Roughly two weeks ago, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst hit shelves and was met with lukewarm reviews. It has a few shining moments, but most critics seem to regard the prequel-reboot hybrid as a disappointment. As a rabid fan and proponent of the original, I felt invested in the release of a sequel on an emotional level.
I couldn't get over how refreshing and engaging the original Mirror's Edge was, and to this day, it is still one of my favorite video games ever released. I would mention it to every gamer I knew, and I still suggest it to those who have never experienced it.
Sadly, Catalyst has me pretty let down. The original game released in 2008 and gained quite the cult status. Mirror's Edge illustrated to the masses (via its parkour action) that first person shooters didn't have to be all about blockbuster war stories or online multiplayer. While it had its flaws, it was a passion project for the folks over at DICE as they managed to put a unique and much-needed spin on FPS games and platformers.
On the other hand, Catalyst tries to improve upon this cult hit, but it winds up feeling like a game crafted from ideas that sound great in theory but not in practice. With so-so reviews and somewhat disappointing sales, this franchise might be in a bit of danger. What does Mirror's Edge: Catalyst do wrong, and is there a future for this franchise in gaming or any other form of media?
Let's start with the biggest change: the open-world environment. Instead of the relatively linear level structure from the previous installment, Catalyst lets Faith roam free in the giant metropolis known as the city of Glass. Well, almost free. It lets Faith run on the rooftops — most of them. Certain story missions can also lead her into unique sections of the map specifically designated for those missions. In theory, this sounds like an incredible idea: unrestricted parkour-based exploration on the players own terms, in a huge and shiny urban playground.
Unfortunately, Glass's rooftops only have three or four ways Faith can utilize to traverse the city in any direction. As a result, the story, exploration, and side missions will lead the player onto the same few rooftops over and over, as they typically provide the ideal paths to navigate the city. This can get repetitive, as you'll get used to crossing the same set of jumps to get to safe-houses and other locations relevant to the plot.
Also, not every rooftop has a way off that leads in a direction you may want to go. You'll find a handful of dead-ends before you reach your destinations, in the form of height obstacles and long distances. The whole point of an open world is to find your own path as a runner, sure, but parkour involves momentum and flow — something the first Mirror's Edge handles quite well. This open-world map, however, only delivers on that occasionally.
The autonomy of creating your own path as you go sounds great, but it just doesn't feel great when you're constantly getting lost. The city is visually stunning and is a great backdrop to build a universe in, but it simply doesn't provide the sense of flow found in the original as often as it should. I can already hear the comments typing, "But, Jonathan, you have a map and runner vision to guide you through the city, so how can you get lost? You must suck at Mirror's Edge!" Well, you're right. And that's why I play Mirror's Edge: Catalyst with runner vision completely turned off — it is the only way for the open world to feel free. Which brings me to the next major flaw: the "new and improved" runner vision.
"Runner vision" is a system of visual cues within Mirror's Edge that help lead the player to their destination — wherever that may be. In the original game, objects Faith needed to traverse or doors she needed to open would fade from their natural color into a bright, saturated red when she approached them. This led the player in the right direction if they became confused in regards to where to head next.
This system returns in Catalyst, but with a new tweak — one that defeats the purpose of an open world. Now, on top of turning objects red, it comes with a floating red line that weaves throughout the environment. It flies over and under obstacles, off of ledges, across gaps, all to lead you in the right direction. Again, in theory, it doesn't sound all that bad, but it tells you EXACTLY where you need to go. It shows each obstacle you need to traverse and leaves nothing to the parkour-loving imagination.
This new runner vision is completely incongruous to the concept of an open world in a game that is all about the art of traversal. It may guide players, but it discourages exploration. You could ignore it, but it gets quite distracting. As I mentioned earlier, I disabled runner vision from the options menu very early on, but sometimes I'll feel the need to turn it back on again just so I can save myself the time and arrive at my next mission free of frustration. That is a serious problem. I shouldn't want my hand held at all (or want to fast travel) in a game all about creatively getting from Point A to Point B.
The last con I'll mention (since this isn't a formal review and I feel a bit too harsh) is the lackluster story. There are plenty of characters, events, and organizations featured in Catalyst. Characters have lots of dialogue, they look great, and the acting is just fine. There are even some twists. The game's story, however, ultimately feels unaffecting. None of the characters are all that likable, including Faith herself. It does have its moments that I won't spoil, but overall it just isn't very compelling. I even had a hard time recalling it all, for my own sake and the sake of this article. The story is bolstered by the prequel comic Mirror's Edge: Exordium — which, as a huge fanboy of the property, I happily read — but in the end, it doesn't justify the disappointing plot of the game.
There are things this game does incredibly well but not enough to save it from what already looks like the process of fading into obscurity. It might be too early to make that assumption; after all, even with a huge cult following, it still took eight years for Catalyst to release, but that same passionate following doesn't seem to accompany this newest installment.
As a huge fan — and it kills me to say this — I don't feel very interested in playing another Mirror's Edge after Catalyst unless they work out the kinks or price it much cheaper. Regardless of what people think of this game in the years to come, I desperately hope that Mirror's Edge lives on as a property, if not as a video game franchise.
The prequel comic wasn't exactly riveting either, but I would hate to see the universe this franchise has created disappear. It manages to balance a sterile and uncomfortable tone with a modern and futuristic one, all while flaunting vibrant and saturated colors in a way that very few other franchises do. The environments are absolutely stunning. Every corner I turn and every gap I jump leads to yet another beautiful metropolitan vista to behold.
The sleek and colorful aesthetic of the city makes for quite visually appealing world. The sound design in all the games is also expertly crafted. The music straddles the line between ambient and tense, and the sounds of footsteps on surfaces and heavy breathing make for an atmospheric and truly visceral experience — whether you're standing on the edge of a skyscraper or being chased down halls. To put it plainly, the world of Mirror's Edge just looks, feels, and sounds cool. Unfortunately, that isn't enough to make for a fun game.
Even if Catalyst doesn't call for another entry in the gaming world, I hope this property lives on. Comics could make a nice home for the franchise, but animation sounds even better. Imagine an animated Mirror's Edge adventure; the game itself is so visual that it lends itself to a medium without audience input like a television show or a film. Cinematic adaptations of video games rarely turn out well, but I feel with strong writers behind it, this would make an excellent transition to the big screen, too.
Imagine the nerve-wracking stunts and intense chases in a fully realized version of Mirror's Edge's colorful world. It would be jaw dropping and, with the right talent, a great blockbuster. These are all long shots for sure, but one can dream. Ideally, maybe Mirror's Edge could return in the future if virtual reality takes off. Another installment could be tailored for VR, so that the first-person perspective can really be emphasized (and probably make many people sick, but still).
To clarify, I do enjoy Mirror's Edge: Catalyst. Not as much as I hoped to, but it is still entertaining and I'll probably put more hours into it than most. Maybe the cult following is just beginning to spark again. Sales could pick up, and maybe we'll see another game in the franchise sooner than I'm assuming. While that is unlikely, I hope this isn't the last we see of the Mirror's Edge universe.
What did you think of 'Catalyst'? Are you a fan of the original? Where would you like to see the franchise live on, if the games don't pan out? Do you think 'Mirror's Edge' is the worst thing to ever exist in the history of mankind? Maybe you do! Regardless, share your thoughts in the comments.
I've been Jonathan, and I'm ever so thankful you took the time to read my nonsense.