At the heart of the latest Castlevania lies a compromise. Its predecessor, Lords Of Shadow, retconned the Castlevania storyline and turned it into a blistering 3D action game, while Mirror Of Fate aims to drag this new style into the series' traditional 2D aspect. It's a meeting of two distinct modes, not to mention two often disparate types of genre fan, who may well begrudge the encroachment of one style on the other. Things could get messy.
To bring you up to speed, Gabriel Belmont is something of a bastard. After being sent to put an end to the reign of the Lords of Shadow in the home console game, he somehow ends up as Dracula. As this game begins, we learn that Gabriel's wife gave birth to a son, Trevor, in his absence, who himself went missing after setting out to kill his now-nocturnal father. Trevor's own son, Simon, seeks to discover the truth of what happened, being stalked along the way by the mysterious vampire, Alucard.
Clear? No? Good, because this endlessly intertwining familial plot acts as the game's lifeblood, as much a way of facilitating constant action as it is narrative intrigue. You take control of each named character (Gabriel's section acts as a short, blistering tutorial prologue) in their own take on the story. This is where the brilliance of MercurySteam's design shows itself, as each take is a way of expanding and extending how you play, as well as what you see.
Gabriel serves to introduce the game's approach to combat, a pared down version of the intricacies of the home console game. Simon comes next, with an application of those abilities to a more traditional Castlevania exploration scenario, offering huge swathes of castle to explore and plunder. Alucard's section, which interweaves with Simon's, modifies how you looked at the preceding chapter, with room-wide puzzles and more outlandish exploration offered by his supernatural abilities.
Trevor's chapter, coming at the end, amps up the spectacle, accounting for any game fatigue you might have developed in the past eight or nine hours by including gigantic bosses, epic scenes and clever references to mysteries set up in the future sections you've already played.
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That final section reveals the game's greatest strength: pacing. Each character has separate abilities you earn as you progress, but everyone shares the same constantly building experience bar, comprising 18 levels. Each level offers you a new combat technique with the whip-like Combat Cross used by every character, and the XP builds quickly. In a game that takes around 12 hours to complete, we estimate we received a new ability every 40 minutes. It's a masterclass in keeping a player interested.
Then there are the various items, skills and spells each character earns separately. Befitting its classical style, Simon's section gives you new options only sparingly, meaning you discover new bits of castle throughout the chapter. Alucard, on the other hand, seems to get a new trick every second room (and in fantastic ways - biting a resurrected Daemon Lord as you plummet down what seems to be a giant garderobe chute enables you to sprout handy wings), meaning you're not bogged down in familiar areas for long.
If there is a negative to be taken from this juggernaut pacing, it's that it results in a game that, in its presentation and constant mapping, appears to promise a true Metroidvania-style experience, but slowly gives up on it as it seeks to ramp up the more exciting elements.