Prince of Persia Review
Ubisoft loves Prince of Persia. The series has been revived three times now, and this latest version is definitely an entirely new take on this classic series originally created by legendary game developer Jordan Mechner. The story of the young man, fighting palace guards and avoiding traps while making death-defying leaps has endured pretty well over the years, but this newest title and its large focus on accessibility is having a polarizing effect on its fanbase.
At the beginning, the Prince seems like a bumbling fool, wandering around in the desert yelling out a girl's name. When he gets mixed up with a young woman, we found out that he's actually looking for his donkey, who got away from him while carrying a fortune in gold. But this new girl, Princess Elika, quickly finds herself cornered by guards and our dashing hero decides to intervene. This starts the two on a fantastic journey to heal a land seemingly long forgotten and deserted, but still full of both life and corruption. No, it's not the most original of premises, but the art style and overall originality in the execution do make it much better than it probably sounds.
The most interesting part about Prince of Persia is that Elika stays with you pretty much at all times. She very rarely impedes your progress (although she may do some awkward, sudden things to stay out of your way), and you'll like having her around, as you literally cannot die with Elika by your side. Nope, falling to your death just triggers a very fast cutscene and you'll magically land back on your feet on the last solid ground you touched. Fighting a corruption monster or boss? Even if you get hit too many times, Elika will bring you back to life. Of course, the enemy might gain some health back if you make a habit of getting hit, but it's just impossible to die here.
That alone will turn off many hardcore gamers, especially ones who enjoyed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time's hourglass system and the way it gave you a few chances to do something right but didn't sit there all day waiting for you to make that jump. But I have found myself growing more and more fond of this system: it allows the developers to put together even more harrowing paths that involve big jumps, wall slides, wall runs, ceiling grabs, and more all in slick-looking combos. The most progress you'll ever lose in this new title is about a minute, and most of the time you'll lose only a few seconds. Knowing this allowed me more freedom as I started to experiment with my character's abilities, tried doing creative triangle-jumping off of multiple walls, and just having fun without worrying about where the last checkpoint was - because the last checkpoint is always the last stable, flat platform you stood on. (It's also how the save system works, so as long as you manually save your game before quitting, you'll lose very, very little progress.)
Now, the fact that Elika will continually save you from death during combat irks me. The boss fights will almost surely cause you to "die" a couple of times, as it's hard to avoid their attacks and sometimes even harder to tell how much damage you've taken. While the enemy has a health bar, you do not, and must judge it by the red flashes at the corners of the screen and your own character's posture. Take a couple of hits, and you'll find yourself in a Quick Time Event where one successful button press (or possibly a button mash) saves you, and one failed button press... still saves you. I love the complete inability to die during the platforming, and contrary to what I first thought might happen when introduced to this system, I have improved quite a bit at moving quickly throughout the game's high-flying areas, but I still haven't really gotten very good at fighting because I never get penalized much for getting hit. I'd have liked to see Elika helping more often with some serious challenge added, but just having the enemy regenerate a bit of health every time you fail miserably isn't enough challenge and gives the fights too little weight in the story.
What will keep you coming back to this game is not just running and jumping and swinging your sword. Prince of Persia has a smooth, interesting story about the two god-brothers, Ahriman and Ormazd, and the king - Elika's father - releasing Ahriman on the world at the beginning of the game. Elika and our hero must then travel between the areas surrounding a central temple, healing areas called Fertile Grounds in order to re-trap Ahriman again. Usually this involves getting to your destination, and then figuring out how to get up to the top of the area, usually with lots of fantastic acrobatics, and using Elika to go all Fifth Element in the center of these spots and change the whole landscape surrounding you. Then you'll have to pick up these "light seeds" that suddenly appear and are carefully spread throughout the area you just healed as kind of a reuse of the large jumping puzzle you just completed. This is an excellent way for the developers to reuse the level you just traversed in an entirely new way, as it allows you to see it in both corrupted and healed styles.
This routine can get a little tiring after a while, especially when you realize that there are four major bosses you fight over the course of the game and you'll battle each of them multiple times. What does get interesting is that most of these bosses will talk to you and you can even talk back to them, so there's some interest developing there as Elika is challenged repeatedly over her motivation to save her desolate and decrepit homeland. Overall, the emptiness of this rather large game world reminds me quite a bit of Shadow of the Colossus, but this time the player character has someone to talk to. And that you can do quite a bit - Elika will chat on with you if you pull on the left trigger repeatedly, and you can get into some interesting conversations about what she's doing there, what your own character's doing there, what they want in life, and more.
That alone might not be enough, but some of the areas are really graphically stunning and have some interesting history behind them that Elika will talk about. The whole story is very intriguing and pulled me along, even after I got a little sick of the "traverse, climb, fight boss, heal, grab seeds" routine. The game has a lot of talking, about half of which is actually mandatory, and the rest you'll get by choosing to talk to Elika. And it's the interactions with Elika that wound up being a lot more charming than I expected them to be - it's not just the way he'll grab her hands and switch places when they're both on a skinny outcropping, or how he'll throw her on his shoulders when climbing on vines (even though she's no acrobatic slouch and doesn't seem like she really needs it). It's also what happens in natural movements: if you drop down from somewhere and start running immediately, then you'll take off and Elika will find her own way down, but if you don't move after dropping, she'll hop down and he'll catch her in his arms then put her down.
Much of this, including the way Elika will save you every time you start to fall to your death, will include little voice quips back and forth that really make the characters seem human. More so than most games, a huge amount of effort has been put into making this duo really work together smoothly and talk naturally. It may not seem like much when I tell it to you, but it really builds a chemistry between the two characters that is very rare in an action game.
Switching over to the technical side for a bit, Prince of Persia's sweeping vistas and tall towers make up some of the best graphics I've seen on the current generation of consoles, although a fair bit of that can be attributed to Ubisoft's fantastic art and level design. Some of these areas are straight out of Arabian fantasies while others are like nothing I've seen in a game. And the way every area must be experienced first as corrupt and then can be more freely explored when it's healed helps you to better appreciate every nook and cranny in the game. There is a reward for recovering all 1001 light seeds spread throughout the kingdom, but it's not a particularly great one and getting any more than the 540 needed to unlock all four "plate" powers (these help the duo use magic to fly through otherwise impassable areas) is kind of a waste unless you really want some achievement points or trophies for it.
I also got a chance to play the PC version for a good chunk of time, and while it lacks many of the fine-tuning detail settings many PC games have, it runs great - much, much better than, say, the recent PC port of Grand Theft Auto IV - and looks even better than the console versions if your computer can handle high resolutions and antialiasing. Controls are smooth with the mouse and keyboard, and a 360 controller can be hooked up to make it feel just like the 360 version (but with even better graphics, if you've got the hardware). Unfortunately, this game just doesn't seem like it'll go over well with the hardcore PC crowd, so it will only likely find an audience on PC with the more casual players. And it's too bad, because much of the first impressions - of this being some kind of tree-hugging, guy-unfriendly game - aren't really indicative of how the game winds up looking and playing. It's got great visuals, an interesting story, smooth action and plenty of difficulty even without the ability to die.
I went into Prince of Persia expecting a ho-hum effort that trudged over some of the same tired ground that a couple of the past games have done, especially since Ubisoft seemed to almost hide this game in their fall lineup - they spent so much more money and time marketing other games like Far Cry 2. But it wound up being a wonderful game - while the combat is really missing something with its rigid dial-a-combos and strange health system, the exploration and healing of this lost land are incredibly addictive. If you're looking for an action game and are tired of ripping aliens apart with chainsaws, then this is a wonderful alternative on any of the three major platforms - PC, 360, and PS3. While this one doesn't quite reach some of the stylistic and gameplay-oriented heights of Sands of Time a few years back, this re-imagined Prince of Persia delivers great thrills and plenty of accessibility inside a very pretty package.