The opening half-hour of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is incredible. I loved it when I played the beta, and enjoyed revisiting it just as much when I sat down with the final game. It’s immersive, that first half-hour, it’s fluid, and, above all, it’s fun — a perfect introduction to Catalyst’s reimagining of the world of Mirror’s Edge. Faith might have been doing so in a very literal sense on-screen, but I felt like I was coming home, too, as I played. Faster, smoother, and a good deal easier on the eyes than its predecessor, that opening half-hour demonstrated exactly what I’d hoped to see from the follow-up to 2008’s Mirror’s Edge.
Thing is, though: it’s also the highlight of the game. There are bigger moments as the story goes on, moments with infinitely more spectacle than those opening minutes, but they come to feel like more of the same. The glimpse the opening provides into Catalyst’s world is excellent, but as you continue to play, as you start to look closer, it becomes clear that there are cracks in the City of Glass.
Though the sense of satisfaction gained from perfect execution is by no means lessened, the parkour that feels so fresh in the opening loses its lustre through constant, barely changing repetition. Attempts to introduce some variation to the traversal are made through upgrades to Faith’s MAGrope, but the use of said MAGrope is so limited — restricted to a relative handful of predetermined spots throughout the city — that those efforts ultimately come to nothing. Often, the thing simply won’t work, even at those predetermined spots, requiring the player to approach them head-on with no room whatsoever for spontaneity, all but destroying a sense of fluidity already compromised by the fact that Faith will repeatedly get stuck on various objects in the world, and occasionally jump off in random directions without the slightest regard for the player’s direction.
The combat that feels slick and enjoyable when taking on one or two enemies becomes confused, unmanageable chaos when confronted with a group of them, and the visuals that impress at first sight crumble with even the slightest scrutiny. It’s undeniable that there’s a certain simplistic beauty in the clean, bright aesthetic of Catalyst’s rooftop world, where bold statements of colour are often a sight to behold — and where you’ll spend 90% of your time with the game, despite there being a not inconsiderable subterranean labyrinth of grungy tunnels to explore — but the effect is marred by performance issues, profoundly dodgy textures and noticeable pop-in, which the game is never quick to rectify.
And then there’s how lifeless it all feels. You’ll often hear muffled voices emanating from inside various buildings you find yourself running across — people exclaiming that there’s someone on the roof, complaining about the pestilential Runners, families simply going about their lives — but you’ll never find Glass’s population to be anywhere near as animated when you actually see them.
The people of the city stand, mannequin-like, behind windows, barely moving, exhibiting only the slightest signs of life. They never react, never so much as glance in her direction, when Faith goes tearing past like a bat out of Hell right in front of their eyes, and the handful of people you’ll encounter on the rooftops themselves aren’t much different. They, too, stand as though rooted to the spot, perhaps offering a few words when they first notice Faith, trying to solicit her help, but doing little else afterwards. Only their eyes seem truly alive, following Faith’s movements as she darts around them, like those of some creepy painting that seem, no matter where you stand, to be staring right at you.
Catalyst’s story is similarly plagued by issues. After a promising opening, it quickly becomes clear that said story is little more than window dressing.
It’s achingly brief (six relatively short missions in, I was shocked to find myself 42% of the way through), characters seemingly important to Faith are introduced, only to never be heard from again, and those that do stick around are so soullessly stereotypical that they fast become as bland as the world they inhabit — the only likeable one among them killed off halfway through the story.
Icarus, Plastic, Dogen… you might be coming across these people for the first time in Catalyst, but you’ll have encountered so many variations of them in other stories that you feel as though you already know them. Even Faith herself is woefully inconsistent, getting fired up when the story calls for it, but otherwise doing little to make players care for her. Only as the game begins to draw to a close does she really start to command the player’s attention — but then Catalyst proceeds to follow in the footsteps of a disappointing number of recent games by robbing the player of any agency in the finale.
After a lengthy section of visually stunning but mechanically dull platforming, Faith’s ultimate confrontation with the game’s antagonist plays out a series of cutscenes leading to an ending so inconclusively anticlimactic that it seems to exist solely to pave the way for a sequel, and one that renders the finale, like the rest of the game, more of the same.
Outside the story path, there is an ostensibly huge amount of stuff to do throughout Glass. A glance at the icon-littered map can, at first sight, be somewhat overwhelming. Delivery missions, distraction opportunities, ranked dashes throughout the various districts — it goes by various names, this side content, but all boils down to being the exact same thing: punishingly-timed and increasingly repetitive runs throughout the world. Well, 90% of it, anyway. It would be unfair not to mention that I found the various gridNode hacks, extensive platforming-based puzzles — the completion of which allows fast travel to nearby Safe Houses — to be a breath of fresh air.
As for the rest of it, though… the best that can be said about it is that it gives the player ample opportunity to explore the a city littered with a pleasing amount of callbacks to the original game, the worst that it represents a serious lack of imagination on the part of the developers.
This obvious lack of variety calls the whole design of the game into question. What, you may ask, is the point of having such a vast open world when there is so comparatively little to fill it with? If you can look past the sheer repetitiveness of it all, then, yes, there’s certainly a lot to do around the map, but this is precisely what leads to some aspects of the game coming to feel so stale.
I can’t pretend that the completionist in me didn’t find some satisfaction in making my way around Glass, collecting everything there is to be collected, doing everything there is to do, checking these things off the list as I made my way towards 100%, but I also can’t pretend that I would’ve missed any of this if it were absent, either. As lacking as the tale they tell may be, Catalyst’s story missions represent the best, most satisfying parts of the game, and if they were presented one after the other, with no increasingly pointless filler in-between, then I think I might’ve come away from the game feeling a good deal more positive about the experience than I do.
I wanted to love Catalyst. I expected to love it. When I first played the beta, I felt justified in feeling that the developers had finally gotten it right. The gradual realisation that this wasn’t the case was crushingly, painfully disappointing. It’s a shame to remember that, when Catalyst was first announced, sans title, at E3 2013, the footage shown ended with the bold statement that the game would come when it was ready — because if there’s one, overarching statement to be made about Catalyst, it’s that it feels unfinished. Like its predecessor, it ultimately feels like proof of the concept rather than a full realisation of it, but unlike with Mirror’s Edge, that concept is no longer fresh enough to redeem it.
Catalyst is by no means an awful game — the parkour is often satisfying, even if it grows repetitive; the visuals are easy on the eyes, even if they don’t stand up to much scrutiny — it’s just deeply, profoundly mediocre. More of the same.
For all this negativity, though, Catalyst brings a clear positive to the table: its soundtrack. Warning Call is excellent, the thematic material derived from it equally so — and though the iconic Still Alive is, sadly, absent, its fingerprints are all over Solar Fields’s efforts here. Shades of it can be heard in what is, in my opinion, the best track on the album: The View District. To me, the first half of that track is incredible, the melody soothing, full of hope — hope for the future.
Because as underwhelmed as I was by Catalyst, as critical as I’ve been of it, I still love the idea of Mirror’s Edge. I still have faith that it can be great.
I hope it has a future.