This time, exploration is yet again a different mix of what has been seen in the past. In a fashion not so dissimilar from Order of Ecclesia, the game is divided into large areas that are interconnected, but that are not divided into rooms anymore. Another way to describe it could be that simply, the game is made of rooms much larger than anything seen so far in the series, which all compose of Dracula's castle and its surroundings. These range from flooded caves to the nearby abandoned village, to every possible room that one would expect to find in a vampire's huge castle... and more. Variety sure isn't lacking, and what's formidable about this is that with the game being rendered in 2.5D, nothing ever seems to be reused over and over, like was the case with the tile-based 2D games, thus giving Dracula's home a much more realistic look. However, in making the game more artistically appealing and believable than any of its 2D predecessors, some of the weirder designs from the past that allowed for more complex structures had to be sacrificed, which means that, while still encountering places impossible to reach until picking up the necessary ability upgrade requiring backtracking later, this will not happen as frequently as it used to in past episodes. This, unfortunately, isn't made very obvious in the demo made available by Konami, which pretty much has players going from point A to point B all the time and didn't choose to show the best locations in the game to make it clear that the reduced amount of exploration isn't necessarily a sign of a lack of work, but rather a slight shift in focus to a more organically designed universe.
Another important element in connection with exploration, is the ability to add notes to the map. Indeed, the map lets players drag a note to it and type relatively long descriptions with a virtual keyboard on the touch screen. Found a place where you will need to go back to later with the right ability? Make a (detailed) note of it and place it at the location on the map! Clever and incredibly useful... once familiar with it, this functionality seems like it could and should have already existed in the Nintendo DS instalments. Granted, this 3DS episode only allows for two save files to be kept at all times, even in the digital version of the game that relies on the SD card to save data, which is weird. The map, however, doesn't always do a good job of showing the general shape of the different locations, which in a handful of situations comes across as a bit of a nuisance if you can't remember from the first visit exactly how the room is built.
The overall environment is quite large, too. Perhaps a bit larger than Order of Ecclesia, but not as much as the larger games like Symphony of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow. However, again, Mirror of Fate shows a much broader variety of things.
Speaking of what there is to see, graphics are incredibly well done. Few elements are reused throughout the game and the real-time graphics look awesome with the 3D effect turned on. After the successful use of 3D in Metal Gear Solid 3D, it seems like Konami knows how to make the stereoscopic 3D more than just a gimmick of the system, but rather an indispensable element of the experience.
However, just like in the aforementioned title, this comes once again at the cost of the frame-rate, which hovers between 20 and 30fps at all times, regardless of whether the 3D effect is on or not. Then, the cut-scenes mysteriously use a different, cel-shaded graphic style. While they look great in stereoscopic 3D, they clash a bit too much with the glorious realistic look of the main game. On top of that, lack of motion capture and lip syncing kind of deteriorate what would otherwise be the best story driven sequences in any portable Castlevania game to date. On the topic of the story, the game takes place after the first Lords of Shadow game and puts you in the shoes of Simon Belmont, Alucard and Trevor Belmont, in turns, as they attempt to defeat Dracula, whose true identity will be no secret to people who played the previous Lords of Shadow instalment.
Each character has their own set of powers to unlock, although some of them carry over from one to the other. Every one has two special secondary attacks to discover somewhere in the game as well as two super powers required to open access to new areas of the game world, limiting what can be explored at first in a similar way to past episodes, though not to the exact same extent. The trio share the same experience level and unlocked list of attacks. Indeed, this time around levelling up the characters won't improve their strength or health or anything, but will only unlock new movements for the player to perform in battle. The only way one can hope to overcome all of the obstacles in the game, especially boss battles, is to study what movements can be performed to most effectively cut away the enemy's health.
If this sounds like a big departure from the classic 2D Metroidvanias, this isn't entirely too different from the approach found in Order of Ecclesia, which also put emphasis on learning the patterns in the bosses' and enemies' move set to carefully dodge attacks. The difference this time is that players can also block certain attacks and stun the enemy to perform cool looking finishing moves on them, each unique to the character and enemy involved, where the camera comes close up to the action so none of the careful detail put into them is missed. However, in entirely throwing away the character build-up system and inventory from past instalments in order to bring it closer to classic NES and SNES episodes, this rids the game of the versatility and RPG side to it that fans have come to expect from the series in recent years.
Another aspect, however, that takes a greater importance this time is that of puzzle solving. Indeed, fiddling with switches and using different mechanisms to open new paths is more commonplace in this episode than ever before, except perhaps for the Nintendo 64 episodes (and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon to a lesser extent). This gives a nice flavour to the game more akin to something like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, except in 2D and minus the time rewind mechanic. Lastly, one thing that feels quite different from past instalments and comes across as a disappointment is the fairly small amount of different enemies. A bestiary of only 36 creatures, including a handful of coloured variations of the same one, feels much too small when compared to the massive roster of past games, especially Order of Ecclesia that managed to bring tons of new ones to the series.