The original Mirror’s Edge was something unique. A first-person, fast-paced platformer that captured the feeling of agile traversal perhaps better than any other game at the time, Mirror’s Edge took a bit of a risk by being completely different to anything else that had come before it. There were franchises that made similar attempts to capture the effortless, free moment of parkour: Prince of Persia, for example, featured third-person gameplay involving running up and along walls, climbing ladders and ropes, tiptoeing over ledges and so on. Assassin’s Creed, the first instalment of which was released almost exactly a year before Mirror’s Edge, also broke new ground in the growing field of freedom of movement: it allowed players to climb any structure they could see in a beautifully designed open world. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, since platformers and action-adventure classics from Jak and Daxter to Sly Cooper to even Super Mario had allowed players to leap, climb and otherwise ascend all sorts of environments for years; it was the execution of it that led to an advent of third-person runner-climbers in which any obstacle could be interacted with in a context-sensitive manner in order to reach a destination.
The Assassin’s Creed series set a bit of a trend for this kind of exploration, which had existed in a similar form in the earlier Tomb Raider games and the contemporaneous first instalment of Uncharted, but which suddenly became almost the norm thereafter. The risk taken by Mirror’s Edge was to take the move-anywhere-however-you-like style that was emerging at the time and put it in first person. Perhaps because of this, it also sped up the action. Assassin’s Creed, especially in its earlier outings, could sometimes involve a lot of rather slow climbing, just sort of moving from one hand- or foot-hold to the next. That was fine in third-person, since the player could watch the action, but in first-person it would just be looking at a wall. Mirror’s Edge opted for a style of movement emphasising fluidity and agility, a style which took a bit of getting used to at first – it’s very weird making the transition from third-person platforming, in which you can always see exactly where your character’s limbs are in relation to the rest of the world, to a first-person variant in which you’re only vaguely aware of whether your feet are even on the ground – but which provided, for my money, a completely unique experience in satisfying movement.
I was never that good at Mirror’s Edge. I was decent enough to be able to get most of the achievements and to speed through all the levels in good time, but I was never able to get on any of the time trial leaderboards. I also never really bothered to follow the story all that much; I do love a good story in gaming, but Mirror’s Edge was one of those games that I loved almost exclusively because it was just fun to play. I don’t know that there was anything comparable in terms of how satisfying it felt to just chain together sprints and vaults, whizzing through the levels in a way that made you feel like a speedrunner even if you definitely weren’t. Yeah, it had problems; the combat was probably my least favourite part, and I wasn’t mad keen on the animated cutscenes, but it did something that nobody else was doing and it did it extremely well.
All of this is to say that I was pretty hyped to learn that there would be a sequel. More accurately, as I later found out, a prequel-cum-reboot: Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. Catalyst was released in mid-2016, though I didn’t get to play it until after getting it for my birthday in January ’17 due to not having much money (nor, indeed, a PS4 up until late ’16). When I did get it, I was eager to play; I’d heard that it was a more open-world style, compared to the rigid level-based environments of its predecessor, and that the combat had been redesigned to be more an extension of the movement (the movement was, of course, the original’s strongest suit and its primary selling point) rather than an awkward separate element. Both of these things turned out to be true, marking what I would have thought would be considerable improvements in any measurable sense.
And yet, I just don’t like Catalyst as much as the original.
There are a few things that I reckon probably contribute to Catalyst‘s failure to live up to my expectations (although that might not have been possible). For one thing, as is common these days, it’s much more focused on the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I sort of feel that the story of this franchise isn’t the part it ought to be expending its attention on. Yeah, there needs to be some sort of plot to justify why anyone’s doing anything at all, and without which the game would just be standing around wondering what to do next, but Catalyst treats its story as being more important than I think it needed to be. There are a couple of twists that I feel might have just been thrown in for the sake of being big moments, and the game works hard to build its world into a dystopian totalitarianism rigidly stratified by class, then… doesn’t really pay that off. The plot tends to concern the movements of things which aren’t quite explained, and I’d be fine with that if I didn’t feel that the game really wants me to be absorbed in its story. I’d rather just run around, ta. Compounding this is the vague confusion I felt when it turned out that one of the characters was secretly a character who appeared in the original, but I think that I was meant to understand that Catalyst had gone full reboot and changed the past a bit, thus making them not really the same individual. I didn’t quite get that, though, leading me to spend a while scratching my head and trying to work out how this person could possibly be the same given that their history seemed to have diverged pretty dramatically. I just didn’t really connect with the story an awful lot, besides a general recognition that protagonist Faith usually has understandable motivations for doing what she’s doing (and happens to be, stylistically, a very good female protagonist, if one without a particularly defined personality much of the time).
There’s also the fact that the reworking of the combat mechanics, while I can tell there has been an effort made to integrate it better into the flow of the movement, just hasn’t really worked. The original made its combat a side feature at best, allowing Faith to do a couple of punches, kicks and the occasional shooty gun gun, which wasn’t great but at least it wasn’t something you had to deal with much of the time. Catalyst has made encounters with foes rather more commonplace, removed Faith’s ability to use guns entirely (I’m fine with that part, to be honest; I liked that she only used them sparingly in the original, but felt that it would have been better if she just never resorted to shooting) and revamped her fighting abilities to give a bit more variety in what strikes she can pull off. The problem is that it just hasn’t done what I think the developers were hoping it would. Faith’s expanded arsenal might work well in theory, but in practice it’s difficult to pull off extended chains of environmental offence without getting hit or coming to a standstill. Add to this the fact that almost no opponent will go down in less than two or three solid hits (at least when starting out) and you end up feeling that charging in and standing there trading blows is the only way you’re likely to get anywhere, which sort of defeats the object of the supposed emphasis on increased movement and the ‘focus’ mechanic designed to encourage Faith to keep moving in order to avoid taking damage.
It’s not all bad, of course. The gameplay, when it sticks to movement and doesn’t get bogged down in combat, plays like a smoother version of the original. In fact, very little has changed; the same buttons still do the same things, and Faith’s repertoire hasn’t expanded much. I mean, it is a prequel, so you wouldn’t expect her to be better at running, but it also seems to be a not-quite-same-universe reboot, so… Anyway, the point is that the pure traversal element is just as good as the original, now translated from A-to-B levels into a gorgeously designed open world. I think my favourite part of Catalyst is just getting from place to place, to be honest; it does now boast a bevy of challenges like time trials, deliveries and so on, but I’m not good enough to enjoy those as much as just moving freely where I want to go. As I could have predicted, the part of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst that shines the brightest is the part that it, as with its predecessor, does unlike any other game out there. The newfound freedom of the large world is exhilarating, although I find myself actually missing the enclosed, stand-alone levels of the original sometimes. Those had the opportunity to define exactly where Faith could and couldn’t go; the open-world strategy gives her many more options, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a distraction.
I can’t say that I regret getting Catalyst, since I’m still playing it and having a lot of fun with it. I wish some things were different, but that might just be me becoming too attached to the original. I mean, most of the changes I would probably make to Catalyst would result in it just being more like the first Mirror’s Edge, and if I’m going to be like that then I may as well just go back and play the first one again.