Last generation, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was one of my favorite games; it arguably introduced the concepts of wall-running and rewinding time, two mechanics that have now been used in many other projects. It was beautiful, intriguing, and almost ceaselessly entertaining. I wasn’t as big a fan of Warrior Within but Two Thrones was much better, and because of this, I’ve been looking forward to the next-gen PoP since the moment it was officially announced. Still, I admit to being skeptical when I did the preview…it was clear Ubisoft was taking a different direction with the franchise, and although I always encourage innovation and freshness, I am also a big fan of the “if it ain’t broke…” philosophy. In this case, I was on the fence. I wasn’t sure how I felt about a permanent partner (I despise babysitting in games), and although I never really liked the combat in any of the previous PoPs, I wasn’t convinced that a shift to one-on-one battles was the way to go. But after my time with Ubisoft’s latest, I realize I should’ve had more faith in the developers.
At one time, perhaps about three or four years ago, many graphical and artistic enthusiasts began to embrace the cel-shading style of visual depiction. A wide variety of titles on different platforms tried it out – including the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Wild ARMs 3 – but it never really caught on. In this way, it was a gutsy move for Ubisoft to use the cel-shading technique for Prince of Persia , but we like the result. There are some very obvious clipping issues, especially in the cut-scenes (Elika’s hair will often disappear entirely into her shoulders), but this is a common drawback of this graphical style. Other than this, it’s a gorgeous presentation, and even though some have accused cel-shading of being less vibrant and too washed-out, it’s tough to make that complaint here. The backgrounds are painted in broad, colorful brushstrokes, the character and enemy designs are excellent, and there’s a very appreciated amount of diversity in the numerous settings. Everything you need visible is visible, and all in all, this is one of the prettier titles currently available.
The sound isn’t quite as impressive or accomplished, due to a less-than-prominent soundtrack and a few poor voice acting selections. The good news is that the voice talents for both the Prince and Elika are great; it’s only the more minor character voiceovers (like random guards) that seem to be lacking, and even if the soundtrack isn’t as emphatic or effective as we would’ve liked, the music is still quite fitting. The sound effects for the platforming and combat are fantastic as well, so you’ll never feel short-changed in terms of audio immersion and intensity when focusing on the gameplay. It’s just that we’re missing some of the ambient effects we’ve become used to in this new generation, like birds chirping in the trees or the rushing sound of water; little things that combine to have a tremendous effect on the gamer. And really, as appropriate as the soundtrack is, it could’ve played a more significant role. But the balance is good, the Prince’s breezy banter is genuinely humorous and only slightly overplayed, and the sound is almost always unwavering and crystal clear. It just doesn’t seem as if there was quite as much effort put into this category in comparison to the graphics.
Those of you who are familiar with past entries in the series should be familiar with the basic mechanics, including running, jumping, climbing, wall-running, swinging, and grabbing hold of columns. But in a very strange dichotomy, Ubisoft manages to add much more to the formula while actually making the gameplay more streamlined and accessible. This time, the Prince can actually ceiling-run (very cool), slide down any surface without suffering injury thanks to his special metal claw, and with Elika’s help, reach new heights and distances. Now, you would think this should – by default – increase the level of complexity and/or difficulty, but as I just got finished saying, this is one streamlined adventure. See, Ubisoft decided to automate more of the Prince’s movements, which at first seemed disconcerting and even annoying, but eventually became an appreciated and even essential feature. It may take some getting used to, but once you realize you don’t have to press as many buttons as you perceive you would have to press, everything locks into place.
Let me explain. When you jump towards a wall that allows wall-run, you don’t actually have to do anything. The Prince will automatically run along the wall; you don’t hold the X button down or angle the analog in a certain way. You can, of course, hit the X button to jump after the wall run is complete, but you aren’t required to do anything else. When running up a wall, the same principle applies. Just run up to it and jump once, and if the Prince can reach a ledge, he will do so automatically; all you have to do is press up on the analog. Another example would be when the Prince leaps to a column. Typically, the next column is directly behind the first one, so you would expect to have to make the jump, spin around on the column so the Prince’s back is facing the next column, and then jump. But here, the Prince automatically swings to the opposite side of the column after completing the jump. See what I mean? Early on, we kept hitting the jump/action button when we didn’t need to, only to watch the Prince leap off walls and plunge to his death (well, that’s too strong a word, but we’ll get to that). It’s something we really had to get used to, and at first we were a little irritated at this new automation.
Then, we started to get into it. It really does streamline the gameplay, and because you gain new powers as you progress, this automation becomes less superfluous and more necessary as time goes on. For instance, when you jump to a beam which you have to balance on, you don’t have to moderate the length of your jump. The game automatically regulates the distance correctly so you don’t undershoot or overshoot your mark, which is a definite blessing in disguise if you don’t immediately recognize it. Perhaps it goes without saying, but you will encounter a variety of different platforming challenges throughout your quest, and this includes the old standbys as well as a few new ones, courtesy of the aforementioned powers and your partner. The thing about these games is that they’ve never felt repetitive in regards to the platforming elements, and Ubisoft keeps that positive trait alive with Prince of Persia . Sure, the same ol’ trail-and-error returns, but thanks to this revamped gameplay, it’s not anywhere near as prominent. Not surprisingly, the action is both faster and more dynamic.
Moving on to the combat, this new emphasis on one-on-one encounters works quite well. No more fighting off dozens of enemies; each battle is a decent challenge and can leave you stretched out on the floor, stiff as a board, if you don’t execute correctly. Although you don’t get the sense of urgency or panic inspired by hordes of enemies closing in on you, you do get the benefit of a far more stable and fully realized fighting system. You will remain facing the enemy at all times; you can initiate a sword attack with the Square button, an acrobatic attack with the X button, a grapple attack with the Circle button, and call in Elika with the Triangle button. You can also block by holding the R2 button, or, if you prefer to get a little more technical, press the R2 button at just the right time to deflect an opponent’s strike. R2 is also used to counterattack, and the key is to execute stylish, uber-effective combo attacks while still minding your surroundings. If an enemy is backing you towards an edge or a wall, you’re in trouble and you need to realize that; stop blocking and try to deflect an attack to stop the assault. Also, if your distance is incorrect and you try to attack, the enemy will instantly take advantage and you’ll quickly be on the defensive.
This process is smooth and entertaining, and with the help of Elika, you can really launch some seriously devastating and visually pleasing combination attacks. And now that we’ve alluded to Elika numerous times, it’s time to bring her into the limelight. We talked about how skeptical we were about having a permanent partner along for the ride in a game like this; as we said, we hate babysitting and we can’t stand it when the AI fails or simply gets in the way. But perhaps almost shockingly, Elika is a supremely competent character who always does exactly as she should, never gets in the way, and is a continual source of assistance in both platforming and combat. She will follow you everywhere; you couldn’t leave her stranded if you tried, and this nimble, mysteriously magical princess never leaves you hanging. In fact, she’s the one who saves you from death every time you trip and stumble (which will be often). If there’s a gap too far to leap, jump about halfway, press the triangle button, and watch as Elika boosts you the extra distance. Does she need help to reach your lofty position? You might think this could be problematic, but the Prince quickly and swiftly tosses her up. Again, automatically.
She can’t clamber along vines (why, we have no idea, considering everything else she can do), but she’ll just cling to your back like an obedient monkey while you cling to the vines. During battle, she matches you step for step, never leaving your side, and simply by pressing that handy Triangle button, she will launch herself into the fray and land several consecutive strikes. Teaming up with her to unleash devastating combos is both necessary and fun, and let’s not forget her unique ability to restore the Fertile Grounds to being…well, fertile again. In many ways, you often forget you have someone with you; Elika is so perfect, it’s almost like you’re using an additional tool in your arsenal in all aspects of the action. This was a most welcome surprise, and if other developers are reading this, here’s a message: if you must put a tag-along partner into your games, and that character is almost entirely AI-controlled, this is how you do it. She’s always there, but it never feels as if she’s there. There’s no hand-holding, no worrying about where she is or what she’ll do; none of that. It’s just a pleasure.
At first – we won’t give away the majority of the story – the Prince is actually the secondary character, as Elika is clearly the target of chasing guards, and her magical energy is required to progress. It’s her father who breaks the seal and frees the Dark God Ahriman, and the Prince is just along for the ride. This changes a little with time, though, and the relationship between Elika and the Prince is an interesting one, although we still believe the team could’ve done more with developing that personal dynamic. The Prince tends to leap back and forth between cocky sarcasm and dark determination, which was almost disconcerting at times, but it helped to define his character. Elika remains mostly stable in her determination throughout. As for the world, this isn’t your standard traditional format. Instead of a series of levels or areas you move through in a linear style, there’s plenty of open-endedness involved. There’s a central hub and a world map, which you can access with the Select button; you can choose your next destination provided it’s illuminated on the map, and simply press Triangle. Afterwards, Elika’s glowing orb of magic can guide you.
When you first get to this map, you can select one of four new destinations and areas; all of which consist of Fertile Grounds that must be restored. You can return to these areas almost any time you wish, and your express purpose for returning will be centered on the gathering of more Light Seeds. These appear after defeating the corruption that plagues a once-Fertile land; after defeating it, you can run around and grab as many as possible. There are 45 in each of the first few areas, for example, but until you get more powers, you won’t be able to nab them all, which is why you’ll need to return at a later time. When you have enough to unlock a new Power, you can return to the Temple (the central hub of the map) and claim your new skill, which will in turn allow you to do different things when out in the field. We do have a few problems with this setup, though: firstly, it can be cumbersome to access the map, select your destination, and then follow the guiding light…if you accidentally select the wrong location, and you don’t realize it, you can follow the light around in circles. Also, when collecting those Seeds becomes your life, it can get a little boring.
If you’ve got the completionist mentality like I do, you’ll want every last one of the Seeds, which means you may actually spend more time trying to find and grab them all than actually moving the plot of the game along. Depending on the type of gamer you are; this can be a negative aspect of the experience. Also, we detected some strange slowdown when you first enter an area after Teleporting; the Prince will move as if he’s mired in sludge for a second or two, but that’s no big deal. It’s not like you’re fending off enemies or trying to leap about in that first two seconds, right? As for another drawback, we found the pacing to be slow and erratic in some places, and the storyline could’ve been better. Even so, the focus remains firmly on the gameplay – which is exactly where it needs to be – and with solid control and a partner who never lets you down, you’ll almost always remain entrenched and fascinated. We did have a small issue with the camera, though, which is a touch too sensitive and can hinder your ability to look around, especially when hitched to a wall.
But in the end, Prince of Persia remains one of the most enjoyable experiences of the generation thus far. The graphical presentation and artistry isn’t without a few technical flaws, but it’s still a borderline stunning set of visuals, and the control really is outstanding once you’ve come to understand the less-hectic and more-streamlined approach. Elika is a fantastic companion, the load times are short and hardly intrusive, the balance between platforming, puzzle and battle is superb (less emphasis on puzzle this time, though), the one-on-one combat rarely ceases to be absorbing, the freedom of exploring where you wish at different times is great, and above all else, this adventure really never gets old. And hey, this is no 8-10 hour game; you will get some definite bang for your buck! Prince of Persia is a refined effort that appeals to the fun-loving gamer in all of us; it can entice both the hardcore as well as the casual, and that’s no easy task. Although there have been plenty of great titles in 2008, this is another one that deserves a place in your collection.
Not only that, but Prince of Persia , despite a few significant shortcomings, deserves a spot amongst the elite titles of the new generation, thanks almost entirely to a concerted effort to produce a wholly entertaining and wonderfully fluid experience.