By Chris Matel
There are few franchises that have survived throughout video-game history. Yet, the Prince of Persia games mark one such series that has stood the test of time (pun completely intended.) From simple running and jumping sprites, to time-defying, fully-rendered character models, the Prince has most recently been reborn in an acclaimed trilogy of mystical adventures. The Sands of Time story may be over, but Ubisoft is bringing the acrobatic prince back with a whole new take on gameplay and visuals, as well as a completely different host of characters.
We recently had the opportunity to go hands-on with Ubisoft Montreal's upcoming, and simply named, Prince of Persia. Based on our sit-down with a now month-old build of the game, it's safe to say that while you have a whole new Prince character in your control, you immediately feel like you're playing a Prince of Persia game.
Right from the start, it's evident this is a new take on the franchise; not only is the mix of illustration cell-shading and detail a completely new and impressive art direction, but the first glimpse of a wayward, gypsy-clothed Prince gives away that this isn't the same character who was manipulating time in the Scheherazade universe of the previous generation.
Pushing his way through a sandstorm, the unfamiliar character seems to be searching for someone, calling out, “Farah!...Faaaarrraaah!” through the howling grit—turns out, Farah is his donkey, which carries a large treasure on its back. All of a sudden, the same drifter stumbles upon a woman fleeing from armed men. Apparently a man of good virtues, you take control of the new character and learn the moves necessary for conquering everything from flat rock walls to lofty columns or convenient wall-rings and crevices, as you follow the woman through a chase sequence that acts as your tutorial.
Essential core mechanics, which were instituted in the Sands of Time series, cater to that feeling of familiarity. With a gauntlet adorned on the new Prince's left hand, moves like running along walls, swinging from poles, climbing pillars, and the like feel reminiscent of gameplay past; however, new moves are made possible with such a tool at your disposal. While running along walls like Spider-Man is still a must for getting from one ledge to another, you'll also have to use the armored gauntlet to grip-slide your way down walls, slowing your descent and allowing you time to get wall-jumps just right.
After some simple-to-learn movements and getting accustomed to the rocky desert terrain, we finally caught up with the woman, who we learned was a princess on the run—plot details were a bit allusive due to the fact that the early build was still missing some cutscene dialog, and it was early on in the game—and was capable of using magical powers. Our conversation was cut short as a battle was initiated with one of her pursuers.
From the tutorial section as well as the rest of the demo, we discovered that battles, with both re-spawning minions and main baddies, have taken on a more cinematic and up-close-and-personal approach. Where the Sands games used a more omnipotent and wide-angle view for acrobatic combos between enemies, this new Prince game brings the camera into a close-quarters perspective. Something of a mix between Sierra's Bourne game and the latest Zelda titles, Prince of Persia's combat leverages defensive maneuverability for parries and counter-attacks. Instead of keeping the Prince stationary while defending himself, we had full access to rolls, dodges and other aversion tactics that allowed the Prince to keep his sword up while running around, keeping the action from taking on too much of a lull.
We were told by Thomas Delbuquet, the lead combat designer of the title, that the ability to hop around and counter attack was a deliberate decision, made to empower the player with a character who wasn't portrayed as a meek fighter, but a competent one who uses defense to their advantage. The combat setup we experienced highlighted this philosophy as we fought one of five area bosses, the Warrior, several times, incorporating Elika into the mix for some magic-assisted attacks when our sword was rendered ineffective as the Warrior changed physical states.
While this change in combat emphasis makes battles less about cornering an opponent and more about movement, blocking and attacking, we can't help but feel a bit worried at how this change will pan out in the long-run. One thing that made the first Sands game so entertaining was the branching combo system that allowed you to hop off of multiple enemies with flips, chops and punches. This time around, the focus (at least from what we played) is on a single enemy at a time, where you can chose from physical attacks with your sword or magical attacks from Elika, grab-attacks from your gauntleted hand, or an acrobatic move to initiate multiple strikes. Animations looked good, but we wonder if there will be enough variability in your moves-list throughout the entirety of the game.
The combat may be fun, but one of the standout elements, which has always been a huge draw of the series, is the platforming offering. Along with a new way to fight enemies, so too is there a new story that creates different ways to get around a branching-open-world environment. From what we could tell, with the Prince stumbling into Elika's struggle, you become intertwined in a story of daughter-versus-father-versus-god-of-darkness. As luck would have it, Elika's father manages to unleash Ahriman, the God of Darkness, by destroying the Tree of Life, and it's Elika who takes it upon herself to defeat the evil that has all but escaped from its imprisonment. In a Luke-offers-Han-riches-from-Leah's-rescue scenario, the Prince eventually obliges to help Elika in her determined quest. Where the Sands game offered unique gameplay elements through space-time manipulation and alter-egos, this latest Prince game uses your partnership with Elika for more than just fighting sequences.
Starting from the temple where the Tree of Life was destroyed, we ran off to one of five areas with a guiding light from Elika leading us to our objective. This time around, the game unfolds in a semi-linear way where you can choose where you want to go—kind of. With Ahriman's influence spread across the land, we could go where Elika had enough of Ormazd's, the God of Light (go figure), power to get us to. It's possible to go just about anywhere you want, when you want, but it's only possible to play and defeat Ahriman's corruption in areas based on the order you unlock powers. For the purpose of the demo, we had access to two powers which allowed us to run up walls and grip special power plates that propelled us to other plates.
Thus, it's Elika's powers that replace the time abilities from the earlier games: you don't reverse time to save yourself from a misjudged jump or a killing blow from an enemy, it's Elika's helping hand that pulls you from a pit and will always bring you to safety. In fact, there isn't any way to die in Prince of Persia; there are no Continues required. No matter what, no matter how dire our situation seemed, Elika always came to our aid. The idea here is trial-and-error, without forcing the player to wait for a load screen; all we had to deal with was a short animation of Elika saving us, and the Prince reappearing on the last stable ground he touched. It seems a bit strange to have no consequences for ill-timed jumps or poor fighting skills—something that is in stark contrast to something like Contra—and we're just a bit weary to see how it pans out throughout the whole story.
What we played, however, made us thankful for the forgiving nature of the game. Aside from some slightly laggy controls—we don't know if it was the build or deliberate timing, but most of the acrobatic moves didn't sync right when we pressed a corresponding button—the platforming elements mesh together for fluid sequences of leaps, wall-jumps, double-jumps (assisted by Elika), wall-grapples, wall-runs and ceiling running. Each portion of the cavernous areas we played became more satisfying as we propelled the Prince from a ledge, across a wall, between hanging columns and over deep crevasses. It wasn't all about timing, however, as a simple puzzle required us to turn a twin-pulley system to line up parts of a wall so we could climb up it. Transitioning between the elements involved timing and a couple a of tries, and although it's not completely free-form like what we saw in Assassin's Creed, and although the camera sometimes got caught behind large objects, obstructing our view, it was fun nonetheless.
Coming away from our first hands-on with the upcoming Prince game gave us a hint of what to expect come this December. We're slightly worried that the game may become a bit repetitious as each area of the branching world follows a pattern that involves you traversing a section just to defeat Ahriman's dark influence, then replay it to collect glowing bits of light to power up Elika and unlock another section, but entertaining platforming is helping us allay our skepticism.
With Okami-like, colorful and striking art direction, along with partner-reliant gameplay that isn't as cumbersome as Ico, and with a classic Prince of Persia feel, we're excited to see the Prince reborn—especially with Nolan North (Nathan Drake) voicing the Prince's wit.