After all the relentless existential angst of Nier: Automata, I decided that I needed to cleanse my palette with a game that would present no emotional demands. I just wanted something that would be fun and a little mindless, but not another button masher. Essentially, I was looking for a game that would be just about the mechanics; an exercise in refining specific motor memory. What I landed on was the 2016 parkour simulator Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.
If you must know the premise and plot of the game, it goes like this: in the near future the city of Glass is the crown jewel of Cascadia, a corporate oligarchy where everyone is mandated to work for one of the handful of privately owned companies that provide all the infrastructure for society. Among the outlaws who refuse to submit to these conditions are the Runners, a loose network of people who live on the rooftops of Glass’s cityscape and survive by working as extralegal couriers for the people who need to operate outside the corporate system. The game’s protagonist is Faith Connors, a Runner who has just been released from a detention center where she was imprisoned for some undefined infraction (it’s apparently explained in a tie-in comic, but this information is entirely irrelevant to the story here). Through a series of happenstances, Faith becomes caught up in a plot to enslave all the citizens of Cascadia through a nanite injection that would directly connect them to the Grid–Mirror’s Edge‘s version of the internet–and allow the corporations to manipulate their emotions directly. There’s also some stuff about Faith’s sister whom she was separated from as a child after their parents were murdered, but the emotional beats of the plot are all relatively rote. The first entry in the series, Mirror’s Edge, takes place in a separate continuity, so this game’s effectively a reboot.
All that’s unimportant though, because the reason you play a Mirror’s Edge game is because you want to move very quickly through very shiny environments while doing some slick physics-defying parkour. The thing that I enjoyed about the first game in the series was that within the framework of a first-person game, it did so many different things with movement from what you typically encounter. The game was about fluid movement where the challenges all revolved around the player’s ability to traverse courses without interrupting the flow of action. Things like hard landings or mistimed jumps create little hiccups in the experience that always felt really satisfying to iron out. With Catalyst I was hoping to get more of that.
In a lot of ways, the core appeal of the original Mirror’s Edge is intact in this game. You still spend most of your time running courses and figuring out how to move as efficiently as possible. Unlike in the first game, you get to operate within a relatively large open world, which means that if you feel like it, you can just run around rooftops without having to give any thought to the story (except that you do need to complete the story in order to have the entire map opened up, so I guess don’t ignore it?). There’s a wealth of activities to do while you explore, from running deliveries to distracting guards to finding collectibles to running courses that have been recorded by other players. In the week that I spent playing the game, I saw way more content than I expected. Unfortunately, the volume of content has one massive downside: virtually all of it (except for collectible hunting) is built around beating a clock. Deliveries require you to get from one point on the map to another within a strict time limit; obstacle courses have incredibly strict time requirements to earn three star ratings; messing with guards require you to get from one group of enemies to the next within a time limit just so you can get more time added to your clock and move on to the next group. All of these activities are variations on a theme, which makes sense because the core mechanic is moving fast, but they’re just not that engaging in the long run. After I spent a solid hour trying to complete one side mission that was supposed to be completed in under a minute and a half, I decided to just stick to the story missions; they never have time limits built in, and they lead to interesting new environments instead of requiring the player to replay the same section of the city over and over again.
To be fair, there is certainly some appeal to practicing a routine over and over in order to be able to perform it as efficiently as possible. The evenings when I did bother to do the delivery missions typically felt very meditative, assuming I was in the mood for a repetitive task. The problem was that there was so much repetition.
I’m going to move on to a different game now that I’ve finished the story for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but I’ll keep this one around on my hard drive for a while, I think. There may come a time when I want to go back and just do some running to beat a clock; now just isn’t it.