About five minutes into my interview with Castlevania producer David Cox I thought he had given me loads of exciting details about Lords of Shadow 2. It'll be set an open castle. You'll play as four characters. You'll be able to take notes using your stylus. Wait a minute... That doesn't sound right.
"Are we talking about Mirror of Fate or Lords of Shadow 2?" I ask.
"Mirror of Fate."
"So was any of this about Lords of Shadow 2?"
"No. With Lords of Shadow 2 there's not much we can really say right now."
I later go back and listen to my recording. I had begun that line of questioning with "Lords of Shadow 2," yet he heard "Mirror of Fate." The mix-up's simple enough to explain, though; numerology aside, Mirror of Fate is the sequel to 2010's Lords of Shadow.
This might seem like a subtle detail, but it's an important one. The Lords of Shadow series was planned from the beginning as a trilogy. "We set out to make a game about Dracula," Cox explains. "That's really where we're coming from. The first Lords of Shadow is where Dracula begins, and Lords of Shadow 2 is the end of the saga.
"Mirror of Fate is just as important because Mirror of Fate is tackling the question of 'Why is it the Belmonts have to go up against Dracula. Why is it them in particular? What's their story? Their connection with Dracula?' So I see it as very important to the trilogy."
This long-term plan for the series explains why much of Lords of Shadow took place in brightly lit outdoor environments. "We wanted to show Gabriel Belmont in his world. And we wanted to show the events that lead him to a castle," says studio head Enric Alvarez. "That's why the first half of Lords of Shadow was so bright and so colourful. We wanted deliberately to show how the world was before Dracula. So if you don't know that we planned to turn Gabriel into Dracula, then perhaps it doesn't make sense."
Despite its lack of castles or even vanias in its first half, Lords of Shadow was a pretty dark game already, filled with plenty of vicious vampire bats, tales of torture, and a grim denouement. Yet, Alvarez claims that both Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2 will be darker still.
Now that Lords of Shadow has told the origins of Dracula, Mirror of Fate will stick to more traditional Castlevania elements. For starters, it will all take place in one large castle. "We've improved and bolstered the exploration aspect of the game," says Cox, though he's quick to point out that this isn't a "Metroidvania" game. By his definition, Metroidvania games start off hard and get progressively easier as you gain more powers, but Mirror of Fate will start off easy and get harder.
"There won't be any RPG elements in it," Cox notes. Instead, it will be an open castle that you're free to explore at your own pace. The only thing stopping you from going anywhere is that certain characters will have special abilities that allow you to access new parts of the castle. You'll play as four characters in a set order, though this won't necessarily be chronological.
One advantage of the game being on 3DS is that you'll be able to use the touch screen to take notes on the map. You may come across an area that's inaccessible with Simon, but you can jot down a note to come back later with the double-jumping Trevor.
Despite this return to open world exploration, Cox insists that Mirror of Fate is "an action game first and foremost." The combat system will be more akin to Lords of Shadow than previous 2D Castlevanias, with a host of combo attacks, magic, upgradable moves, parries, and sub-weapons adapted to the new perspective.
"Our audience who bought that game [Lords of Shadow] tell us they liked the combat aspect of it," Cox says. "They liked the strategic element of the combat; unique combat skills, secondary weapons, the light and shadow magic and all that kind of stuff. So what we wanted to do was take that feature and shrink it down and put it into the 3DS game."
As a big proponent of Lords of Shadow, I find the demo's combat curiously lacking. Ostensibly the demo encapsulates the game's opening 15 minutes where Trevor arrives at Dracula's castle, so I only have the most basic moves, with only one boomerang-like subweapon resembling the tri-bladed glaive from Dark Sector. Controls feel tight and responsive, but the problem is that even the lowliest skeleton grunts take upwards of six or seven lashes to defeat. This was fine in a complex 3D hack-and-slash, but the limited 2D plane suggests a faster pace, and transplanting the same fighting system onto it feels slightly off.
Though my brief excursion into 2.5D demon slaying is a bit disappointing, my opinion is liable to change as new skills, characters, and skills are introduced. I recall being underwhelmed by Lords of Shadow when I first saw it at E3 2010; little did I know that it would wind up among my favourite games of the year.
So what's next for MercurySteam? Little is known about Lords of Shadow 2, though Cox confirms that it'll be more "open" then the first and you'll play as Dracula, while a PR rep explains its absence at E3 being due to it being over 18 months way.
After that MercurySteam will move on to something else. "We don't want to be making Castlevania game forever," says Cox. "We want to finish our story and we want to move on to something else. We made it very clear that when we finish Lords of Shadow 2 that's going to be the end of this trilogy. That's going to be the end of this saga."
Cox describes Mirror of Fate as "an amalgamation of the cool things about Lords of Shadow and some of the older features of the Castlevania games that people liked." Whether these two disparate renditions of Castlevania will merge well is anyone's guess, but in an E3 lacking in new IPs, it's good to see a long-running series getting some new blood on handhelds.