, with sorrowful melodies and invigorating compositions (even if they're far less catchy than the tunes from previous installments).
But style can only take enjoyment so far, and the gameplay, both in terms of combat and platforming, is where Mirror of Fate stumbles. Though the main story puts you in the boots of three characters (Simon Belmont, his dad Trevor, and Dracula’s righteous son Alucard), you won’t be switching between these heroes at will, as the game is divided into three chapters that aren’t truly interconnected (save for some nifty cutscenes). Each hero plays pretty much the same, utilizing identical whip (also read: Combat Cross) combos, with their own suite of magical abilities that don’t drastically affect how you approach enemies.
The result is a castle that feels incredibly fragmented, with no way to backtrack for secrets between characters as you plow through the 9 to 10 hours of single-player content. It’s a shame, too, because the series that helped coin the phrase "Metroidvania" now seems content to spoon-feed all its secrets to you. There are collectibles aplenty scattered throughout the halls of Drac’s chateau, but they’re so close to the beaten path that they could barely be considered hidden. You’ll never be stuck during your quest, either, because every time you enter a room, a go-this-way-you-idiot camera pan will direct you to your next straightforward objective.
In stark contrast to the simplified exploration is the combat, which struggles to strike a happy medium between wanton button-mashing and reactive, defense-focused play. While the combos are flashy and satisfying to pull off against multiple baddies, Mirror of Fate puts too much emphasis on dodging incoming attacks. This wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that your dodge abilities feel finicky, and incoming blockable attacks are nearly impossible to discern from a distant vantage point. Further, the platforming physics feel stiff and heavy, and there are a plethora of levels littered with instant-death pitfalls that punish any errant jump. Mirror of Fate also treats quick-time events like they’re a hip new thing in gaming, forcing them into mechanics in an oftentimes groan-worthy fashion.
For all the risks Mirror of Fate takes in terms of story and aesthetic, its core gameplay feels mired in antiquated design that just doesn’t feel that relevant anymore. This castle may look elaborate and multilayered, but the foundations it rests on are shaky. What could’ve been an entirely new avenue for the franchise feels more like a dead end.