Prince of Persia - A Modern Classic Is Alive And Well

December 3, 2008

Back in 2003, Ubisoft revived the Prince of Persia franchise and created a 3D action game that managed to capture the essence of the classics, while still breaking new ground with its rewind function. Five years--and several sequels--later, Prince of Persia is making its HD debut. With streamlined gameplay and reworked combat, plenty of changes are afoot, but are they steps in the right direction?

As the game begins, the prince is traipsing across the desert with the spoils of his prior adventures. A sandstorm kicks up, and when the dust settles he finds himself in yet another place where an ancient evil is trying to spread its influence. He meets a magical girl named Elika, and the pair set off to seal the menace back inside a tree that has served as its prison for centuries.

It’s a very straightforward tale with very few characters to keep track of. Yet there are some fairly complex undertones as the prince questions his blind sense of duty, and Elika second-guesses her life of exile and selflessness. Romantic tension inevitably arises between the two, and the writers try to develop both characters through optional conversations. The problem is that the prince drops so many rote statements and dumb jokes that he ends up feeling out of place. The story is not going to come up at next week’s book club, but it provides just enough to make you care.

Prince of Persia is designed just like many platformers. There’s a hub that connects you to all the different areas. The object of the game is to get to the end of each level where you square off against a boss. Once the boss is vanquished the world is turned from a gray, monochromatic wasteland, to a lush, green environment. Once you’ve restored these areas, you can instantly warp to and from them, provided the prince is standing on fertile ground. It’s handy, and it will have you looking out over an expanse for anything green to use as a warp point.

The real rub is that to obtain one of the prince’s four special powers that give you access to new areas, you must collect orbs called light seeds. The seeds only appear after you’ve restored an area, so you’re forced to backtrack through the entire level again just to snag them. There are a few instances where they’ll lead you to new areas you might not have explored, but they’re mostly a way to pad the length of the game.

The levels themselves split into several different paths, with dark ooze cordoning off areas you do not yet need to access. There’s a simple map system that will lead you in the general direction you should be heading, but you also have the ability to call on Elika to send out a light orb that will show you the exact path. It worked well in Fable II and it works well here.

The Prince has his sword and his feet, and that’s it. If you’re looking for weapon variety this is not your game. There’s no upgrade system for the sword, or any way to upgrade the combat at all. The tools you have at the beginning of the game are the same ones you have at the end.

While Prince of Persia fattens its play time by making you backtrack through each level to collect light seeds, the world is large and there are plenty of objectives to complete. You can basically choose your own path through the quest, which makes each person’s experience unique, and you’re looking at around 12 hours before you reach the end. There’s nothing to extend the experience after that, unless new character skins are your thing.

The Sands of Time innovated with its go-anywhere, scale-anything gameplay, and then Assassin’s Creed nailed it. Things have been simmered down to the essence here, making the game play more like Simon Says. Considering the pedigree, it’s disappointing.

If there are scratches on the wall, run on it. When you get to the end of the scratches, jump again and the game automatically sends you to the next object. If you come across a ring, you press the circle or B button. If the jump distance is a little longer, use Elika for a double jump. It becomes more about memorizing visual cues than freely traversing the environment.

Much like Sonic the Hedgehog, there are definitely moments where you feel like the game is playing itself. Do anything the game doesn’t expect and you’re met with awkward moments or, in the case of the PlayStation 3 version, outright crashes. The game believes that there’s just one way to get through each gauntlet, and it will make you believe it, too.

One seemingly interesting choice is that it’s impossible to die. If you fall in combat or slip while platforming, Elika is always there to scoop you up. It’s not as big a deal as you think, as it’s basically a clever way of masking the game’s frequent, and needed, checkpoints.

Combat allows a little more latitude, but you’re never faced with more than one enemy at a time. While the prince only has his sword and his gauntlet, he can utilize Elika to perform magic attacks, and even link his moves with hers to create some impressive combo strings. The caveat is that you don’t need to explore it. Just about any multi-hit combo involving Elika will allow you to defeat just about every enemy in the game without a scratch. There’s no need to block, counterattack, or really utilize the sword play at all.

The control scheme is quite elegant, though. The four face buttons are mapped to the prince’s sword attacks, his juggling gauntlet blows, acrobatics, and Elika. It can be fun to mess around with various combinations and see the results, but the game gives you little motivation to do so.

As you collect the light seeds you unlock four new magical powers for Elika. They range from allowing the prince to run on vertical walls to performing incredible leaps, but they’re confined to context-sensitive pads. These powers become the key to progression, and the map system does a great job of telling you which special power is needed to reach and restore each area. You’ll also get a smattering of quicktime events, but they never become a linchpin of the game’s combat.

Prince of Persia’s gameplay has been created with the casual player in mind. From the almost-automatic platforming to the formality of combat, the game doesn’t put up much resistance. Yet when the prince is scurrying upside down grasping for a ring a lot is forgiven.

Cel-shading was all the rage a few years back, but now developers are really starting to nail it. Prince of Persia is one of the best examples yet. The game is simply gorgeous, with incredible art, and some areas that are literally jaw-dropping. It features a saturated, muted palette that is the perfect compliment to the brooding tone of the game. It looks like a water color painting come to life. Watching a world turn from corrupt to fertile for the first time is one of the most memorable visual moments this year.

It’s no slouch on a technical level, either. The engine can push huge vistas or townships riddled with detail, with no visual hang-ups. The only thing more impressive is the platforming animation. When the prince runs upside down on a ceiling it almost looks possible. Transition animations are impossible to spot, and this is one place where the work on Assassin’s Creed has paid huge dividends. One issue we had was with how dark the game looks at times. We turned the brightness up on our HD sets and still had problems seeing nearby handholds.

The voice acting is generally strong, though the prince sounds like he could be from any modern day city, which doesn’t quite fit within the context of the game. The musical compositions are incredible, setting the right tone for every locale and situation.

Prince of Persia is a well-made product with production values to die for. But as an interactive experience, some conscious design and gameplay decisions will lesson the enjoyment for experienced players. The platforming is fluid yet only vaguely interactive, and the combat is robust but easy. There’s little weight given to mistakes, but if you’re in the mood to put your competitive side on hold and go along for a great ride, this is it. If you’re looking for a game that makes you feel good about your skill level, it makes for one princely purchase.