The Prince of Persia series has come along way since its brilliant debut as the 2d platform adventure classic back in 1989. Ubisoft took the reigns in 2003, bringing new life to the franchise with a third-person view-point, more emphasis on acrobatics and a clever twist with the timeline in their Sands of Time trilogy.
Few would argue that these games were flawless, with many fans being deterred by the frustratingly hard difficulty through-out. Often just trying to cross to another platform via wall-jumping could prove to be a thumb-bustingly impossible chore. However it seems that Ubisoft have learned from the cries of impatient gamers with their latest, self-titled Prince of Persia (PoP). Of course, this may have an opposite effect as well – but we’ll come back to that later.
The game begins with you, the Prince (whom we never get to know by name) trying to find his donkey in the midst of a fierce sandstorm. It is here that you accidentally stumble across, Elika, a strong-willed gal whose beauty is only succeeded by her abrasiveness. After a brief exchange of banter, you gain some control in a tutorial that has you trying to keep up with Elika who is running from unknown pursuers. Although the tutorial sequence is pretty routine and uninspired, it does give you the chance to explore the Prince’s array of moves. At first running, jumping and climbing will seem clumsy and awkward – with you often over jumping distances or simply falling off ledges. But with practice, being able to effortlessly traverse gaping chasms will be reward enough.
Some fans of the earlier games are likely to find the new controls overly simplified for their tastes. In fact almost every acrobatic move, from jumping, wall-running, gravity defying roof-climbing and swinging can be done with a single button. But in a similar vein to Assassin’s Creed, this basic control system allows you to embrace the experience of sheer freedom as you leap from a perilous cliff face onto a thin beam with perfect balance.
But as if the controls weren’t easy enough, Ubisoft have really pushed the boundaries of the “gaming lore” entirely with their next move. In PoP, you can’t die. That’s right, despite the fact that you are throwing yourself off walls hundreds of metres up in the air and fighting giant shadow monsters – you won’t see a death screen.
It turns out that Elika isn’t just a piece of sassy eye-candy but in fact, a Princess with bodacious magical powers. You learn the true extent to this shortly after your tutorial sequence when you reach a mystical temple in the middle of the Persian dessert. Elika's evil father (who was chasing Elika previously) has freed Ahriman, a corrupted God who instantly begins to lay waste to the land with his dark evil. The plot isn’t brilliant. For one thing, if Ahriman is this destructive, why is he kept in a temple that is easily seen from a distance and the main gate only requires a handle to be rotated 180 degrees to open? Also his “tomb” is protected by what seems like a glass tree, which unsurprisingly gets shattered at the first instance a sword comes near it.
But all of this is irrelevant as the plot gives way to some brilliant visual effects. As Ahriman's corruption plagues the land, the palette around you changes to dark and depressing tones. You can even see black evil on some surfaces, creeping along walls and trying to draw you in if you walk too near. Elika can use her magic to restore the land’s beauty but she needs your help to journey with her to each area and defeat the bosses that Ahriman has protecting them.
One of the most stunning differences to PoP are the visuals. Unlike the sometimes drab, washed out look of the Sands of Time series, this time around the game looks and feels like an animated painting. Despite the amount of detail in the textures, environments are huge, spreading out before you and begging to be explored. Which is just as well as players can expect hours of navigating cliff edges, leaping from column to column in an attempt to reach a ledge that is over four stories up. It would be safe to say that the majority of PoP’s gameplay is travelling. But thankfully, just getting from place to place is a thoroughly enjoyable experience and hardly seems repetitive despite the number of times you’ve done it.
This is partially thanks to beautifully fluid animations through-out the game. Both you and Elika move with stunning realism and you will marvel at every step you take. Although you control the Prince though-out the game, you will have the lovely Elika at your disposal. Keep your mind out of the gutter though as Elika can only be called on for her magic. For example a double-jump can be performed by pressing the Y button, causing Elika to appear above you in mid-air, surrounded by blue light before catapulting you across that little bit further. She will also help you in combat if you need, with some enemies requiring magical attacks to damage them or make them vulnerable. But most importantly she is your guardian angel for the numerous times you fall to your death. Elika is the reason you can’t die in PoP. If you happen to miss a jump, she will grab your arm and send the two of you back to the last place you were standing. She’s basically like a never-ending checkpoint that follows you everywhere you go. Even in combat, you don’t have a health bar. Instead everytime you get hurt, the screen glows red (like the Call of Duty effect) and the Prince looks physically injured. Get hit too many times and you will be presented with an interactive sequence where you must hit the right button at the right time. Get the button right and you show off a counter-attack and the combat picks up again like before. Get it wrong, or fail to hit it in time and Elika will end up having to save your ass again – with the only penalty being a hit to your ego and your foe restoring their health bar. It sounds lame, but in the game it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Instead it makes the whole experience fun and stress-free.
This isn’t to say that PoP is for retards though. There are plenty of challenges in the game, especially with the environment based puzzle-solving through-out. As you and Elika travel from area to area trying to restore the land back to its original state, you will need to seek out Light Seeds. These luminous blue orbs restore Elika’s powers and you will need to find a certain number of them before she will be able to remove Ahriman’s curse on an area. Quite often you will see a Light Seed off in the distance and ponder on how to reach it. Getting to some of the more challenging light-seed locations is definitely a thrill, especially after an epic pursuit.
Elika is the perfect companion. She will always be by your side but never gets in the way, moving around you and staying just inside the camera frame. By pressing the left trigger you can usually strike up a conversation with her to find out more about her past – or even better a hint as to what to do next. She will also light your way if you need it by creating a glowing ball that flitters off in the distance you need to be heading. As Elika follows the Prince, you will often see the two helping each other past obstacles seamlessly within the game as well. It’s a little bit of genius that helps the game feel more fluid, for example when the Prince clings it a ledge he might reach down and grab Elika and pull her up to his level. Even if you keep moving, Elika will climb up on her own but seeing it every now and then adds a certain charm to the game. There is one strange thing however – when the Prince is climbing ivy, Elika will leap onto your back and have you carry her across. Sure it’s sweet and makes you feel like a real man – but it’s a bit strange considering that when you fall, screaming like a little girl that it’s Elika that magically teleports you back to safe land everytime. Why are we bothering to climb anywhere at all for that matter?
Elika is awesome, as you may have picked up by now in this review. Sadly though, the same cannot be said for the hero of the story. Yes, the Prince (the character you are forced to play) is a complete tool. He is filled with cheesy one liners, a jock-like demeanour and the kind of smug expression that makes you want to plummet off cliffs repeatedly on purpose. Sadly Elika will save his arrogant little hide everytime. This personality isn’t too surprising though as the voice-actor is the same guy who voiced Nathan Drake in Drake’s Fortune. It’s important to note though, it’s not the voice-acting that’s bad - in fact all the voices are brilliant. It’s the script that grates... Then again some people might enjoy the Prince’s smarmy persona. It doesn’t matter either way, Prince of Persia is still a highly accessible, solid title that is likely to keep players (especially the casual gamer) entertained for some time. Sure, the infinite lives scenario may annoy some of the more dedicated gamers out there, but I imagine the challenge of collecting every Light Seed (there are just over 1000) should keep them busy for some time. Overall PoP has an excellent mix that not only markets itself well to all ages, but should keep you coming back for more.