"Where is the stupid Combat Cross" I asked for the tenth time about a two-thirds of the way through my recent hands-on play session with "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate," MecurySteam's bridging chapter between their first and upcoming second "Lords of Shadow" games. Everywhere I looked, there's be a glowing hook, just out of reach and a reminder that I'd need to revisit later, possibly another location where Simon Belmont might be able to better outfit himself against the horrors of the night spawned by Dracula.
MercurySteam was teasing the next ability for my character a little too heavily, and I was nearing the end of my patience with this 2.5D platformer inspired by the 16 and 8-bit "Castlevanias" past. But then I encountered the first boss battle, and "Mirror of Fate" had me hooked.
If you go into "Mirror of Fate" expecting a "Symphony of the Night" redux, you're going to be disappointed. While the platformer offers some degree of exploration (complete with teleport pads about two hours into the campaign), focused instead on doge and block combat with the two-button attack system, buffed up by quick finisher moves, a 2D companion to its recent console predecessor. The story will tell Simon's story (and later Alucard's), while bringing the player straight up to the console sequel.
Hero Simon Belmont, grandson to "Lords of Shadow" doomed hero Gabriel, has himself become a monster hunter in service of the Brotherhood, unaware of his connection to the monster responsible for the undead and demonic creatures which haunt the woods and countryside. Our hero (well, heroes') story is told through both 3D cutscenes as well as 2D sequences, the opening revealing how the Brotherhood concealed Simon's father, Trevor, and his mother from the the cursed Gabriel (sticklers for "Castlevania" lore should just settle down now--MercurySteam is dealing with their own fiction for the series).
In my two hour preview, that meant a brisk trip through the interior of a crumbling castle, through its underground complex of caves stalked by zombies to the kitchen where the hunchbacks dwell. It's likely the the little bit of the map I saw in my time with the game is really only a small fraction, but thankfully, a minimap has been added to the menu as well as the option to mark a limited number of locations along with notes for points of interest (for instance, those swing points for the Combat Cross).
Simon's area (X button) and direct (Y button) attacks can be chained into combos, upgraded as the character levels up, although the developer has done away with a skill tree here, opting instead to simply populate the list of new abilities as the character progresses. Now your mileage may vary in terms of how you feel about not having points to spend on new abilities, although my preference has always been to have that tangible feedback from the game: "here are some points, go forth and improve your character."
In a lot of ways, even handled in 2D, "Mirror of Fate" will feel familiar to fans of "Lords of Shadow," with health and magic-replenishing fonts littered throughout the map, along with ubiquitous chests requiring you to hammer the B button to get at the goodies inside, and bosses require you to do the little QTE finger dance to finish them off.
Incorporating the dodge move in theory adds more to the combat strategy beyond striking and ducking, but while the block is a handy method for dealing with straight on attacks, the small wind-up necessary to execute the dodge roll means that there are cases where you might find yourself cornered and unable to avoid and unblockable attack from a merman. Going back to that first boss encounter--featuring a staff-wielding snake man--that the combat really starts to feel natural. No longer crowded by enemies and able to dodge and move away from his occasionally screen-filling attacks, I was able to get a sense of what MercurySteam was going for with the design of "Mirror of Fate," something that took a little while to become clear in the lengthy "Lords of Shadow."
That's where collectible spirits come in. My first, the spirit of Belnades, provided an auto-block that expended some of my store of magic any time an enemy hit this mystical shield. Equipping spirits, even in this limited experience, opened up some puzzle possibilities in my early quest, in particular allowing Simon to pass through showers of toxic sludge.
According to the Konami press materials, what I saw represented only a tenth of the overall campaign. While it took a while for the combat to start feeling fluid, the abilities and limited exploration allowed the experience to gel. What will be interesting is digging into the game beyond the two hour mark to find out if the beginning is really focused or if the overall experience is simply limited.
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