Castlevania is one of the longest running franchises in gaming, has shown it's face across several console generations and has undergone several ups and downs over the decades. A couple years back, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow released as the first (mostly) successful 3D adventure in the Castlevania universe. With an entirely different approach to gameplay, it divided fans but found a happy place in the middle for everyone to agree upon. Mirror of Fate tries to take those new design concepts and marry them with the classic 2D-sidescrolling longtime fans of the series have come to love - but does it even work? Well, it's not broken really, but I wouldn't call it a success either.
At the very beginning of the game, you'll see that the entire plot and premise creates issues immediately. The story bounces between different time periods over the course of the game, exploring how different Belmont's stories unfold over the course of their lives in their quests to take out Dracula. On face, it's an interesting story, just like any Castlevania game, but it all comes down to the execution. The game is split into three acts, having you control a different character for each act. However, without much character development over the course of your time with that character, it loses the purpose. It ends up feeling like three short micro-games loosely strung together, as opposed to a fully realized game.
Each character has facets and abilities that make them "unique," but their abilities end up being so context-sensitive that it doesn't innovate gameplay at all. Which is where the root of the problem lies: Mirror of Fate has a major identity crisis. It desparately wants to have the same exhilarating combat that it's 3D brother has, but also wants to fit within the confines of a "classic Castlevania experience." Instead of being able to appropriately combine the two approaches, the game instead falls short and is really just a watered down shadow of what it could have been (pun intended.)
For example, getting surrounded by enemies and having to dodge, block and maneuver your surroundings is what makes combat in 3D action games so exciting. When you try to take that combo-driven button-mashing and force it into a 2D scenario, you lose the parts that make it fun. Now, enemies can only approach from those limited directions and combat is little more than blindly flailing your whip around until things die.
They try to mix things up with some light-platforming segments, but even these suffer the same fate. The jumping animation and speed feels far too floaty and lacks the precision needed for compelling platform sequences. Every wall and surface is highlighted in a bright white accent to dictate the exact path you're supposed to take. Instead of offering challenging and creative platforming scenarios like most "Metroidvania" games, they function as little more than short breaks between the cumbersome button-mashing bouts of combat. Furthermore, the game lacks any real exploration elements that have been trademarks of the series for years. While you can back-track to old areas with new abilities and reach hidden spots, there is nothing worthwhile waiting to be found.
What makes the experience all the more frustrating, is the fact that clearly a lot of work and love went into the game. It's one of the best looking games in the entire 3DS library to date with some of the most visually striking cel-shaded style cutscenes you'll ever see. If your eyes can take it, I recommend playing as much as possible with the 3D slider turned "on" as it looks fantastic. Gameplay detail is much lower and an entirely different style, but still nice to look at. You'll find chicken after killing enemies for health, hearts refill ammo and other various references to the series' past. Using the whip and throwing axes is iconic, but it just doesn't feel as satisfying as it should.
The score is pretty good and is actually one of the main highlights of the game. Listening to the music as you travel through the various areas of Dracula's infamous castle, battling monsters and enemies and listening to the dialogue in cutscenes sets the mood fairly well. However, the voice accents don't really match the characters or setting at all and none of their mouths are synched to the dialogue. It's a little jarring to sit there looking at a character with his mouth wide-open as he speaks several lines in a cutscene - it's 2013 after all at least animate the mouth movements if you're fully animating cutscenes!
Mirror of Fate is not the perfect union of Castlevania gameplay styles and is far from the joyful return to Dracula's castle that you want. Instead, it's a below average and uninspiring 3D action adventure game with one of it's dimensions missing, along with most of the innovation. It sounds good, is pretty to look at and does contain a passable amount of fun for the diehard fans, but in the end it just ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.
This review was based on review copy of the game for the Nintendo 3DS provided by Konami.