Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A vampire hunter walks into a castle to kill Dracula. It’s the tried-and-true plot of most Castlevania games, particularly the handheld ones that follow in the daunting, accomplished shadow of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But even a good story—and this is not one—buckles under such constant retelling, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate is split across three such narratives, with each act repeating the events of the previous one. Worse, while Simon and Alucard at least cross paths (similar to the parallel scenarios in Resident Evil 6), the game’s final levels are a flashback to 30 years earlier, at which point there isn’t a single surprise in sight.
The result feels as if it’s just crawled out of a coffin. The backgrounds are too often washed out, desiccated corridors and caverns (the aptly titled Forgotten Caves and Abandoned Mines) that waste the visual effects of the 3DS. Most areas don’t feel unique or distinct: The Kitchen and Cells might be mistaken for one another, if not for a few obvious signifers in the background (a cauldron, a prison door). The few areas that positively stand out, like the trophy-filled Game Room or Terrace, are often tiny maps, whereas one-hit-kill areas, like the Vertical Prison or electricity filled Toy Maker’s Workshop, are frustrating to navigate through and seemingly without end. It doesn’t help that both you and your foes move stiffly, especially when attempting to switch between combo attacks—and the music is bad enough to wish you had cobwebs in your ears. Only a few late-game scenarios (a Belfry escape, the complex mechanisms of the Clock Tower) and well-scripted boss fights (the Necromancer’s spiraling force-fields, the Resurrected Daemon Lord’s mechanical surprises) actually get the blood pumping.
Despite being a direct sequel to Lords of Shadow (from the same developers), Mirror of Fate is a step back. This handheld release is more of a pupu platter of possibilities than a full meal, one that’s meant to tide hardcore fans over until the next console release with some too-familiar gameplay and the tidying up of the retconned mythology. (If Gabriel Belmont is now Dracula, who does that make Alucard?) As a chimeric experiment, in which MercurySteam fiddles around with new box-pulling puzzles and speed-enhancing gadgets, Mirror of Fate is a forgivable mess; as a compelling game, it’s a constant disappointment. There isn’t even a sense of exploration in this linear, redundant adventure, as secrets aren’t hidden so much as just out of reach until you’ve received newer tools. (The only thing the touch screen is used for, in fact, is to drag notes onto the mini-map, as if this were Etrian Odyssey.) Backtracking is padding, not content.
Simply too much of the modern Castlevania experience has been minimized for this release. For instance, your arsenal is limited to one weapon, two binary magic spells (one heals you, while the other deals extra damage), and two sub-weapons (one for groups and one for single foes). Although there are 18 moves listed in the menu (one for each level), many of them are simply upgraded versions of an earlier attack, and though there are three difficulty settings (a hardcore mode is unlocked upon completion of the game), you’ll realistically only need two or three overpowered skills. It’s harder to complain about the simplistic story: Considering how bad the voice acting is, how out of place the cel shading is within these cut scenes, and how the best character is a silent one, it’s probably for the best that there’s less than a half-hour of it. It’s far from a broken mirror, but Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate feels like a mere reflection of the game it ought to be.