Review: Prince of Persia: Epilogue (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Prince of Persia: Epilogue
Genre: Action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 03/05/2009

So, before we begin, if you have, for some reason, not read my review of Prince of Persia, you might want to, if only because I’m not going to explain the basics of the game in this review of the expansion pack. Just a suggestion.

Around the beginning of December, Ubisoft decided to relaunch the Prince of Persia franchise with a self-titled game of the same name. Though the game retained most of the basic platforming elements of the prior series, the game also introduced many interesting elements, including a free-roaming environment that allowed the player to choose where they could go as they deemed appropriate (to a point), special abilities that allowed for further travel through locations, and a fighting mechanic that involved one-on-one combat over fighting scads of foes at once. Some folks liked it, and thought the game was generally well-designed, if not especially challenging, and that the good generally outweighed the bad. Others hated it, felt the lack of challenge and the inability to die (which, I feel once again I must point out are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE complaints) made the game less than desirable, and felt the emphasis on collecting things and using weird abilities took away something from the fun of the prior games.

For the record, I represent the former category, and fellow reviewer Michael O’Reilly represents the latter category.

Ubisoft Montreal then decided we needed an expansion to the game to flesh out some of the story elements and expand on the gameplay a bit. One couldn’t help but think it was an attempt to clean out the storyline, tie up the loose ends, and purge the developmental drawing board, especially since the actual game dropped in price faster than Beyond Good and Evil, and it seemed a sequel was more than likely not forthcoming. This, apparently, was the wrong assessment to make, as not only does the expansion pack tie up absolutely none of the loose ends from the story, but it leaves even MORE unanswered questions to ponder. It also seems as if it was developed to appease the people who questioned the game’s difficulty and found the reliance on plates over jumping puzzles annoying. This is incredibly amusing because those people are unlikely to buy the expansion pack, leaving the rest of us to pay for something that is meant to improve upon the problems people who are not us thought were bad about the game in the first place.

In other words, it’s not terribly enjoyable.

So, the storyline as we left it amounted to the world coming to an end, and we pick up right where we left off: the Prince and Elika lock themselves in a temple of some sort to escape the wrath of Ahriman. The story of the expansion deals mostly with the characters escaping from the area and the trials and tribulations they face. In this respect, it works fine, as it fills in the gap that would have been left between “leaving the temple” and “getting to wherever the second game takes place” well enough. As such, for those who are eagerly anticipating the sequel, this is probably a must-have for that reason alone. It’s also an interesting study in contrasts, as the tone of the expansion is much more “we’re all doomed” than the story of the game itself. That said, the actual story itself isn’t particularly worth experiencing because

1.) The expansion fails to understand what made the other four games compelling and chooses to tell its story in a way that makes owning the sequel undesirable. The Sands of Time trilogy knew how to keep people interested: give them a “good” ending, hint at a possible sequel, then announce a sequel to make people wonder where the next chapter was going. The Prince of Persia game itself also knew how to present a compelling hook for the next game by presenting an ending that wasn’t particularly happy, but was particularly interesting in and of itself. The expansion? Doom and gloom for three hours, then a depressing ending that strongly implies a sequel without giving the player any reason to actually WANT to see said sequel. This sort of an ending can work perfectly fine when the characters have hope and a desire to make things right (see Empire Strikes Back), but unfortunately…

2.) The game makes a point of saying the situation seems hopeless, and it never bothers to indicate otherwise. Elika spends her time lamenting how hopeless the situation is, Ahriman becomes insanely overpowered and badass, and the story of the expansion doesn’t even resolve so much as it ends. We’re left with no reason to believe things will improve, and no interest in seeing how the characters dig themselves out of this hole in the first place. Of course, it doesn’t help that…

3.) The charm of the storyline is gone from the expansion. Elika and the Prince had an amusingly charming relationship building during the events of the game itself, and it wasn’t hard to like them and their antics, whether they were playfully ribbing one another or bickering like children. Here? The bickering has given way to mean-spirited back-biting and accusations that, while appropriate, deflate the storyline significantly, and the playful banter that IS here seems woefully inappropriate and out of place. Further, Elika spends nearly all of the story talking about how screwed everyone is to the point where I just wanted the Prince to tell her to stop whining already and suck it up.

So, in short: the story is depressing, utterly hopeless, devoid of the charm and “light in the darkness” mentality of the game itself. The game just ENDS in a way that is unsatisfying, hopeless and utterly screaming, “THERE’S A SEQUEL COMING”. After the strong ending of the game itself, this is a serious letdown.

Visually, it’s the same game with some new environments. The new environments look fine and all, and the special effects look as good as ever, so we’ll say the expansion looks as good as it can. It’s a bit dark, though, but that seems to be the theme of the expansion, so in that respect, it works well enough. Aurally, the voice actors from the game reprise their roles for the expansion, the sound effects are largely re-used from the game, and the music is just as powerful and fitting as it was in the game itself, so we’ll say that the presentation, across the board, is as good as it ever was, and we will move on.

Now, obviously, the expansion plays exactly like the game itself, so once again, read the review if you want to know about how it plays. Now, there are significant differences, of course, so let’s talk about those instead. First, there are no Light Orbs to collect this time around. Instead, you’re simply expected to make it from the beginning to the end, which should please players who found it annoying having to collect orbs just to advance the plot. You are simply given a world to run around in and all of the powers you’ll need to do so, right from the get-go. This isn’t to say that there aren’t collectibles in the game world. There are lit frescoes strewn about the game world that you can run across, though aside from unlocking some achievements, they don’t seem to do much. Second, there are new plates strewn around the world that essentially mimic the abilities of the red plates (I.E., they throw you around the game world), with one notable difference: they also cause destroyed parts of the world to energize into existence, allowing you to traverse sections of the world you’d otherwise find impassible. In theory, this puts some timed jumping puzzle mechanics into play, but in practice, since most of the locations that implement these plates essentially have you running around like crazy without stopping anyway, this isn’t all that noticeable. Third, the game is essentially condensed a bit, scale-wise, and instead of climbing across huge, sprawling environments, you’re essentially playing Tomb Raider, spelunking down into a tomb while avoiding tons of traps and deadly obstacles and trying to make it from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

For those who found the game a bit too easy, the challenge of the expansion has been ramped up considerably. Jump timing, in many cases, will require a good bit more precision than it did in the game itself. The expansion gives you little time to breathe between jumping sections, often lumping several ways to die one on top of the next, forcing you to be at your button-pressing best to get through. Combat difficulty has also been increased significantly, as the enemies you face will mostly throw down counters and special reflection effects with little warning, forcing you to play smart through most of the battles you’ll encounter. No, you still don’t die, but you DO still get dumped back to the last solid tract of land you came across if you screw up a jump (which will be often), which is essentially LIKE dying, only without the loading screens. No, enemies still can’t kill you, but they make it very difficult to kill THEM, as failing to keep them from knocking you on your ass results, yes, in them replenishing their health (which at least one of the two major enemies you face can do on his own anyway), thus forcing you to keep at it. It’s also worth noting that the annoyance of the plate powers has been reduced somewhat. While the green plate (which essentially makes you run along walls) is still around and more difficult than ever, the blue plates (which required you to steer Elika while she flew around) have been diminished significantly, amounting to little more than guided teleports… much like the other two plates in the game . Though, in fairness, again, one of the two now makes platforms and walls appear out of nothing, which differentiates it somewhat from the other plates it’s similar to. This will probably be welcome news to players who hated the overabundance of annoying plates in the actual game itself, as in most cases, the plates in the expansion exist to do little more than propel you from one jumping puzzle to the next, which is more in line with how the prior games tended to work. The expansion clocks in about three hours, give or take, making it worth the cost time-wise, and beating the expansion unlocks costumes based on concept art for the characters, which is also kind of neat if you’re interested in this thing.

Unfortunately, by jacking up the difficulty of the expansion pack, Ubisoft has perplexingly made a good portion of the experience something the core game never really was: annoying. It’s like this: the original game itself wasn’t particularly challenging, but generally featured a consistent difficulty curve as it progressed that allowed the player to adjust, while the expansion pretty much STARTS OUT by breaking it off in you and moving forward from there. Now, it’s fine to present the player a challenge, certainly, and there are several segments in the expansion that are satisfying to complete, but just as many segments inspire a feeling of relief that they’re over as they do a feeling of accomplishment. It’s not even that the segments are overly complex in and of themselves so much as they are often amplified in their difficulty by other elements, including last-second warnings of imminent death, the odd camera angle that doesn’t actually show you where to go, camera shifts that cause your controls to become contextually different in the middle of precise movements, and of course, the fact that your partner is utterly incapable of GETTING OUT OF THE WAY while you’re trying to avoid a killer darkness blob. These flaws weren’t readily noticeable while playing the main game, which either means they only became problems BECAUSE of the expansion, or they only became NOTICABLE because of the expansion.

Further, the combat segments are either repetitive, belligerent, or both. There are only two “bosses” in this expansion, in the Shapeshifter, who shifts between the forms of the Hunter and the Warrior as needed, and Elika’s father, who is pretty much Ahriman’s pawn at this point. The Shapeshifter seems like an interesting concept, but the battles against the boss always boil down to hitting the Warrior until he is pushed against a cliff and switches to the Hunter, whooping up on the Hunter until he retreats and becomes the Warrior, and repeating until dead, with the only noticeable differences being how small of a cliff you have to try and knock him off of. Elika’s father, on the other hand, is absurd, as only Elika’s attacks can hurt him, setting him up for said attacks with a sword strike almost ALWAYS ends with you being countered, and the final battle LITERALLY involves shoving him into a specific location because nothing you can do hurts him, which essentially becomes a counter battle early on and never really comes back from that point. Again, challenge is a good thing, but there’s a functional difference between beating an enemy by outsmarting it and beating an enemy by being the survivor of a war of attrition, and frankly, the expansion fails to realize that difference.

So, bottom line, if you’re jonesing for some more Prince of Persia gameplay, ten dollars isn’t a bad price for three more hours of gameplay. However, the gameplay focus is dramatically shifted, the difficulty is ramped up in awkward ways, and the storyline isn’t anything exciting. If you’re the sort of person who wanted a more challenging experience from the first game, you’ll find it in Prince of Persia: Epilogue, but then, if you’re that person, chances are good that you’ve traded in your copy of the game or have no interest in going back to it anyway. Everyone else will probably find some backhanded enjoyment in the expansion. It’s nice to see the characters again so soon, and the gameplay is still mostly fine if you were itching for some more of it, but the expansion just isn’t as balanced as the game itself was, and “difficult” doesn’t have to go hand in hand with “frustrating”, which is something Prince of Persia: Epilogue doesn’t seem to understand. If you still have your copy of Prince of Persia, the expansion is worth a look, but if you don’t, it’s probably not worth buying the game for, even at its present reduced price.

The Scores:
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR
Final Score: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Whether or not Prince of Persia: Epilogue is worth your ten bucks will depend entirely upon what you’re wanting from the franchise at this point. If you are either hoping for or tolerant of a darker, more hopeless theme, praying for a game that wears its challenge like a badge of honor, and you still have a copy of the game around, the expansion is pretty much going to be your cup of tea. Everyone else will probably get enough entertainment out of the game to justify the ten dollars, but not enough to feel it was WORTH it; the story is uninteresting and uninspiring, the increased challenge is done in ways that frustrate the player as often as they challenge them, and the experience is underwhelming and flat in most respects. It’s still playable, and there’s still fun to be had, but if you still have the game lying around, you’re probably better off just playing it over again, and if you don’t, well, an expansion pack isn’t going to mean much, all in all.



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