Eight months ago Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow - Mirror Of Fate left us a little underwhelmed. The series' first 3DS entry looked bland, lacked the traditional Castlevania feel and the new combo-based fighting system proved clunky and difficult.
Getting our hands on a newer version last week showed just how much progress has been made since that initial disappointment, and fans previously concerned should have the handheld revamp's March 8 release date (March 5 in the US) firmly locked in their heads.
As the needlessly lengthy title suggests, Mirror Of Fate is based on the fantastic Castlevania reboot Lords Of Shadow. With the prologue set 25 years on from the events of that game, the opening cut-scene - an interesting mixture of in-game characters and an almost cel-shaded illustration style - sees Gabriel Belmont heading off to the old Bernhard castle.
Along the way he fights with some demons, grabbing their tongues and ramming a crucifix into their necks, then kills another one by using a wound on his arm to splash a cross onto the ground with his own blood. All within the first ten minutes - the 8-bit days of Nintendo banning religious imagery are certainly long gone.
Trev & Simon
After this prologue, which is essentially the tutorial, the game then fast-forwards and explains how Gabriel's wife gave birth to Trevor while he was away, then Trevor's wife gave birth to Simon while he was off investigating the castle. It's a bit Eastenders, but it all makes sense when it's explained in the game.
Over the course of Mirror Of Fate you'll play as Simon, Trevor and Gabriel but the section we played from the start of the game was a strictly Simon-only affair. What quickly becomes apparent early on is how Mirror Of Fate somehow manages to feel very different to previous handheld Castlevania adventures, while nodding to much of the series' lineage.
The visuals mark the first serious diversion from handheld 'Vanias past. The last six games on DS and GBA have all featured similar sprite-based characters and backgrounds, each more increasingly detailed than the last, with massive boss characters and gorgeous animation. That's all been scrapped here with a change to polygonal graphics, and while fans may be concerned we assure it looks fantastic in motion.
It's also one of those 3DS games that does genuinely benefit from the 3D effect, meaning you'll want to flip the 3D slider up for the full show.
When you do, the castle feels grander than it ever has. A theatre section has rows of seats stretching off into the background, gaps in the walls of underground caverns reveal vast tombs in the distance, and grand halls feel enormous as you run down them.
It feels as if Konami has taken the console version of Lords Of Shadow and simply moved the camera round to a side-on viewpoint. That's not the only aspect that seems to have been carried over from Lords Of Shadow, the combat has too. Gone are the usual 'swipe, duck or dodge, repeat' combat mechanics of the GBA and DS games, replaced with a combo-based system that feels far more like that in the console game.
You're armed with two basic attacks - the direct attack (Y button) is your typical 'Vania whip crack, causing whoever's in front of you to feel the force of a thousand wet towels. Meanwhile, the area attack (X button) sees you swinging your whip with a wider arc, doing less damage but also hitting enemies above and behind you.
Players can also perform a fatal death blow by pressing R when foes are nearly dead and glowing. These differ for each enemy and are suitably grim.
Each attack also has a basic four-hit combo and that's about all you have when the game begins. Naturally, players then have the ability to level up and learn new skills and combos - some early additions include the ability to jump and slam your whip down to the ground, and another move that flicks opponents into the air to enable air combos.
Everything feels suitably smooth and speedy, and before long you'll be enjoying duffing up skeletons far too much to worry about the change from the previous combat system. Purists might still balk at the changes, but there's no denying this new system requires players to go on the offensive more often and as such makes for more fluid battles.