It has been three years since the last Prince of Persia and Ubisoft, fresh out of a similar Middle-Eastern themed excursion in the form of Assassin’s Creed, is eager to give this iconic franchise the current-gen treatment it deserves. However, this is not just an update of technology, but of ideas. It is a new prince, with a new motivation in a new Persia.
The game focuses on the efforts of this new Prince, an aimless drifter and bandit, forced by accident into aiding Elika, a bona-fide princess, in saving the world from the dark God Ahriman, who is threatening to escape from his prison and unleash a great blight upon the world (that old chestnut). The Prince and Elika must travel throughout the land, bringing life back to the fertile grounds which give power to the seal that binds Ahriman in his cell under the Tree of Life.
In terms of gameplay, this premise manifests itself through a number of arenas dotted throughout a semi-open landscape that must be cleared of Ahriman’s influence. As such, players will find themselves traveling from area to area, working their way through puzzles, defeating bosses and collecting balls of light that can be used to learn new abilities (sound familiar?).
Who is the new Prince, then? Well, for a start, he is prince in name alone. Arrogant, cocky and full of enough bad one-liners to make me check that the game was actually made in Montreal, not the back-end of Hollywood. Rather than creating the image of a tragically ironic prince, a diamond in the rough, Ubisoft has created a banal and off-putting lead that cannot help but break the sombre mood and elegance of this mythical Persia with his corny, 21st century wit.
Lucky for this game that the co-star is the eponymous Prince’s complete antithesis. Elika is wonderfully rounded and constantly surprising, never letting herself fall into any of those most worn female gaming stereotypes. She adds balance and is infinitely more believable as a lead than the Prince himself.
In terms of gameplay, Elika has one vital role to play. Whenever the Prince miss-times a jump or is struck down by an enemy she will interject and save him from his last breath. In effect this is the new game’s answer to the time-traveling functionality present in the Sands of Time and prevents the Prince from ever actually dying. Whilst this presents an interesting solution to old karmatic gaming cycle of spawn/death/respawn, the fact that Elika only throws the character back a few seconds means that there is little recrimination for any silly risks taken that might have been reconsidered given the threat of a reload or losing 10 minutes of progress. She also provides the game’s answer to the old physics defying gaming staple of the double jump, giving the Prince an extra aerial boost when needed. On top of all that, she can use her magic to give the Prince some guidance in the expansive and often complex game world.
There is an excellent dynamic between the two characters – which is a good thing considering they are together throughout the duration. For all the Prince’s cockiness, Elika manages to shoot him down without being too tomboyish. As such, in-game dialog (handily initiated with L2/L1) is carried well by the two characters and is always informative and entertaining. Furthermore, the way the two characters merge and work together in-motion (both in and out of battle) is a sight to behold.
Though the additions brought by Elika are minor in the grander scheme of things, they keep the experience together and ensure it is never broken by needless menu screens or map markers. Furthermore, she is one of the few gaming sidekicks who are actually indispensable and make you genuinely grateful to have them there.
Combat takes place on a purely one to one basis. Prince of Persia is probably one of the few games where the player is guaranteed to always outnumber the enemy. Though at the beginning of the game the player may long for a good crowd of ghouls to slash their way through, a couple of hours in they’ll wonder why they would want it any other way. To make the most of the combat the player will need to use both the Prince and Elika together, taking advantage of their strengths and diligently choosing when to attack to link together powerful combos. When done correctly enemies can be made into stupidly short work, however silly choices and button mashing can turn simple fights into long protruded dances with death.
It is evident that Ubisoft wanted to keep the same fluidity of motion they achieved in Assassin’s Creed, yet deliver it in a much more managed way. The result is arguably a step forward. The Prince certainly moves with a great deal of fluidity through the game world and its many dungeons, however this comes at the expense of the user’s experience and creativity.
Jumping and moving through each obstacle is merely a question of responding to on-screen cues (such as a hanging bar or wall to run on) with specific button presses that ensure he reacts with them in the correct way. Press the right buttons, he runs along the wall and jumps off onto the next platform – press the wrong ones, he plummets to his messy death (or right into the arms of Elika, as the case may be). This completely neuters the creative and strategic freedom present in Assassin’s Creed and replaces it with the constant feeling of being on rails that is less akin to an action adventure than it is to a rhythm game.
That aside, as soon as the player begins to get into the habit of responding to the right obstacles with the right responses it is an utter pleasure to watch the Prince flow across the cel-shaded canvas of the world like a long, elegant streak of blue-red paint.
The world of Prince of Persia is, when alls said and done, gorgeous. Vast, though not overwhelming, Ubisoft have created some truly remarkable vistas. Each area of the game is distinct and wonderfully realized yet manages to fit beautifully within the whole. It really does feel like a Persia of myth and legend, with great charismatic features that are firmly rooted in a classic, grounded aesthetic and architectural style. One flaw at the micro scale, however, is that because of the reliance the character movement has on certain visual cues (a scratched wall to run on here or some vines to climb on there) the level design can often feel very repetitive.
There are obvious points of comparison between Prince of Persia and other titles. The idea of moving around a semi-open world, removing it of darkness bit by bit is very reminiscent of Twilight Princess. There are further comparisons to be made with the work of Team Ico, the male/female duo is in itself very much like Ico (though admittedly, Elika is a lot more helpful than Yorda ever was) and the one-on-one format of combat further nods in the direction of Shadow of the Colossus. Furthermore, the game owes much more than a smile to the art direction and structure of Okami.
All in all, Prince of Persia is a game that cannot help but look backwards. It is the reimagination of an iconic franchise; it gives plausible, context-driven alternatives to some of gaming’s biggest clichés; it builds on many of Ubisoft Montreal’s prior successes in Assassin’s Creed; and, it takes its influences from all the right places. The result is a solid, polished and strong title that does pretty much everything it says on the tin. However, that isn’t really enough, and whenever the game tries to push the envelope and do something a little different it very quickly deflates. This is of course barring one major exception: Elika. It is ironic in many ways that ultimately it is the Princess of Persia that really carries this title beyond the remits of its genre and puts it upon a higher plane of being – and it will be certainly her inclusion that will make me come back for any sequel.
- Stunning art direction and beautifully realized game world.
- Many appropriate and enjoyable references to other excellent titles and continues where Assassin’s Creed left off.
- Elika makes a wonderfully rounded and invaluable asset to both the story and gameplay, especially in countering the Prince’s inherent personality flaws and offering interesting alternatives to old gaming staples.
- The Prince is a prick.
- Movement, despite looking beautiful, can often feel restricted.
- Level design suffers from the use of repetitive visual movement cues.