Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia marks the release of a rebooted version of Jordan Mechner's 1989 classic. Certainly recognizable to any hardcore gamer out there, the Prince of Persia title is meant to signify that this is a whole new take on the franchise, deserved of the original moniker. The stories and universe of Prince of Persia games past may be reduced to nothing more than a few easter-egg moments here and there, but what is delivered is a game that uses a struggle between Zoroastrian gods to set the stage for a strong re-envisioning of an old favorite. Some gameplay elements become stale and some just don't work, but the Canadian developers managed to capture the essence of the series while turning it into a functional piece of art.
Leaving a conflicted Prince in the Sands' trilogy, you now control of a new Prince character whose hubris has allowed him to lose a treasure laden donkey in a howling sandstorm. As it turns out, this isn't a typical surge of Mother Nature's pent up rage—instead, it's the winds of fate that are guiding the Prince to his destiny as he comes across a fleeing Elika. From the opening tutorial sequence on, it becomes the two of you versus Ahriman, the God of Darkness, and his Corruption: you take on the duty of driving evil from the former kingdom of the Ahura. Between the Prince's acrobatics and sword skills, and Elika's magical powers derived from Ormazd, the God of Light, your task is to regain four different lands that are under the control of Ahriman's strongest servants, and to recapture Ahriman in the Tree of Life.
The story this time around puts less emphasis on you as the Prince and his adventure, than it does on Elika and her struggle to save her people's land. In terms of its exposition, the story isn't the real draw of the game, but it serves its purpose. It's Elika's father, the Ahuran King, whom is responsible for setting Ahriman free and unleashing his Corruption unto the kingdom; but while this setup makes for some dramatic moments and battles with the Prince, it does little to make you care about situation.
Prince of Persia is a networked world, delivered in an open-world style, and as you progress to each new area of the map you have an option to interact with Elika to learn about the area and its importance to the Ahura. The only problem is, no matter how much the Princess pains over the destruction that Ahriman has caused, the only thing you see is a world filled with little else than shades of gray and dark magic sludge. Once you concur one of these territories, however, the decayed land is revived by Elika as her powers create an explosion of colors, flowers, grass and bits of collectible energy pieces, called Light Seeds. Yet, no matter how many lands you free of Corruption in such a display of color and life, it just feels like you're pursuing a simple objective of “Beat the Darkness”—Charlie Murphy style.
No matter how many times you interact with Elika, exchanging quips about would-be treasures, playing guessing games, or gaining insight into characters' pasts, the discussions never deliver a connection or a reason to stay interested in the plight at hand. The delivery mechanism of being able to talk with Elika, instead of being talked at, is a subtle tool that works well with the pacing of the game, and the dialogue, though at times a bit too much and over-the-top, is well-rounded and acted perfectly—there's just something missing from the formula. Maybe with witnessing the fall of the Ahura or a more substantial change from healing each land with Elika, would the feeling be different; as things are, the only real moment in the story where you find yourself caring about the characters and the situation is at the end of the game, with irony that even Shakespeare might be proud of. No, as it is, the true draw of this Prince of Persia is the breathtaking visuals and smooth-as-ever platforming.
From the main menu to the very first frame of the game, it's evident this Prince is praiseworthy. With sprawling mountains and structures in the distance wherever you are, and dense, plunging vistas in nearly every part of the kingdom, the environments and set-pieces in the game are a pleasure to look at. Each area is distinct and cater to the characteristics of the evil corrupting it, but no matter how gorgeous the land is to look at, it pales to the overall art direction and character design. Traced in a hard, black line, everything is a perfect mix of hand-drawn cell-shading and detail. Character models pop with intense blues, reds, whites and greens, and play beautifully off of the dark grays and blacks from Ahriman's influence. Visuals only get more intense after you heal lands, as light floods through windows or crevices overhead. If there's nothing else you can take from any amount of time with the game, it's a deep appreciation for an art style that takes Okami's novelty and brings to a whole other level.
No matter how good the game looks, however, it has to play well, and while the story may not lend much of an interest to extended hours of entertainment, being able to string together portions of running on walls, swinging from poles, and sliding along angular slopes with smooth animations and pacing is a real treat. The Prince of Persia series is built on platforming, and the latest title doesn't disappoint fans looking for new displays of acrobatics.
While the Prince is still able to pull off some signature maneuvers, he also has a few new tricks at his disposal, with help from Elika and a gauntlet adorned on his left hand. By collecting those aforementioned Light Seeds, Elika is able to unlock four different powers, which are used in collaboration and succession with standard Prince moves, by activating them when you come across a corresponding Power Plate. Where the Sands trilogy used time manipulation for its magical elements, Prince of Persia uses these four powers to add new ways of getting from one place to the next. For the most part, the powers work and make for high-flying interactions between Elika and Prince, yet there's still a level of cheesiness as you hold on to Elika's shoulders and literally fly—in the most roundabout ways—to your next location. In these instances, you're allowed only a small area to jostle about, to avoid walls and hanging objects.
But such a small degree of freedom is really what Prince of Persia is about. Though the game is setup like an open world, with the ability to go where you want, and load screens are only incurred when you teleport between healed areas, there's a feeling of masked linearity and scripted events. Even though the game uses a modification of the Scimitar engine, you don't feel nearly as free as you did while running between Damascus and Jerusalem as in Assassin's Creed. Thus, the only shortcomings with the platforming action, here, is the inability to influence exactly where you want to go. Your movements feel stuck to predetermined directions where you are sucked into an action, be it wall-running or grabbing a nearby pillar. Transitioning from one movement to the next feels similarly scripted as all it takes is you pressing the necessary button sometime before you interact with your target object. In the end, however, you feel accomplished for putting together a routine that resulted in you getting to your destination safely, and for collecting all 1,001 Light Seeds: It's just plain fun.
Then again, if you're clumsy and miss your timing: try, try again! Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this generation's Prince game is Elika's helping hand. Depending on how you look at it, you can't technically die; there's no Continue screen, no gruesome death, no consequences for not playing well—instead, all you see is Elika's hand saving you from your predicament, and a quick exchange of witty banter as you're reverted to the last stable footing the Prince held. While it's easy to debate and discuss the mechanic, this is really something that must be left up to the player as to whether they like it or not. For some, this will make or break the experience, but for me, it works. I'd much rather have a quick animation of Elika's hand than have to wait five seconds watching a Load bar. It may seem too forgiving, but it keeps the attention on play time instead of load time.
With exceptional visual imagery and competent platforming elements, the last integral part of any Prince game is the combat. This time around, fighting Ahriman's faithful is less about jumping between enemies in leaps of coordinated attacks; instead, it's about showdowns. Just as we shared in our preview, fights take place in a more head-to-head setup where it's you and Elika versus your opponent. Each of the four areas requires you to take on one of Ahriman's henchmen a few times: once for each connected region, and one more time to finally kill off the villain. There are also basic soldiers to fight, which pop up every once in awhile.
Although the combat encourages you to block and deflect attacks as you evade your opponents attacks, battles take on repetitive cycles of action with quick-time mini-games and changing combo branches based on the physical state of the enemy. A necessity to interact with the environment sometimes does well to vary the fights at moments, but even with distinct enemies, each battle is reduced to the same experience as the last. Branching into different combos is great, as you grab an enemy, throw them into the air, use Elika to punish them with a few magic-based blows, and drive them into the ground; but, if you get them near an edge, or have to dodge and parry some of their attacks, you'll have to play button-mashing games...over, and over again, until they're finished.
While we understand that quick-time events are “in” and allow a broader audience to get involved with a game, it doesn't mean they need to be used to death. The fast-paced action and swordplay in the game is exciting and looks great, and the defensive awareness is wholly welcomed, but when it's continually interrupted by QTEs the whole experience gets annoying and bothersome. If Elika can intervene and save us, then why not take a bit of a chance with battles that are less about timing out button sequences?
Adding to the annoyance are some small bugs, yet they do little to alter opinions formed from the overall experience. What's amazing, however, is the few times the game struggles with the framerate, it's hard to get over that there's almost no loading necessary between the different regions; you can run, uninterrupted, from region to region. Clipping and soundtrack and background glitches don't go unnoticed, but we didn't come across anything debilitating or game-ending.
Though not perfect in its execution, Prince of Persia certainly is worthy of the namesake for which it assumes. Nolan North and the rest of the actors lend well to their respective characters, giving them believable personae—it's just a shame the exposition doesn't draw you in more. On the other hand, beautiful art and a carefully constructed contrast between dark and light elements more than make up for most of the game's shortcomings. Though the switch to more intimate battles falls a bit flat, a few small tweaks could make for excellent combat in future titles. And more Prince of Persia is what we want to see down the road. The ability to mask linear, scripted gameplay with addicting platforming is evidence of the game's brilliance...and damned if it isn't one of the most beautiful games to-date.
Color, color and more color—well, there's black too, but it all looks good
Prince can run on walls, what can you do?
Seriously, this game is beautiful
Oh, hell no:
Ah-hahahahaha, take that Ahri...tap X...really?
Prince can run on walls, but he can't jump in the direction I want?
Elika can fly! So why did we have to go around in a million circles before we got to land?