Taking a look back at 2008s reboot
XBox 360, PS3, PC
Ubisoft Montreal is returning to their most famous character with the simply titled Prince of Persia but things are not as they were in the Sands of Time Trilogy.
Most series stage a thinly-veiled reboot when sales have dwindled and public interest has reached near zero. Witness the Tomb Raider franchise, rejuvenated by Crystal Dynamics years after the failed experiment that was Angel of Darkness. Ubisoft has taken a different approach with the Prince, suggesting that the first three games were always intended as a trilogy and that this is a natural progression for the character. Whatever their agenda, this new Prince of Persia is a markedly different animal from any of the titles previous iterations and some fans will find the changes difficult to accept.
The story begins with the Prince lost in a sandstorm. Blundering into a ravine, he stumbles across a young woman fleeing from a group of armed guards and can’t help but get involved. Prince of Persia’s story is rather good, so there will be no spoilers here. Suffice to say it is suitably epic while managing to maintain some more intimate details and moments which are often left ignored in games. The linchpin of the story is Elika, and her introduction to the series provides many of the highpoints of the game, while also being the source of several significant disappointments.
First to the positive points – Elika is a wonderful companion. Ubisoft has managed to integrate her into every aspect of the gameplay. Her use during combat has been much vaunted but never has an NPC been so useful, so often to a player. Tap the Elika key anytime and what she does will almost always be useful. Lost, she send out a homing spell. Stuck on a puzzle, she’ll give you a hint. About to die because you underestimated the size of a gaping abyss ahead of you, she will swoop down out of the heavens and give you a boost.
The control that this gives a player is truly extraordinary, even going so far as letting you decide when and if you want to find out more of her backstory. With just the story essential cut scenes, you will learn enough to play Prince of Persia but talking to Elika reveals the dense tapestry behind the ravaged world. Her context sensitive actions during combat are not merely spectacular but are an essential part of the combo system which is necessary to defeat your foes. And this is without going into detail on her unlockable magic skills which are required for you to gain access to the far reaches of the levels. Elika is truly a revolution in the gaming landscape. Even minor moments, like occasionally catching her after you dismount from a wall are throwaway details but really help to keep you subtly aware of her presence.
There is one small problem though. Elika’s constant presence, along with a number of other gameplay decisions, means that Prince of Persia is quite simply one of the easiest high profile games ever released.
While initial reports focussed on the fact that the Prince cannot actually die, presenting it as a positive thing, streamlining the gameplay experience, in practise it just means you are never punished for incompetence. This, coupled with incredibly forgiving collision detection and toddler easy controls means you often look like you are doing incredibly complicated things in Prince of Persia – whilst sitting there waiting to press jump at the opportune moment.
There are whole segments of the game which may as well be on rails as you wait for a magic plate to appear so you can press the Elika button and sit there for another 30 seconds. Even in game, there is rarely the need to press more than one button at a time and even if you do make a mistake, she is there to catch you. In combat, things become a little more difficult only because they are more frustrating. Any time you approach death Elika will push the enemy back – restoring your health, and theirs. Fights can go on for many minutes as a single mistake means going back to the start. This is not the same as the fights being difficult it is more like being stuck in some kind of eternal QTE recurrence of the damned.
Prince of Persia is, despite its flaws, simply impossible to dislike. The presentation is perfect, with stylised graphics that make no attempt at realism and are all the better for it. The solidity of the production design, the sweeping levels and the epic score mean that exploring is a pleasure rather than a chore. This is the first non-linear Prince of Persia game and there was a real possibility for making the player hopelessly lost and confused. To their considerable credit, Ubisoft has managed to create levels which are more linear than they initially appear and are linked to other hubs, creating multiple paths towards your goal. With Elika’s compass and some judicious jumping and wall running, any area is accessible in a matter of minutes. And this acrobatic exploration is the real joy of Prince of Persia. Entering a new area and making vertiginous progress towards a far off goal is exciting – only becoming slightly more boring when you have to scavenge light seeds in order to progress.
The Prince’s animation is superb and the freedom of movement afforded by the jumping, wall-running and gauntlet moves is genuinely impressive. Likewise combat is suitably epic although the decision to face the same enemies multiple times does result in some mild boredom from time to time. On a technical note, I suffered game freezes on a number of occasions, several of which lost me more than half an hour of playing time. It is a testament to how much I was enjoying the game that I went straight back to it each time but it simply shouldn’t happen in a game with this profile.
Ultimately, this new Prince of Persia is a unique and impressive game which rewrites many genre rules to create an experience which is almost lyrical in its pacing and the infolding of its story.
If you are looking for a fast paced, easily digested action fest which you can dip into for a few minutes at a time, this is not the game for you. It sometimes descends into an attractive interactive movie and has some of the least satisfying puzzles in recent memory but succeeds more than it fails in delivering an experience with its own distinct identity. It is not as good as it could have been and it pales a little in comparison so the genre revolution that was The Sands of Time but, as a stand-alone platformer, this newest Price of Persia is almost kingly.