Mercury Steam injected new life into the "Castlevania" series with its first foray, "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow," which turned into the most successful entry in the series. The game seemed to answer the problem that plagued the franchise: How do you bring the series into the world of polygons?
They solved it by creating a game that played like "God of War" but with a twist. The protagonist, Gabriel Belmont, absorbed an old evil and became Dracula. The ending was shocking, like finding out Darth Vader was Luke's father. For an encore, the same team went to work on a follow-up on the Nintendo 3DS.
But the team took a different approach this time around. They looked to the classic "Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse" for inspiration. The result is "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- Mirror of Fate," a 2-D side-scrolling adventure that mirrors the best of the old-school games.
Structurally, it's built in the "Metroid" mold. Players take on the roles of Simon Belmont, Alucard and Trevor Belmont. Across three acts, they explore Dracula's castle, gaining new abilities and unlocking paths that were previously locked away. It's a formula that's been done to death by the series, but "Mirror of Fate" revamps it by having an unconventional plot that players can follow. It's layered, like the level design, and compelling enough to keep fans going until the final fight.
As players finish each act, they uncover more of the mystery behind this strange family saga and delve into the characters' motivations. Each act offers a different perspective based on one of the heroes, and they intertwine elegantly until the final conclusion with Trevor.
The other major improvement is the combat, which borrows a lot from "Lords of Shadow." It's more combo driven and complex, as players have to block attacks, roll underneath others and jump over telegraphed ones. They can even juggle enemies in the air. It's a system that rewards skill and the ability to read attacks.
Although it's a fresh take on the "Castlevania" formula, "Mirror of Fate" feels too guided at times. Because players always know where to go, there's not that feeling of discovery. They traipse through zone after zone with few surprises. The visuals also aren't as striking as they could have been. The 3-D definitely pops, but the art doesn't grab you.
Despite that, "Mirror of Fate" is a solid effort and continues the trend of refreshing approaches to the franchise.
THE THIRD TIME'S A CHARM? If gamers want to see a next-gen game now, the title that comes closest to those lofty visual promises is "Crysis 3" on the PC. Crytek's third entry into the saga of Prophet, a nanosuit-wearing warrior, puts players in a New York that has been cordoned off from the rest of the world.
Under the shielded dome, nature has taken over and created a new kind of urban jungle, one where trees have destroyed dilapidated buildings. Swamps have filled the streets of Chinatown, and tallgrass has taken over the rail yard. In this environment, Prophet, with a new bow and arrow, will have to hunt both the aliens called Ceph and Cell corporation mercenaries.
The game has traded more linear environments for wide-open ones and streamlined the controls. The move rewards players who prefer planning and the strategy of stealth to the quick-twitch gameplay of the run and gun, but "Crysis 3" can still accommodate both styles.
But for all its gorgeous visuals (and trust me, this is the prettiest game you'll likely see all year), the plot and level design is uninspiring. And that's a shame, given the sheer artistry involved with the graphics.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360