In my opinion, Prince of Persia is hands down the most beautiful game of 2008. Technically and conceptually it’s simply jaw-dropping, and the graphics aren’t the only good thing about it.
It’s not a very long game either, but I don’t think I’ll ever finish it.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of my favourite games of all time. It was a great reboot for the series, introducing numerous unique gameplay mechanics and executing existing ones better than any of its predecessors. It has not only stood the test of time, but also gone on to influence many games that have followed it. SoT wasn’t perfect, but as a whole package — graphics, audio, story, etc. — it was a joy to experience. Hell, it was even funny, and who expected that?
The newest Prince of Persia didn’t have to make the same impact as SoT, it just had to be better than that game’s two woeful sequels. And in some ways, it is. In fact, here are a few of its highlights:
- Once again, it looks gorgeous.
- It makes you feel like a ninja, able to gracefully navigate its various environments.
- The punishment for screwing up is minimal, resulting in a less frustrating experience that encourages exploration/experimentation.
- Elika’s guiding light-orb is optional, but when used it greatly helps to orient the player.
- Godsmack did not provide the soundtrack.
It even contains some really interesting encounters. For example, at one point Elika — the ever-present sidekick — gets kidnapped by one of the bosses. This eventually leads the player to a faceoff against numerous mirror images of his companion. Whenever he tries to approach one of the versions of Elika, it gets teleported to another part of the area. The trick to finding the right one is to, well, leap to one’s death. Throughout the game, Elika always swoops in to save the prince if his acrobatics fail him, and this is exactly what’s required to break the spell cast on her. It’s a clever puzzle based on existing mechanics that are utilized in a completely new way.
So you see, it’s not a bad game…it just could’ve handled a bunch of things better:
1). The Level Design and Progression
Despite a lot of visual flair, the numerous areas of PoP all blend together. The basic layout of each level is that of a floating playground inside a fishbowl. Upon entering any new location, the player finds it dark and enveloped in “the corruption.” What follows is a vertical trek to the top of the level, a boss battle, and a trip back down. The descent usually takes a different path once the boss is defeated and the corruption recedes. This happens over, and over, and over again.
What makes this even worse is the wholly linear nature of playing through each level. Granted SoT was mostly a linear affair, but it was also more varied and peppered with various secrets. What’s more, its architecture contained granularity. This is partly a controls issue (more on that below), but the levels in PoP are all basically rollercoaster rides. These are quite satisfying at first, but quickly lose their charm when you realize you’re not actually free to walk around and traverse the levels yourself. Instead, you must snap the prince to “tracks,” and following a series of timed button presses, watch him maneuver to the track’s exit point. This is followed by some more walking/looking around, and then another track.
These segments can take anywhere from five seconds to nearly a whole minute to play out, and if you mess up, you have to start again at the beginning. It’s all semi-automated, and it really takes away from the player’s sense of freedom. Instead of letting you explore this wondrous playground, you’re shackled to the seat of what amounts to a series of theme park rides.
Before PoP came out, its developers also promised a fairly open-ended experience where the corruption would envelop more and more of each location as time passed. The player would have the choice of which areas to visit first, but the more he delayed his exploration, the more corrupt those uncharted locales would become.
In practice, this barely occurs on a cosmetic level.
The corruption itself is well done — it resembles the Spiderman/Venom symbiote, pulsating and constantly crawling toward the player — but the levels themselves seem to come in only three basic states: clean, corrupt and really corrupt. The last version simply puts more puddles in the player’s way and doesn’t really alter how the level is played.
The order in which the player tackles the areas is partly open-ended, but the whole system is surprisingly restrictive for no apparent good reason.
PoP’s main hub is the temple, and it leads to four “gateway” levels. These gateways are part of the four main zones of the game, and open up to the four main levels that comprise them. Each zone is diamond shaped, and a special power needs to be unlocked in order to traverse the diamond’s opposing levels (i.e., one power for the top and bottom level, and another one for the left and right). Once the gateway and the four levels are cured of the corruption, a final level opens up for the decisive boss battle.
This whole setup is filled with some baffling restrictions.
First of all, the powers necessary to explore each level sound a whole lot better than what they actually are. “The Wings of Ormazd” hints at as some powerful artifact that will grant the player new abilities, but it’s just a colour-coded key. If the player has it in his possession, he can use the corresponding magical plates to take the ultimate rollercoaster ride. If he doesn’t, then, well, there’s no way to get through the level and he needs to backtrack.
To acquire the plate-activating powers, the player must heal the land by getting rid of the corruption and collecting the light orbs that get left behind in its wake. This is a catch-22 as in order to heal most of the levels, their plates must be activated. In the end, this means constantly jumping from zone to zone and collecting leftover light orbs. It’s a breadth-first form of exploration that’s needlessly enforced. It also has the added disadvantage of making the player feel like a headless chicken, aimlessly cartwheeling around the game and fighting all the bad guys without ever defeating any of them.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that even if you’ve unlocked all the plates and have made your way to a zone’s final level, it will not open for you until all of the zone’s other levels are cleared. It’s yet another pointless way of ensuring that not even the smallest areas of the game are ever skipped over.
2). The Characters and the Narrative
There’s been some controversy over the character of the prince, and justifiably so. He doesn’t look or sound one bit Persian, and his personality is a bit fratboy-ish. Elika, on the other hand, feels quite detached from the setting and comes across as rather bipolar — one second she’s cracking a joke, and the next she’s furious and in tears over what has happened to her homeland.
Of course it could’ve been worse, but if these two were meant to be modeled after Indiana Jones and one of his smart, tough ‘n’ sexy love interests, Ubisoft certainly dropped the ball. The prince and Elika just come across as out of place and juvenile, resembling a slightly more grown up version of Link and Zelda from the old cartoons.
In SoT, the prince started off as a pompous, greedy and ambitious youth, but eventually changed over time. There was real character progression there! He was also the narrator of the story, plugging into its time-rewinding mechanic that culminated in a very clever and gratifying ending. The game also had a really strong fairy-tale vibe, subtly drawing upon Persian mythology and emulating the storytelling style of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
PoP has none of that.
Once again, it didn’t have to top SoT, but what we ended up getting is an “original” but dull tale. I tried to pay attention, but none of the names or history stuck with me. I know there were two deities, one good and one evil, but that’s about it.
PoP also introduced a manual talk button, but its execution feels very rough. Basically the player has the option of starting a conversation with Elika at any time (provided the two of them are standing on safe ground). In theory, this should’ve accommodated both the players who want to hear all the details of the story, and those who just want to plow through the game without interruptions. However, in practice it just doesn’t work out.
The lack of automatic banter between the prince and his sidekick is noticable compared to SoT, and the manual conversations are a poor substitute. They require you to stop all movement and repeatedly hit the talk button. The prince will say something with the camera facing him, then it will switch to Elika and she’ll respond. The segment will then repeat or simply end, and if there’s still a talk icon in the bottom-left corner of the screen, you can resume/finish the conversation. There’s no way to just initiate the whole thing with one button press, and the camera work quickly gets tiring.
And, of course, you can’t really move while these scenes play out. It would’ve been a good option to listen to some of the backstory and character commentary while going through the levels (especially when it’s for the umteenth time), but you simply can’t.
3). The Combat
PoP attempted to create a rhythmic combat system where only a single opponent can face off against the prince at any one time. It sounded promising, and the rhythmic part worked fairly well in Assassin’s Creed, but the new battle system falls flat on its face.
There are four basic moves in the game: a sword attack, a magical attack (where Elika aids the prince with her powers), a throw and an “agility” move. The agility move doesn’t do much by itself, but all of the arsenal can be chained together to create combos. The problem is, there’s no real difference between the various combos, and there’s not enough feedback informing the player of how and when to execute them. Well, unless you use the throw to toss an enemy up into the air — when this happens, the prince will either randomly slam them down no matter which button you press, or time will slow down to a crawl and you’ll have roughly two seconds to execute each juggling move in the improvised chain.
Combos either end automatically or when the enemy gets too close to the edge of the battlefield. When this happens, an incredibly awkward transition follows where the combo stops and a quick time event follows. The quick time events also come into play when the enemy backs up the player, or when he takes too much damage. Some enemies even have unique quick time events associated with the specific sequences that need to be executed to defeat them.
When an enemy is encountered, you can’t run away either. The game will automatically lock onto your opponent and change the whole control scheme. While locked on, the prince’s movements become painfully slow, which leads to another problem: the powered-up enemies.
I assume the developers eventually decided that the combat was too easy, so they figured they’d solve this by giving all the enemies the ability to “power-up.” While powered-up — indicated by a bunch of black smoke and extra corruption trails — you basically can’t hit the enemy but it can hit you. The only way to end this state is to get close enough to throw your opponent, something that’s fairly hard to do while lethargically strafing around each other.
Overall, there’s just not enough variety in the fights, and not enough actual encounters to break up the pacing. Combat happens very rarely, and when it does, the prince is left with a few repetitive attacks and none of the acrobatic arsenal he possessed in the previous games.
4). The Controls
Perhaps PoP’s biggest fault is its control scheme. It goes hand-in-hand with the combat and level design, and it makes a large part of the game play like an extended quick time event. Simply put, button presses often initiate long, drawn out animations that the player must watch until the next “opening.”
Here’s an example:
- The player presses the jump button to wall run along the left side of a cave.
- As the prince approaches a rock wall and begins to slide down, the jump button is pressed again so he can leap to the other side of the cave and resume the wall run.
- Once again the prince starts sliding down, so another jump is executed. This one sends him back to the left side of the cave where the wall run resumes.
- As the prince begins to end his wall run animation for the third time, the cave opens up to reveal a vast palace and a series of slides. The jump button is pressed again and the prince leaps onto one the slides.
- A grinding animation follows, and just before the slide ends, the jump button is pressed again to leap onto the next slide.
- The second slide eventually curves into a vertical wall, and the player must press the jump button to leap towards it.
- The jump turns out to be too long, however, and the player must press the magic button so that Elika can give him an extra boost.
- As the prince touches the wall and scrambles up , the player notices a metal ring sticking out from the brickwork. One touch of the grab button, and the prince hauls himself up.
- As he bravely continues to scale the wall, the prince gets close enough to another ring to grab it. Another button press, and he resumes his seemingly futile ascent.
- Just as the prince begins to slow down, he reaches a magical plate. The player presses the magic button, and he’s sent flying through the level — at this point he can actually hold the direction in which the prince should lean so as to avoid crashing into obstacles.
- Once the magical rollercoaster ride ends, the prince is deposited on safe ground where he must search for the entry point to the next series of simple button presses.
This type of an interface results in a profound disconnect from the player and his character. In order to keep the action going, you can’t — for example — just grab the metal ring and hold onto it for a second or two. You also can’t hold the jump button to wall run — the sequence is automatic, and pressing the jump button a second time will only send you leaping into danger.
Now none of this means that the action needs to be instant and can’t follow a rhythm; Ninja Gaiden and other similar titles suffer from a lack of weight and inertia as those are sacrificed in favour of instant action. Still, the two can be combined into something very fun and rewarding — just take a look at SoT.
In the end, PoP wants you to sit and watch, patiently waiting for your next chance to press a button. It makes for a calm, casual experience, but it’s also one step closer to an interactive movie — a “current-gen” version of Dragon’s Lair — than a game.