When it comes to hunting vampires, the Belmont clan is the best in the business. And when it comes to the greatest Castlevania game with a Belmont in the starring role, there are none better than 1990s' Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse--at least according to Dave Cox, producer of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate for the 3DS.
"We wanted to create a game that felt almost like a sequel to Dracula's Curse, as if there'd never been a Castlevania game since that," Cox says. "We didn't want to specifically make a 'Metroidvania' because we felt that would be copying what had been done before. We wanted to go back to the classic games and build on that."
Based on our playthrough of Mirror of Fate's opening hour, the developers at MercurySteam certainly seem to be on track. The 2.5D gameplay takes a refreshing back to the basics approach, with a heavy focus on combat, platforming, and branching pathways as you explore Dracula's castle. It's also astonishingly pretty. The character sprites and animations are gorgeous on the 3DS' screen, and story-advancing cut-scenes occur in a bright, stylish motion comic form.
According to Cox, one of the biggest inspirations drawn from Dracula's Curse was the idea of multiple characters. In Mirror of Fate, you'll slay all sorts of bloodthirsty fiends as Simon and Trevor Belmont, as well as Alucard and one yet-unnamed character. While the whole game takes place in Dracula's humongous castle (seriously, who needs that much space?), each character will have a unique route through various portions of it; very rarely will those routes intersect.
We got to play as the barbaric, whip-wielding Simon during our demo, who relies on strength and magic to lash vampires into bits. Combat in Mirror of Fate is essentially a simplified variation of the combo-centric battles introduced in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Simon started off with a few basic light and heavy attacks, which could be performed from both the ground and air. Some fights, especially an encounter with a creepy boss that could summon demonic wolves, forced us to learn the ins and outs of parrying and dodging. You'll have to rely on more than button mashing if you hope to survive.
As you defeat enemies, you'll gain experience orbs--the better you perform in battle, the more you obtain. Only by leveling up can you learn stronger combos. But you won't rely on whips alone. As per Castlevania tradition, you'll encounter a variety of secondary weapons that'll help you take down enemies with ease, including throwing axes, holy water, and more. Magic, too, will bolster your chances of survival. As Simon, we freed the spirit of Belnades, acquiring its aid as a spell. While active, Belnades would automatically block incoming attacks, with each successful block draining a bit of our magic meter. What's more, using his blocking ability allowed us to access previously unreachable parts of the map.
Platforming-based exploration plays a major role in the game. The 3DS bottom screen acts as a map while you traverse Dracula's Castle, and you can use it to drop customized notes whenever you find secret doors or passageways that you can't yet access. This is done by dragging a note symbol from the upper corner of the bottom screen to any room displayed on the map. Releasing the stylus prompts a text screen, where you can write a brief description of what you've found. This became invaluable during our play session, as many collectibles were unreachable until we got our mitts on the Combat Cross, which acted as a grappling hook of sorts. With it, we traveled back through rooms we'd already explored to reach health and magic meter increasing chests, and scroll collectibles for XP bonuses.
For all its shiny new combo attacks, fancy magic spells, and secret-ridden corridors, Mirror of Fate is surprisingly grounded in its roots. It seems to be a fresh translation of a classic franchise for a modern audience, one that's comfortable experimenting while retaining so many of the things that longtime fans love so dearly. As for whether or not it ends up being the sequel that never was to Dracula's Curse, we'll find out soon enough.