Review: Prince of Persia (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Prince of Persia
Genre: Action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 12/02/08


So here we are with another protagonist change in the Prince of Persia franchise (the first being in Sands of Time, natch), and with him, we also get a change in direction and play mechanics. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you; after three games, it’s better for the franchise to expand into new territory (ask anyone who’s been following the more recent Tomb Raider games), and after the learning curve that was the most recent trilogy (the first game was fun but short and lacking in good combat, the second game featured improved combat mechanics but was also buggy and uninteresting, and the third game was solid enough but didn’t pay off the promise of the first), it’s pretty much for the best that the folks involved were given a whole new world to play with, as it could potentially allow them the opportunity to grow the experience in a whole new direction. And so we’re given Prince of Persia, a game featuring a whole new visual style, a new cast of characters, and some new and interesting gameplay and combat mechanics. Fans of the Sands of Time trilogy obviously have some high expectations (seeing as how the game has a large pedigree to live up to), and while the good news is that they most likely won’t be disappointed, the bad news is that they might not find the game to have everything they’re looking for.

The story, in short, goes like this: you take on the role of the nameless “Prince” (the third such nameless prince, in fairness), who doesn’t seem to be much of a prince at all, as he bumbles his way into a decaying city while looking for Farah (ha ha), only to discover that about ten minutes into his arrival, he’s teaming up with a magical woman named Elika to stop an evil God from destroying the world, and oh yeah, her father let the evil God out. So, y’know, glad to see that life’s working out so well for him. Anyway, this takes you across the ruined kingdom in an attempt to defeat the Corrupted (the bad guys of the story) and seal away the evil God, by using powers the good God of the land has bestowed upon your ally and your own skills. Generally speaking, the story has a few neat twists and turns to it, and several of the plot twists aren’t readily obvious until they happen, which is pretty refreshing to see. Further, the dialogue and concept of the story are certainly interesting and well implemented, and while the ending basically screams “TO BE CONTINUED”, it’s done in a way that actually ENDS the current chapter while generating enough interesting questions to make the player hope for a sequel. The characters in the story are also exceptionally well fleshed out and developed, which makes their storyline compelling and the ultimate resolution of this chapter of it all the more interesting to see. Prince of Persia, frankly, features one of the most interesting stories told in a game this year, if not the out-and-out best, and anyone who finds that they’re looking for fantastic tales in their gaming experiences will find much joy in this game from the get-go.

The visuals in Prince of Persia are arguably the best thing about the game, both functionally and artistically. The visuals are cel-shaded, but in such a fashion that they look less like what you’re used to and more like art in motion, like a more polished and vibrant version of the game Okami. The characters are animated superbly and look outstanding, both in general and in motion, and the environments are outstanding, both in Corrupted and Cleansed forms; in the former, they’re alive with pulsating black energy that feels repulsive and terrifying, while in the latter, they’re warm and inviting, and give a strong hint of the beauty of the original landscapes they may have been, before they were neglected and left to fall into ruin. The special effects are also particularly impressive, and the lens flares, burning fires, and other interesting lighting effects help to bring even more life to the game. In simple terms: Prince of Persia is the most beautiful game to come out this year, no question. Aurally, the game is also quite outstanding. The game music is reminiscent of the music from Sands of Time, and fits the experience in a way that is both ethnically fitting and epically exciting. The voice acting is stellar across the board, and all of the actors and actresses in the game deliver their parts admirably and with much passion and skill. The sound effects are also top notch, from the guttural roars of the Corrupted foes you face to the sounds of combat with said foes and everything in-between, and they further help to bring life to the game world, which they do well.

The gameplay in Prince of Persia is, at first glance, rather similar to that of the previous three games in the series, though there are more than enough significant differences to make up for that. In case you’ve never played a game like this, you’ll spend most of your time spent playing the game jumping around the environment like Spider-Man, only with a sword instead of webs. The vast (and I do mean VAST) majority of the game will be spent jumping, swinging, wall-running, and vaulting from place to place, using the environment to your advantage to progress forward in your quest. Unlike in prior Prince of Persia games, which dictated the direction you needed to head in and allowed for little deviation, however, this game is a good bit more free-form, in that you’re offered a number of locations to explore, but no set pattern in which you must do so, which allows you to pick and choose where you go and when, as you see fit. For most players, though, jumping from poles, swinging on rings, climbing up walls and making leaps of faith will be instantly familiar, as they’ve been major elements of the prior games, and fans will be right at home in the first few minutes of gameplay.

Prince of Persia has plenty of new gameplay mechanics on-board for fans to jump into, however, which should please those who were afraid of this being another retread. The biggest change to the gameplay of the previous games is that you now have a permanent partner in Elika, who helps you both in and out of battle. During your normal platforming segments, Elika can help you make long jumps and will save you from plunging to your death, and in battle she’ll contribute magical attacks as needed, but her biggest contributions come in the form of upgrades that allow you to reach isolated locations. As you complete the game, you’ll have to collect light orbs to power up Elika’s abilities, and each time you collect enough, you’ll travel back to the main world hub to unlock new abilities. There are four in all, each of which allows you to travel to new places (and each of which is required to unlock certain sections of the game world), though which powers you unlock at which time is up to you. The powers themselves essentially amount to “transportation powers”, as they really only add new ways to get around the game world, in manual and automatic flavors, but they’re generally interesting and keep the game entertaining when taken in along side the normal platforming elements.

The combat system in this game has also seen a MASSIVE overhaul, and this is definitely for the better. In the prior games, you’d find yourself fighting numerous enemies and fighting to lock on to and attack the proper enemies, so in this game, you’re instead instantly locked onto your target immediately, and battles are against one enemy at a time, thus eliminating the major complaints of prior combat systems. The combat has also become a great deal more strategic in this game; you’re essentially capable of blocking and parrying attacks, and attacking with sword strikes, grapples, aerial attacks, and magical attacks as you see fit, allowing you to turn enemy attacks against them and lay in with heavy damage combos as you wish. Should you be hit by an enemy, you’ll slump over (to indicate that you’re injured), and a second hit will knock you down as the enemy tries to kill you; pressing the correct button at the right time will bring you back to your feet, while failing will require Elika to save you from death, allowing you another go at the enemy in question. The enemies, of course, can also counter your attacks, and can also summon energy fields that are only susceptible to certain attack types, which also serves to make combat less “run into a group of foes and slaughter them” and more like physical chess, which is pretty neat. Boss battles also feature these same mechanics, as well as additional mechanics that vary based on the boss. There are five combat-based bosses in the game, as well as one non-combat boss and a decent amount of regular enemies, which should allow you to get your kill on as needed, though the combat generally feels more at home in this game in comparison to its predecessors.

The core game takes about six to eight hours to complete, though you can always try to collect all of the light orbs in the game if you’re in the mood for a challenge. There are also a few different costumes to unlock, including costumes of the Sands of Time characters, Altair from Assassin’s Creed and (ugh) Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, which you can change your characters into any time you like, in case you wanted to, say, play through the game as the Sands of Time Prince and Farah. The game is generally solid enough, on both a gameplay and presentation level, that playing through it a second time isn’t unreasonable, though there isn’t a lot to bring you back if you’ve had your fill the first time around, which is a shame.

The biggest problem with Prince of Persia, as most people have noted by this point, is that it’s very easy. Now, most folks, including some folks on this website, have presented the argument that the game is easy because you literally cannot die, but it must be said: while it is true that you cannot die, the argument that this makes the game easy on its own is wholly false. Sorry, Mike. Now, here’s the thing: falling to your demise does not, in fact, kill you; rather, Elika will save you from certain death, and will promptly deposit you back on the last piece of solid ground you touched, where you can then promptly try again. Failing to prevent an enemy from killing you will force Elika to intervene on your behalf to keep you from dying, which, again, means you cannot die, but the enemy in question WILL regain a not insignificant amount of health for this, meaning that you’ll have to wear them down again. In short: “death” in Prince of Persia amounts to making you as the player lose about five minutes of progress, as opposed to half an hour or so, and it omits the loading times entirely, which makes life easier in both respects. Now, some people will hate this, and that’s certainly understandable; if I fall to my death, I SHOULD have to fight back through that half hour of progress I lost, right? But frankly, if you want the game to beat you about the head and neck, games like Ninja Gaiden 2 feature rooms full of gun-toting enemies and save points spaced half an hour apart; Prince of Persia is significantly less punishing in that regard, as it only requires you to replay about five to ten minutes worth of progress should you fail at something, and whether or not you like that will really be up to you.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Prince of Persia IS rather easy; that simply isn’t the reason for this thing. Rather, the game is easy because the new mechanics remove most of the challenge that was present in the prior games from the experience. Now, none of the prior three games were really “difficult” in most respects, though they did occasionally present the player with the odd jumping or combat sequence that might test the player’s abilities, but in Prince of Persia, this frequently isn’t the case. Combat is incredibly functional and well-designed, but the way many of the elements are implemented remove most of the challenge from it long before you as the player can even GET to the point where death would be an option; frankly, the only reason I even KNOW what happens when you “die” is because I forced the game to “kill” me. The timing for parrying enemy attacks is easy to pick up, and the Active Time Sequence that pops up prior to your prospective demise is almost always easy to nail, meaning that getting to a point where dying would be an option is somewhat challenging in and of itself. Further, the older games often featured ten minute long platforming sections that required the player to nail split-second jumps with lightning accuracy if they wanted to avoid falling to their death; here, most jumps can be taken at your own pace with little difficulty, and many of the situations where the game requires timing amounts to little more than pressing a button at the right time to grab a hook or enable a plate to go from place to plate, and while this CAN be challenging, it often ISN’T. Jumping from one place to the other in a limited amount of time is tough; pressing B a couple of times to swing from ring to ring? Not so much. The game DOES make the platforming sections longer and more involved as it goes on, and the bosses DO become more powerful and challenging as you progress, but while that makes the game MORE challenging, and it’s balanced fairly well all in all, it still doesn’t make the game terribly tough, and some players will be put off by that.

Further, the powers Elika develops aren’t particularly… special? Varied? Involving? Any of those words describes them fairly well. Two of your powers, aside from being functionally identical, amount to little more than unguided teleports, while the other two amount to following a path and dodging everything in the way, which is amusing, but gets old fast and isn’t really special when two separate powers do it. It’s not that the ideas are bad so much as they’re redundant, and some more varied abilities would have helped out a lot here. It also is worth noting that the whole “collect light orbs” thing is flat-out frustrating and, I’m sorry, is only in the game to pad out the experience. OFFERING the player the option to do this thing? That’s fine. FORCING them to do it? That’s forced gameplay lengthening for no reason other than to make the player keep playing, and as none of the three prior games felt the need to do this thing, I don’t see why this game should feel the need to do so. Sands of Time as a game was about five hours long and every minute of it was a blast; this game is a few hours longer and feels longer than it needs to be, largely BECAUSE of the fact that it’s padded out longer than it really should be.

Honestly, if you can look past the easy gameplay, repetitive special powers, and padded game length, Prince of Persia is, at the very least, worth PLAYING, if not OWNING. The presentation, from the story to the visuals to the audio and beyond, is stellar across the board, and the mechanical aspects of the game are largely very nice and work quite well. As a rental or a budget acquisition, the game is a fantastic EXPERIENCE, so long as you can look past its flaws. However, as a full-priced game, it’s harder to recommend picking it up, just because it doesn’t really do ENOUGH to sell the experience. There’s no reason to play it more than once, the combat and platforming sections aren’t structured in a way that’s especially challenging, and the game forces you to spend hours collecting powerups for no reason other than “because thou must”, which is never a compelling argument for developer-enforced collection tedium. Overall, the game is enjoyable, and given enough time to work out the kinks, a sequel might well be a fantastic, mind-blowing experience, but as it stands now, Prince of Persia is a game you should certainly EXPERIENCE, but it isn’t a game you necessarily need to OWN.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: POOR
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Prince of Persia is generally a solid product that’s certainly worth looking into, although it may not be for everyone, despite its awesome presentation values. The game looks, sounds, and plays quite nicely, and the story is strong, well written, and surprisingly compelling, which almost makes the game easy to recommend, both to new fans and classic Prince lovers. Indeed, anyone who considers themselves a fan should certainly check the game out, though that doesn’t mean you need to own it. The game is quite easy to complete, and there’s no reason to play through the game more than once, which might put many players off from buying it, and even beyond that, some of the gameplay elements (Elika’s powers) aren’t particularly exciting, and the forced collection elements of the game drag the experience down a bit. If you can look past these flaws, Prince of Persia is a fun, engaging experience that’s generally entertaining while it lasts, and it’s a cinematic experience that players should definitely check out, if only because, should Ubisoft Montreal clean up the issues from this game for the eventual sequel, well, if this game is any indication, THAT game is going to be amazing. Let’s hope.

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