Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – Final Review

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s open world city of Glass is a remarkable achievement, singular in its beauty, greatly embracing creativity and whimsicality, even as the occurrences in the city are far removed from anything approaching the whimsical – the inherent graces and majesties of the cityscape contrast starkly with the darkness felt by many of its inhabitants, the oppressions to which they are often made victim. A passionate, affectionate regard for color is present, cool colors being especially abundant, inviting blues and violets having a very visible presence, creating a certain tranquility, accentuating the oftentimes blinding brightness of the whiter structures and buildings, while serving as great contrast to the environments characterized by vibrant yellows. Draw distances are immense, the vastness of the environment readily discernible always, as impossibly large structures reach upwards towards the heavens, their very construction pointing to technological advancement, a superseding of actual building limitations, presenting Glass as being exemplary technologically, peopled by ambitious, knowledgeable men, eager to exert that knowledge, to make lasting architectural contributions, to build upon this fantastical environment, totally unique and arresting. Much of this dramatic uniqueness and creativity stems from the city’s overall futuristic, sanitized aesthetic, as massive electronic screens sometimes monopolize entire buildings, projecting always news and propaganda, showing Glass as being of a highly connected sort, active and changing always, both benefitting and suffering by technology’s total dominance, as bullet trains cut their path in the air, while flying cars and drones vie for positioning in that selfsame space.

Glass as environment may be universal and consistent in its appeals, but the narrative it houses is one characterized by inconsistency, many stops and starts, resulting in an almost erratic pacing. The opening sees the release of the protagonist, Faith Connors, from prison, that institution stealing her of several of her most formative years; housed therein, understandably her growth and maturation are of a distorted sort – Faith is shaped by her environment, increasing her strength but also her cynicism. Constantly emphasized is the precise nature of her confinement – this is a juvenile prison system rather than a conventional one, brash youthfulness central to Faith’s overall identity; often headstrong and prey to her emotions, she is sympathetic and human, easy to identify with, everyone having endured those tense years of confusion and change. Alongside emotional strengths, Faith’s physical strengths are also immense – she is a runner, of unmatched speed and agility, a gift even years of isolation and groundedness could not destroy. Her character design also expresses much about her character – though beautiful in an indefinable manner, she never shows delicacy, instead exuding strength and confidence, furthered in her voice acting, where that confidence is evident in her very delivery, often hurried or filled with emotion, as if in perpetual agitation, desirous always of breaking off conversation and returning to the rooftops, her true home – always.

Faith, no matter her excellent visual and audio design, fast shows herself as being a rather flat character, possessive of no resounding depth. Few are her contributions in conversation, she being largely unthinking, unquestioning. True, many efforts at injecting life into her character are made, as with the various flashback sequences that are presented, developing the dissolution of Faith’s family while still a young, innocent girl, her scientist mother coldly gunned down in the streets by the antagonistic Kruger Sec, an organization characterized solely by corruption, while Faith looks on helplessly. In other flashbacks, the backstory is again developed, showing Kruger Sec as playing an instrumental role in Faith’s further emotional destruction, stripping her of her beloved sister and companion, leaving her with nothing, save pain. Occurring whenever Faith is afforded time to ruminate, the great frequency of the flashbacks communicates their all-consuming nature; Faith cannot shake off this trauma, cannot wash it away from her mind – while a flat character, one normally confident, still are repeated displays of vulnerability.

The narrative overall suffers from a certain slowness, the opening hours being especially tedious, seeing the introduction of Glass and the various central characters, Faith’s allies and enemies. Chief among the companions is Noah, a patriarch of the runners and Faith in particular, having rescued her from the depths of darkness upon her mother’s unjust slaughtering. An additional runner, Icarus, is promptly introduced, very similar to Faith in construction, sharing in her exaggerated youthful brashness, displaying no complexity outside of that brashness, sometimes engaging with Faith playfully, other times serving the role of nuisance. Plastic, an endearing fellow with compelling voice acting and facial modelling, is a standout, even as she adheres too closely to the trope of the eccentric hacker, as ignorant of proper social cues as she is intelligent of computer systems and servers. An older gentleman, a tender of pigeons, has a prominent role in the narrative’s opening, before promptly retreating into the shadows, a frustrating retreating when considering his potential for narrative contributions – being of an elderly sort, it follows that he is sagacious, and could instruct Faith, take on the role of mentor, though, with his disappearance, this is never realized. Dogen, a character showing ambiguous, shifting allegiances, acting alternately as villain / companion, rounds out the immediate cast, and his shifty motivations mark him as intriguing character, knowing much of Faith’s mother, what prompted her terrible fate, though hesitant to disclose that information. Gabriel Kruger, the ultimate antagonist, is absent for a fair duration, but his eventual introduction is of an impactful sort, even as he is a mere archetypal villain, with archetypal villainous motivations. 

Collectively, considerable variety is present amongst the characters, the cast eclectic, though the protracted nature of this opening – countless hours pass before matters achieve any urgency – greatly destroys player engagement. These characters are all unique, with vying emotions and beliefs – but why does any of this matter? True, the runners in their totality are fighting for the oppressed of Glass, but those oppressed are nameless and faceless. It is not until the raid on the runners’ headquarters that any gravity is established – Noah is feared dead, alongside countless other runners – while a larger, more personal antagonist is also introduced. While success is ultimately achieved, the protracted nature of time expended to reach that achievement, to court player engagement, is a major failing.  

In the game’s primary campaign missions, constant are dramatic set-piece moments, occurring in rapid sequence, as Faith navigates claustrophobic office corridors, ascends cranes, traverses elevator shafts and sprints across glass walkways literally disintegrating under her feet – here is perpetual tension and exhilaration, the game boasting excellent level design in these more linear scenarios, helping illustrate the complexity of the various gameplay systems, as more elaborate movement elements are here seamlessly chained together, conveying Faith’s considerable strength and agility. The skyscrapers which penetrate Glass’s skyline are often explored in these primary campaign missions, permitting a different sort of view, some of the structures literally bathed in clouds by nature of their enhanced elevation, obscuring the streets and buildings below, showing the marvelous technical and architectural feats realized in the city. Chase sequences abound, Kruger Sec infantry peppering Faith with gunfire or pursuing her as she leaps about wildly, while in more urgent missions, Kruger Sec vehicles – VTOLs and drones – also join in the chase, greatly enhanced in speed though still lacking Faith’s directional intelligence. In one important early mission, an office complex is infiltrated, Faith in search of information, though ultimately finding an object of far greater value – a drive with information on Reflection, Kruger Sec’s ultimate weapon, their means of fully subjugating Glass’s disparate inhabitants. This sole object gradually grows to monopolize the narrative, becoming object of immense importance owing to its unimaginable power – destroy Reflection and preserve Glass.

While a considerable span will be spent in this manner, tackling involved campaign missions and watching lengthy, cinematic cutscenes, even longer time will be spent in simple exploration – Glass is an open-world, unabashedly so, greatly (and oftentimes blindly) embracing the tropes of the genre. Secondary content is abundant, though fortunately the game follows the design philosophy of expanding the map and activities gradually, rather than totally overwhelming the player from the start, which still inevitably occurs when regarding the map at the game’s conclusion, completely littered and cluttered by icons. The greatest problems arise with the repetitive nature of these activities, almost all of them centered around the basic act of running, with a few scant permutations – one secondary mission type involves the delivery of some undescribed object, while variations on that mission may involve delivery without detection, or the conveyance of the object totally undamaged; some minor differences are present, but functionally these missions are essentially identical. Nothing outright bad characterizes these activities, anchored as they are by excellent gameplay systems, but the lack of variation destroys any of their potential appeal; they seem included largely out of expectation, such diversions ubiquitous in open-world games, an expectation realized by the developers, who sought to fulfill that expectation, though ultimately failing in their execution.

Furthering this open world bloat, many collectibles are also present, like the spherical “grid-leaks,” and rectangular computer chips, both distributed liberally throughout the environment. More involved side content is present, too. Realizing the importance of quality over quantity (an edict the game fails to grasp in most of its design) towering computer servers are explorable, impossibly large in size, reflecting the systems needed to maintain Glass’s swelling infrastructure. Lasers here abound, extending upon almost all surfaces, only smaller portions of the environment safe for stalled locomotion, requiring Faith to move about cautiously and strategically, cleverly using her parkour abilities to make the ascent without activating the alarm systems manifest by the trip wires. Essentially, these towers are glorified platforming puzzles, and given their considerable depth, they are highly enjoyable, rivaling some of the successes achieved in the main campaign. Their relative scarcity serves to maintain the joys met when discovering them – rather than numbering in the dozens, a scant four towers are present; their ascension, then, never becomes tedious, boring familiarity expertly avoided.

The game’s greatest failing is the overall pointlessness of these endeavors – the server room ascension permits fast travel towards safe houses in the vicinity, but that exists as the sole reward of any real practicality or usefulness. Still, in some efforts at courting and maintaining player engagement, a progression system is included, though even this seems included solely out of expectation, evinced by its overwhelming, frustrating basicness. Every action rewards experience points, proportional to the difficulty of the act achieved, the amount of time invested. Broken down into three distinct trees – one focused around movement, another combat, and the third of a more general sort, often centering around various unlockable gadgets and minor gameplay upgrades – objectively the number of unlockable skills is rather large, purportedly reflecting depth. Upon investigation, though, that is illusory, as very few of these skills alter the game in any fundamental manner. The combat tree is especially basic, with a major emphasis on unexciting health and damage upgrades, only a few new tactical combat abilities purchasable on the tree, like one which permits redirection, increasing the enemy’s vulnerability in combat. Even the movement tree, which has strongest potential for greatness, stumbles in construction, boasting mundane abilities like increased ladder climbing speed or extended slide duration, though standouts are present, like a skill roll ability which preserves momentum while falling from great height, or an ability which permits walls to be run in sequence; these latter maneuvers, though, are anomalous, oddities in a sea of mundanities. Rather than completing a mission with joy, marveling at the immense amount of experience points dispersed as reward, those points are instead received with complete indifference. Secondary content is thusly lacking in allure, for they award points which functionally have no value; other than the vague sense of self-satisfaction, the thrill of the run, and occasional contributions to the game’s efforts at world-building, no reason exists to complete much of this side content.

The frustrating nature of this failing is amplified by the obvious nature of its remedy. As runners, Faith, Icarus, Noah, and their brethren are ostensibly working for the benefit of Glass’s most oppressed citizens, cruelly preyed upon by Kruger Sec and the Conglomerate. But an ulterior motivation is also present, which is deliberately left in the shadows as it may cast the runners in a poor light – that secondary motivation is the acquisition and accumulation of wealth, of personal profit. Before undertaking a delivery mission, an automated voice will often say something such as, “scrip-making opportunity available nearby,” scrip being Glass’s currency. Upon completion of the assignment – often a laborious affair owing to the game’s stringent time restrictions – no scrip is ever delivered. This reflects Faith’s better attributes – seemingly she is running solely for the assistance of her contractors or is running solely for the exhilaration of the run. But the inclusion of currency and economy systems would elevate the gameplay considerably, making progression more meaningful, with various purchasable equipment upgrades or consumables, or even a secondary ability system connected directly towards scrip. Some open-world games are needlessly muddled by such economy systems, but in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, everything points towards the combability of these systems. Were scrip present as a tangible reward, the secondary content would truly be incentivized rather than neglected.

Even still, the core gameplay is incredibly strong, the systems empowering and exhilarating, as momentum is gained and maintained, and other intricate maneuvers are effortlessly performed, Faith employing all of her abilities in synergy. Leaping considerable urban chasms, an impossibly long fall awaiting below; using a wall to extend a jump, organically; scaling a building or structure of some great height, as if the act of ascension were a trivial affair, rather than an obstacle insurmountable to most – gameplay successes are immense, manifold tactical freedoms afforded the player, permitting them to forge their own sort of path through the environment. The systems are open-ended, and are intuitive from the first, the controls logically designed. Still, a considerable learning curve is present – it takes a fair investment of time before the precise minutia of the systems are learned and compartmentalized. But once that compartmentalization has been achieved, the gameplay highs are truly unparalleled – with its mobility systems, Catalyst is singularly remarkable, the player growing in skill as the narrative progresses just as Faith grows when upgrades are acquired. With this growth, the end game is decidedly different from the game’s opening, owing to the knowledge obtained, the increased skill. The demands of the late game are amplified accordingly, often sporting more involved design, even as the game remains generous in external assistance, relying upon “runners vision” to assist the player in navigation. On a default level, it highlights objects in the environment red, directing the player towards them for progression; it is subtle but impactful. A more involved, direct form of assistance is also activable, marking the precise path forward with a linear red path, somewhat akin to the bread trail in the Fable games, though here it is less intrusive, active only when explicitly triggered. Initially, the instinct is to rely upon this direction always, undeviatingly. Towards the narrative’s conclusion, though, once the player has become familiarized with the map, such total reliance is unnecessary; forging a path organically and independently marks one of the greatest joys of navigation, as if the A.I. has been bested.  

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst shows manifold strengths in its world-building, environmental construction, and gameplay systems. Its narrative, while composed of components which are individually excellent, somehow falters collectively, rarely engaging the player, largely on account of its marked slowness, failing to engage the player from the first, failing to make them care about any of its characters, their fates. Further failings center around Faith as protagonist, portrayed in a rather cliched, unremarkable manner, even as she sometimes exercises outbursts of considerable emotion and pain, totally consumed by turmoil and suffering – she is characterized by her flaws as much as her strengths. As character, then, she is paradoxically compelling and profound, and boring and shallow, the complexity of her portrayal morphing her into an enigma, anchoring the narrative, which finally hits its stride in the third act.   

Alongside these narrative and character successes are repeated successes in gameplay and world design, both collectively markers of the game’s greatest originality. Glass is a masterful achievement, unique in its aesthetics and in its very construction, being a bizarre sort of fusion of the linear and the open ended. Each individual environment is decidedly unique, boasting starkly different colors or themes, but rather than appearing lazily stitched together or disjointed, these environments coalesce into one compelling whole, painting Glass as a place of beauty and diversity. On a minute level, it is a playground of sort, facilitating the gameplay freedoms afforded the player; navigating that environment evokes immense exhilaration and enjoyability, almost unmatched in the open-world genre. The game world frequently seems hollow, with very few NPCs present, somewhat logical when considering the rooftops are the domain of the runners, but the lifelessness of Glass is somewhat of a failing, as is the basicness of the secondary content dispersed in that vast cityscape, devoid of any intrigue or appeal, unrewarding and largely unsatisfying. Still, the player is permitted to forge their own sort of adventure; the moments of quiet exploration are especially memorable, even as the game world is static rather than dynamic. The narrative makes no poignant statements, though the game consistently and fiercely displays its immense originality, displays which only make more damning the game’s more iterative qualities – Glass is beautiful in every way, but as open world, it is fashioned around a set of well-established, tired tropes, which bog the game down, deprive it of its commanding originality – and strengths. Still, the title is immensely enjoyable to play, whether engaged in a campaign mission, or engaged in quiet exploration and solitude. For many, that is enough, though it is difficult to look past the developers’ frustrated ambitions. The narrative certainly strives for greatness, vaguely focusing around an oppressed class, a corrupt corporation, insatiable. But these ambitions are rarely realized; had they been absent, had the game never striven for greatness, its narrative mundanities would be more easily palatable. 

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