Going by the first few hours of Castlevania alone, we're surprised the series isn't a lot more popular amongst the fairer sex. Mixing the vampires of Twilight together with more whips than 50 Shades of Grey, on paper, Castlevania seems to tick all the right boxes - but its real appeal lies elsewhere.
Along with being the current holder of the award for the longest game name on the 3DS, Castlevania: Lords of Shadows - Mirror of Fate is a side-scrolling, platformer-come-adventure game that's set in the wonderfully Gothic confines of Dracula's castle. With a somewhat confusing story forming the background for your adventure, telling the tale of the Belmont family, a man called Alucard, and their attempt to defeat Dracula, if you're new to the series, the chances are you may feel a bit lost when you first start playing - but then getting lost has always been an important part of the Castlevania series, although perhaps not as you may think.
Instead, Castlevania plays out much like you'd imagine a 2D Tomb Raider would work, with a focus on exploration, platforming and collectables, tied together with the odd rather good puzzle. With a handy map on the bottom screen that flags up anything of interest (mostly collectibles) on your journey through the castle, you'll likely spend a lot of your time figuring out quite how you're meant to reach some mysterious question mark on the map that you can see, but can't actually get to. Whether you're leaping up ladders, swinging like Tarzan from the handily placed (and purple glowing) hooks in the ceiling using your trusty whip, or navigating vast, underwater tunnels, figuring out how to actually get to your destination is half the fun.
But sometimes, you'll find a place you really can't get to. Thankfully, the game's usually pretty blatant about this, telling you you need a different power, rather than letting you try everything you can think of to unlock a door, and the ability to make notes on the map on the Touch Screen means you don't risk forgetting where you saw that last collectible. But much like in the LEGO games, backtracking is a large part of Castlevania. As you make your way through the story, and head further into the inner sanctums of the castle, you'll regularly gain new powers that allow you to access areas you couldn't before. Whether it's the ability to temporarily turn into mist to pass through a door, or a special magic power that lets you open a certain type of lock, the further you get through the game, the more abilities you'll earn, and the more you'll want to go back and hunt out the last few secrets in the earlier sections of the castle - especially as most of them contain upgrades, either increasing your health, your magic, or the number of items you can carry.
While it could be argued that the backtracking is just a cheap way of making the game last longer, in Castlevania: Mirror of Fate, the whole system seems to work pretty well, adding to the already strong emphasis on exploration. What works less well, however, is the combat. Considering you're exploring a place as creepy as Dracula's castle, you could expect to come up against a little bit of resistance, but the enemies in Mirror of Fate are far, far too tough. With the ability to kill you in five or so hits, you feel less like a fearless vampire killer and more like a weak mortal who just happened to take a wrong turn, with even the game's countless health upgrades struggling to keep you alive for that much longer. Whether it's the countless enemy attack that you simply can't block (although you can dodge them, if you're quick enough), the bosses your whip barely scratches, or the increasingly tough enemies that can simply block your every move, yet kill you in a handful of hits, the enemies in Castlevania really know how to make your life a misery.
Particularly frustrating are the sections where the enemies seem to have been strategically placed to be as annoying as is humanly (or in this case, inhumanly) possible. One such section sees you in a cable car, which you have to wind across a vast chasm. Easy enough, you may think - but then the game sends two bat-like enemies in to kill you. As you're crawling along at a tiny rate of knots, and the enemies can fire projectiles at you which do a fair amount of damage, you're left with no choice but to attempt to fend them off - but as the enemies are flying, that's easier said than done. What it boils down to is you having to let go of the handle in the car, leap into the air, attempt to hit the enemy, and land again in the tiny cart before it can hit you - because if it does, it'll knock you just enough that you'll miss the cable car on your way down, and fall to your doom. Equally annoying are the sections that see you having to repeatedly pull a handle to open a door, while under attack by several zombies. While there is a power you get later on that conjures a spirit that fires at enemies for you, the first time you come across a section like this, you won't have unlocked it, which makes for a remarkably frustrating experience.
Even more bizarre is the fact that while there is a difficulty level, the game simply chooses not to tell you about it. Hidden away in the settings menu, the game doesn't let you choose a difficulty before you set off, and does nothing to let you know it's even there, instead letting you grind your teeth in frustration at the stupidly tough enemies on what you believe is the only difficulty setting there is. While turning the difficulty down does help a bit, it doesn't make Castlevania quite as easy as it should. Boss fights are still rather challenging, and it seems to make very little sense that only at the very end of the game do you acquire a power to regain your health when you hit an enemy. Surely this should have been one of the powers you got from the start?
It doesn't help that we've encountered several glitches that have forced us to go back to the last checkpoint, either. Once, in a boss fight, the game went into a quick time event, and flashed up on the screen that we had to press Y. We did, at which point the boss promptly disappeared through the floor. Unfortunately for us, this left us in a locked room, with a boss that the game thought was still alive, but that was nowhere to be seen. At another point in the game, we jumped on top of an air vent, which blew us into the sky (as it should) where we became wedged next to a platform and a rock - again, the only way out was to restart from the last checkpoint, losing us a fair deal of progress.
But while the glitches are fairly few and far between, it's the difficulty that really lets Castlevania down. While the exploration is great, and some of the puzzles you come across are really quite impressive, involving shifting giant orbs around in order to reflect a laser, or shuffling blocks using a giant mechanical contraption, the combat, and the bosses are hard enough that they make the game almost as frustrating as it is fun. Perhaps it's even easy to see why the developers decided to make their game so hard - the Castlevania games have always been known for their difficulty, but making things just that little bit simpler would help open Castlevania to that many more people. As it stands, if you can beat your way past the more frustrating enemies, there's an entertaining platform/adventure game waiting to be found - it's just a shame it can be so annoying.