Ubisoft’s beautifully crafted Prince of Persia adopts a unique art style and fluid, intuitive controls to weave a story where character development takes a lead roll.
I haven’t played any of the previous Prince of Persia games, so my view is untarnished from expectations. With a blank slate I want to look at the 2008 franchise reboot on its own merits rather than through comparison.
Visually Prince of Persia is superb. Ubisoft definitely invested a lot of time designing the style, which is kind of a cross between realistic and cartoony. Bold colors and sharp contrast create a vibrant world. With so much detail spent to the environment it is not surprising the focus of the game is on fluidly moving through it. Combat plays second fiddle.
The game is set in one gigantic game world. One large, open level. The Prince is alone in a sandstorm searching for his lost gold-laden donkey when, Elika, the lynch pin of the game literally falls into his arms. Instantly enthralled with his beautiful new companion, the Prince decides to help her on her quest to save her kingdom by re-imprisoning an ancient god that she had an indirect role in releasing.
Elika is the star of this game. In many ways she is the hero, the Prince is just her helper. She uses her new-found magic to help the Prince clear long gaps. She never let’s him fall, catching him and returning him to the last solid ground before a misjudged leap. In battles her magic attacks are mapped to a button to be strung together with the Prince’s other attacks in lavish combos. She saves the Prince if his opponent is about to land a lethal blow, making death impossible. She is so integral that the few times she is not with the Prince you feel lost, small and inadequate.
The absence of death in the game frees the player from constant saving and reloading. It makes the game more accessible and widens its potential audience and appeal. This removes stress from the game, creating a laid back atmosphere where the player can soak in the sights of the game world and relish in the Prince’s gravity-defying scrambling across sheer cliff faces. I found this feature heightened enjoyment and encouraged creativity and risk taking.
When the dark god was partially released, his minions took control and corrupted much of the game world. Our main character duo needs to heal the lands by defeating the four bosses a total of six times each. The player is free to heal each area in whatever order he chooses, however as one area is cleared the corruption increases in the others areas meaning the difficulty naturally scales up as the game progresses. Not by much though.
Game play is simple, favoring deliberate and precise button presses over mashing. Visual clues in the environment cue you into which of the four buttons you need to press, and they don’t necessarily need to be exactly timed. Enemy encounters can be skipped entirely if the Prince is fast enough to destroy an enemy while it is spawning. Fighting is a mixture of stringing together combos and quick time events. While I abhor quick time events, they were only distracting in later fights where they seemed to happen too often, breaking the game’s fluidity. You only fight one enemy at a time, and they are few and far between. Stringing combos together is intuitive with no memorization required. It encourages experimentation, yet the player can access a combo tree in the option menu to aid in planning nearly unending strings of attacks.
The plot is intriguing, but it is not forced down the player’s throat. It is laid out in short conversational cut scenes between the Prince and Elika whenever they first arrive at a corrupted area and after Elika heals the area. For more depth you can choose to talk to Elika anytime you want to hear snippets about the land’s background, Elika, the Prince and the enemies. There is a lot of recorded dialogue and it is rarely recycled.
While the story is interesting and the game world is stunningly surreal, they both don’t seem very deep. With only a small cast of characters you feel more like an actor in a play than a self-determined hero. The lack of death as a penalty makes it feel like you are destined to win the day no matter what you do. While the game world is open it still feels as if you are playing in a snow globe and there is nothing outside the land’s borders.
The game world seems nonsensically surreal. You are supposed to be saving a kingdom in its sunset years, yet there are no residents. If there were residents they have no homes. If there were residents with homes, they would need wings to get around the kingdom. The fact that the developers have crafted the world for a character like the Prince with amazing acrobatic abilities is horribly evident. These are not problems and do not detract from Prince of Persia’s enjoyability, but are more like necessary evils in creating a game where a surreal environment is needed to showcase the main characters’ unique attributes. After all, the game would be pretty boring if the Prince could walk to his destination on staircases and pathways.
As the game progresses the Prince develops a believable relationship with Elika. But that relationship extends beyond the television screen to materialize in the player. Since you have to actively press the trigger button to start a conversation with Elika, she has a new thing to say every time you do so and you can start talking with her anytime you want, the player is taking a more active role in character development and the relationship seems deeper. There is at least one in-game dilemma that breaks the fourth wall and requires the player, not the prince, to demonstrate his faith in Elika. By the end of the game you may be surprised at how what you will do for her and how you feel as you are doing it. (Granted you are prodded in this direction, this isn’t a game where your decisions impact the plot, after all).
A final thought, Prince of Persia is refreshing in the way the writers attacked the story. Most playable characters in video games are all-powerful and never at fault. These types of characters can seem inhuman, hard to relate to and uninteresting. It is the tragic heroes people are drawn to in film and literature. It’s when you are screaming at a character in a movie to not open a door because you know the peril that’s on the other side that a movie is engaging its audience. When this is successfully manifested in a video game, and Prince of Persia and Bioshock are prime examples, and the game forces a player to take actions he might normally object to the characters feel more real and the tragedy more tragic.
Bottom line: Prince of Persia is a visually stunning, laid back and engrossing video game. A prime example of games as art and games as storytelling devices. Much like the Prince’s movements across the landscape, the game is fluid, albeit repetitive. It is easy to complete because you cannot die and cannot be defeated, yet it is challenging as sometimes a mistake will force you to replay large chunks of gravity defying leaps from cliff walls while avoiding the black goo of corruption.