Mirror’s Edge has a lot of heart. While never venturing towards the comedic or the juvenile, the game is characterized by a light-hearted playfulness, much of this playfulness manifest in the various cutscenes which punctuate the narrative. Animated in a cartoonish, stylistic fashion, these cinematics do much to distinguish the title from other games in the genre – or games in general. Personally, I am divided about these cutscenes – they evoke a strong sense of place, and their uniqueness is indeed commendable. But at times, they seem almost cheaply made – cheaply but lovingly. The voice acting in these sequences is very impressive, the protagonist Faith’s being especially remarkable, while her companion and guide, Merc, is also voiced well. Despite this light-heartedness, the narrative is occasionally punctuated by grimmer occurrence, like the violent passing of Merc. In this regard, the narrative can be inconsistent tonally, vacillating between the light and the dark, though fortunately the light often prevails. Faith, though, is a very believable character and protagonist, and her tragic backstory is subtly developed as the plot progresses; highly likable, just as with the tone she can be alternately serious and playful, changing as the situation merits. Beyond Faith and Merc, a handful of other characters are featured, like the female Celeste, companion to Faith and eventual traitor. Faith’s sister, too, features prominently in the narrative, but despite the inclusion of these secondary characters, it is largely Faith who is most intriguing and compelling.
If I am divided about the cutscenes, the technical presentation is singularly impressive, with excellent lighting, though it is in the art direction where the game truly excels; the color palette is vibrant and diverse, with striking yellows, greens, and reds, only accentuated by the dazzling whiteness of the towering buildings in the city of Glass, which fast becomes a character in its own right. This vibrancy elevates the game, making environmental exploration highly enjoyable and intuitive, as colors are employed to subtly guide the player in traversal. Certain objects will be highlighted red for instance, like climbable pipes and ladders, or objects which can be used as a springboard, launching the player forward. Furthering these striking aesthetics is the complete lack of an intrusive HUD – it is non-existent here, creating a powerful sense of immersion. If Faith is damaged excessively by enemy gunfire or melee attacks, the screen will gradually go red, throbbing violently. Similarly, the damage received from falls of great height results in a similar reddening of the screen; there is no health bar, and weapons, when acquired, totally lack an ammunition counter, the weapon merely tossed aside when the ammunition is expended. Speed and momentum, so crucial to the gameplay systems, are not tracked quantitatively during the campaign, the only indicator of increased movement velocity being Faith’s exhausted gasping, and the swift rushing of wind. Even the slightest intrusion would ruin this sense of immersion, which is maintained throughout the entire campaign.
The opening mission serves as a tutorial of sorts, with the introduction of Celeste, and the traversal of a basic obstacle course. The controls are highly intuitive, with only a scant few buttons on the controller used regularly – one trigger attacks, the other crouches, while the left bumper is used to execute jumps. Straightforward on the surface, there is a very steep learning curve – which only makes the systems more engrossing. Introduced in this mission are wall-runs, slides, and vaults, while even melee combat is briefly glossed over. At the ending of this tutorial, I felt as though I had a basic grasping of the controls, which is only built upon as the campaign progressed; after four or so hours, I was performing maneuvers unimaginable at the opening, and this sense of progression is highly rewarding. More noticeable, too, is how lackluster are my skills comparatively; I am sure other players could far surpass my acrobatic feats, and the elaborate nature of the environments facilitates experimentation.
There is great environmental diversity, and this opening tutorial mission on the rooftops of Glass is rather mundane when considered against locations visited later on in the narrative, some more elaborate levels seeing the navigation through subway tunnels, another the descent into a gaping cistern of sorts. This diversity is notable, and the constant shifting keeps matters refreshing, though all environments are linked in that vibrant, signature color palette. Some environments are greater than others, but they all excel in their own unique way. The rooftop positions, for instance, evoke thrilling sensations; peering over a wide chasm, hesitating whether or not to make the leap, considering the probability of clearing the gap – this is exhilarating, and the moment when the plunge is actually made serves an almost cathartic purpose. This tension is only amplified when considering the great frequency of chase sequences spread throughout the narrative, constituting roughly 25% of total time played. Mostly, these enemies will pursue, peppering Faith with gunfire, missing most of the time given her speed, though connecting with their shots at others. This intensity removes time for tactical considerations – the player is forced to make that leap without gauging the distance, merely to break away from the persistent pursuers. While these sequences are exciting, it is the quieter moments which are most resonant. Fleeing through a mall is one thing, shutters being manipulated to wall Faith in, enemies shooting wildly; but totally different are those more tranquil engagements, where environmental puzzles abound. A standout instance in the entire game is of this more peaceful sort, seeing the climbing of an atrium – still under construction – by deftly maneuvering atop some scaffolding, ascending ever higher. The precision needed here is immense, and deaths were quite frequent; but this only made the act of ascension all the more rewarding. Finally reaching the top, a sniper rifle, carefully concealed there, is wielded, to destroy a passing convoy. The ascent could be compared to the radio towers in the Far Cry games, though here it is far more elaborate – and engaging. And while there are those frequent deaths, the checkpoint systems are very generous, and the respawning rate is near instantaneous.
The movement systems are complex yet intuitive, with great mobility options afforded the player – wall runs, vaults, slides, even a curling movement which increases jump height while lowering Faith’s hit box – these things are very engaging. Despite this great emphasis upon movement, there exists occasional combat, where the game falters. Very rarely actively forced on the player, combat still erupts several times throughout the campaign. Mostly, this combat is hand to hand, Faith throwing jabs, or crouching to deal a blow beneath the belt. When enough momentum has been gained, sliding kicks and jump kicks can also be performed, dealing far greater damage, often sending the enemy sprawling. Similarly crucial to success is a disarm maneuver, seeing the snatching away of an enemy’s firearm, weakening him and permitting an even easier dispatch. These combat movements, though, are highly clunky and imprecise, odd when considering how lean and accurate are the parkour movements. Again, these engagements are rarely mandatory, but the sections where they are were slogs to get through, especially in the late-game, when a slew of armored enemies, wielding devastating shotguns or assault rifles, are introduced. After incapacitating a guard, his weapon can promptly be picked up and wielded, and they are useful to get through the most frustrating encounters, even as the only available ammunition is that which is already chambered in the gun itself. This gunplay is even less deemphasized, though it is a highly effective way of clearing an area; disarming one enemy, slaying him, then picking up his shotgun to blast away another encroaching guard – it can be quite satisfying. In certain scenarios, too, there are enemy snipers, and their removal becomes a high priority, as a but a round or two spells instant death.
As with the gameplay, narratively Mirror’s Edge is tight and concise. Just after the conclusion of the tutorial level with Celeste, the murder of a high-ranking police chief transpires, and Faith’s sister is wrongly implicated in the death. For much of the campaign, the ultimate intention is to solve this one enigma – who killed this man? Why was Faith’s sister framed? It is a simple setup, but it is an effective one. As the plot progresses, a larger conspiracy is unraveled, one involving the destruction of all Runners – Faith among them – a cause so compelling it eventually sways Celeste, who occupies position as sole boss-fight in the game. The ultimate resolution, when it comes, is impactful, though just mere minutes afterward, the game abruptly ends; Faith’s sister is absolved, while the brotherhood of Runners lives ever onwards, Merc one of the casualties involved in the struggle; it was all too neat, with nearly no falling action. Many may find fault with this abruptness and the game’s overall short length, lasting only five or six hours; but of those five or six hours, there is never have a dull moment, even when progressing at a slower, more cerebral pace, as when scaling the atrium.
The campaign is short, but upon completion, a whole task of secondary objectives opens up. On a basic level, a harder difficulty is unlocked, which would seemingly increase the damage output of the already powerful guards. But beyond this fundamental change, there are multiple other inclusions – each individual level can be replayed as a time trial, seeing a racing against the clock and even other players, a sharp competitive aspect emerging. Similarly, challenge maps based off of campaign levels are also accessible, and they are expectantly depicted creatively and elaborately. Experimenting with these modes led to a profound discovery – the movement systems are immensely complex, these maps requiring maneuvers never needed in the campaign proper; they are abounding in opportunities for movement and more efficient routing, and are thus highly replayable. One keen observation persists, though, when regarding these modes – they can be highly enjoyable, but the audience for them is likely niche, many players being more concerned with the campaign; given this, the complaint of leanness is more justified if these modes are completely ignored. Conversely, if a player is highly engrossed in the gameplay systems, hours of possible enjoyment and challenge are here available, with global records posted for each level, and star rankings also awarded. But most players – myself included – may regard these as mere novelties and simply move on after experimenting and fiddling around for an hour or two.
While the game is highly linear, seeing the mere motion from point A to point B, it is also surprisingly open, with free-form level design, permitting experimentation in locomotion. Still, the game has a calculated narrowness, and excels precisely because of that narrowness. In recent years, the only game which seeks to succeed with similar gameplay and locomotion systems is Dying Light. That game, though, is sprawling, fully adopting the cliched, ubiquitous open-world model; there is crafting, inventory management, skill trees, a slew of zombies – there is a great deal of fluff, which this title totally eschews, resulting in a tighter, leaner experience. This narrowness might point to a lack of ambition, and this is partially true when considering the safeness of the narrative, the tropes it relies on. But in terms of gameplay, it is revolutionary, not easily imitated. The music is astounding, furthering this sense of speed, while the crisp, colorful world design further marks the game as unique. It may be brief in terms of length, but every moment is an enjoyable one, every moment involving some kind of tactical consideration, quick-thinking becoming a necessity. While many may be satisfied with quitting the game upon completion of the main story, there is great secondary content available for the bigger fanatics, and I’m sure the speed-running community for this game is thriving. Even if the narrative falters somewhat while lacking originality, and the quality of the cutscenes is questionable, a compelling city is here crafted, made unique and marvelous by compelling artistic direction. Actively exploring that world – linear though it may be – results in unparalleled rush, and it is easily recommendable.