Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Developed by: DICE
Published by: EA
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Possibly not since the 1960s, when the French New Wave realigned the expectations of filmgoers all over the world, has there been a cultural export from France comparable to parkour. The free flowing practice of treating the world as one’s obstacle course — bounding over railings, shimmying up walls, vaulting between precarious spaces — has attracted notice (commercials, movies, videos) and attention from the Bronx to Tehran. In an interview, David Belle, who is credited with having, in part, invented the pastime, articulated its D.I.Y. ethos, “So in parkour, really the main thing is to concentrate, to figure out what you want to do in life, where you want to go in life, to give yourself all the tools to get there, to not listen to people, unless it’s when people… are commenting to help you move ahead.”

Something of this spirit is translated into “Mirror’s Edge Catalyst,” a parkour game that wears its narrative sensibility about as lightly as a deep-sea diving suit. “Catalyst” is a prequel to 2008’s “Mirror’s Edge,” a game that generally garnered a favorable reception from critics. Although “Mirror’s Edge” didn’t hit its projected sales targets, for some it was a cult classic. Faith, the game’s heroine, became an inspiration to cosplayers. The game also emerged as a reference point in online discussions about the relatively small number of quality first-person perspective platforming games.

I’m not sure I finished the demo for the original “Mirror’s Edge.” I liked the game’s bright, sleek, minimalist look, but I never acclimated to its controls. Impatience got the best of me. I experienced a bit of an agitated relapse when I went through the tutorial and the first hour of “Catalyst.” It took me a while to get the timing right for dashing along the sides of walls, and too many of my jumps had clumsy landings. Essentially, I didn’t have a feeling for how to traverse spaces most efficiently. I’m grateful I didn’t have to share my pratfalls with the rest of the Internet.

Unlike third-person perspective platformers where you usually see your character’s relationship to his environment, the Mirror’s Edge games require a bit of spatial intuition. Sure, you can see Faith’s arms pinwheeling back and forth as you run, and if you look down, you can see from her torso to her feet. But when you’re pressed for time, which you often are while on a mission, you need to be able to read what’s in front of you at a glance and sense where you are in the environment without double-checking your footing. A downside to the game’s commitment to first-person perspective is that motion sickness may be an issue for some. (I have a friend who, upon fear of nausea, can’t even look at the game.) The tucked rolls, the wrenching jumps. I’m not one for motion sickness, but there were times when I keenly felt the benefits of a break.

After soldiering through a couple of hours of exasperation (some of that time I spent fiddling with the game’s PC video settings) the mechanics gelled for me. From then on I found a hypnotic pleasure in running across rooftops of the city of Glass, where Faith lives, dodging and beating up the corporate security forces charged with maintaining the super rich’s stranglehold over the populace. For most of the main campaign, I was partial to taking the long way from objective to objective and rarely using the fast travel system between safe houses.

According to James Slavin, the game’s audio director, Glass was based on Shibuya in Japan. Alongside the photographs the art team used as inspiration, an architect was brought in to work with the world and mission designers to shape the look of the game’s environments. Despite this, some critics have faulted the game’s city for being lackluster.

There are relatively few people, and a limited variety of adversaries, for the player to encounter while running through the world. This didn’t bother me because I found the world itself intrinsically alluring with its hard angled surfaces and huge video displays. Its lack of clutter contributed to the meditative way I approached the game.

When I raised the criticisms that some have leveled against the game’s setting with Slavin, he said: “The idea for the city was to keep it clinical and minimal. The less cluttered it was the more landmarks you can put… Some areas of the world are sterile in the sense that they are very corporate and inhumane. They make you feel uncomfortable being there because it’s not for you.”

Unfortunately, the game’s story lacks the subtleties of its design. Basically, it’s you against a corporation that is working to engineer the emotional enslavement of the general population via nanotechnology. Most of the conversations in “Catalyst’s” main storyline are stilted and overcharged as if overly beholden to the old imperative that conflict drives narrative action. Meaningful tension is found in the gameplay, not the story.

I want to forgive the game for its lightweight take on economic inequality and its lame climactic fight if only because of its wonderful sense of kinesis and the alienating beauty of the Glass city. Sometimes flawed creations are worth appreciating for their merits.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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