Mirror's Edge: Catalyst

The first-person perspective has a great deal of potential for truly immersing the player in an experience.  Many games use this advantage for greater impact with horrific imagery, more excitement in set pieces, and a sense of involvement in puzzles.  Few, however, have opted for the first-person perspective in platforming games.  The reasons are obvious:  Distance is difficult to judge and positioning cannot be determined accurately.  The original Mirror’s Edge was something of a failed project due to it being a first-person game with a parkour theme, a genre many were reluctant to jump into; however, the absence of anything like it in the industry also made it unique and memorable.  Despite a lukewarm response, it was a concept that deserved to be used again.  Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is an attempt to reboot the series – or rather, a single game – and it’s an earnest attempt to correct the established faults while accentuating its unique strengths, even if it doesn't entirely succeed in doing so.

The story of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is similar to the original.  You play as Faith, a Runner who specializes in delivery jobs while avoiding the police in a dystopian city.  While the original game failed to establish what made the government bad and the Runners good, Catalyst more neatly spells out the ethical merits of each faction, as well as the content of the deliveries Faith makes throughout the game.  In accomplishing this, there is far more characterization for Faith and her appropriately-named companions such as Icarus and Birdman – the latter of which must have slept in the day they were selecting cool aliases.  It was refreshing to see a cast of characters that were so intriguing in a game like this and the story uses them well.  It’s unfortunate that what starts as a moral grey area for the characters’ motivations becomes black and white as the story progresses.  It isn’t long before the big evil corporation becomes cartoonish in its intentions and the violent resistance doesn't even hide its terrorist inclinations.

Graphically, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst uses an appealing art style but has very rough textures.  As is typical of the industry, the promotional videos do not reflect the actual game, but it is particularly noticeable here.  There are prevalent graphical glitches, particularly on reflective surfaces.  There is an occasional heavy pixilation on the environment that stutters during movement and is particularly distracting for a game in which mobility is its core selling point.  Thankfully, the sound design is handled well.  While this mostly exists in the forms of grunts and squeaky shoes, those are really all that are needed to make the game feel more realistic and involved.   The new main theme also fits the tone of the game very well.

Like many modern games, Mirror’s Edge:Catalyst uses open-world level design that grants more freedom for traversing the environment.  This setup fails more often than it succeeds. People are clearly working throughout the city, and there is the occasional citizen that requests your services.  It gives a more organic feeling to the world, but it still doesn’t make it feel like it’s truly lived in.  Generic workers are still rather sparse, and they’re always located behind glass or other inaccessible areas.  They add to the visual of the world, but do absolutely nothing in practice.  The city itself offers a number of ways to traverse, but the freedom is ultimately limited because there are only so many ways you can design pathways that exist almost exclusively on rooftops.  Before long, traveling from one objective to the other becomes tedious.  Knowing this, Catalyst offers a system of fast travel between safe houses, but this presents its own problems.  Is the game which is focused exclusively on running encouraging me to teleport instead?  Like its predecessor, Catalyst sells itself on running, momentum and that intangible sense of flow as Faith jumps and slides around obstacles.  The simple act of running needs to be fun, but because the open-world forces so much running in low-stress situations, the process eventually becomes formulaic.  The open world makes the core gameplay monotonous and fast travel works as a bandage.  I must question the purpose of a design choice which adds no real positives and requires additional mechanics to alleviate the negatives.  There are collectibles, but there’s no sense of exploration when you’re working with nothing but rooftops.  There are optional challenge runs, but these could have existed in an entirely different mode with no gameplay slog between them.  The best sections of the game are the linear story moments, but there are simply not enough of them.  Catalyst shoots itself in the foot by making an open world for its own sake without considering whether or not it actually improved the experience.

From a mechanical perspective, the running is solid.  Aside from the occasional mistaken wall run or climb, the environment facilitates Faith doing what you want her to do.  It’s a satisfying mechanic, because you always want to move just a little bit faster.  What starts as basic vaults and slides becomes more involved as time progresses.  Eventually, saving even a fraction of a second with every maneuver becomes important, whether it’s incorporating more wall runs and quick turns, or tucking in your legs when vaulting objects.  Everything about the game improves when you discover the ways to do things just a little bit faster than before.  While the inclusion of a grappling hook sounds like it would make running obsolete, it’s only usable in particular areas in order to swing across or scale buildings.  It’s an excellent feature, because it complements the running but doesn't overshadow it.  Like the grappling hook, the other new traversal mechanics help keep up momentum and the game understands the importance of this.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the Focus Shield, which allows Faith to “dodge” bullets as long as she continues to run, jump and slide.  In essence, it is quite literally a shield that stops bullets, but the in-universe justification of dodging simply exists as a reward for using the game’s core mechanics properly.  If you’re stumbling over hurdles and running into walls, the game is going to actively punish you for it by making the gun-wielding enemies much more dangerous.  A strong performance in the running department is ultimately what makes the combat easier to deal with when Faith is forced to run past or fight enemies.

While the combat itself is simplistic, there is a very satisfying flow to it.  Repeatedly pressing the light attack button allows Faith to knock around enemies and perform finishing moves.  There’s absolutely no depth, but it has a cinematic quality to it.  Attacks can also be done at sprinting speed to simply knock enemies aside, preserving your momentum and keeping with the theme of constant movement.  Heavy attacks can be used with the analog stick in various directions to knock enemies into objects or each other.  It works well in practice and is certainly intuitive; however, these attacks are simply unsatisfying to look at.  There’s no sense of momentum and enemies flail around like bad infomercial actors.  Knocking people off ledges is especially unappealing because of how slow and deliberate it looks.  While this would be a minor complaint in a game with excellent combat depth, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst sells itself on flow and visual appeal, so this is a particularly noticeable black mark against it.

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is an admirable attempt to make a niche concept work.  Unfortunately, it so intently focuses on avoiding the pitfalls of the previous game that it stumbles into a hole of its own.  This reboot doesn’t feel like a second attempt at making the formula work, but rather an alternate game that runs parallel to the original.  Ultimately, Catalyst offers something that no other game does, but like its predecessor, it feels like it could have been much more.