The newest installment in Ubi’s money-printing Prince of Persia franchise hits stores today, and the first reviews are beginning to trickle out – notably this one from IGN. There’s really only one way you can take a 9.3, and while I hope that the game actually lives up to this score, I’ve certainly lost all faith in mainstream game journalism since the 8.0-10 scoring the abominable Far Cry 2 received from nearly all ad-supported outlets.
I am a Prince of Persia fan. Have been since 1980. Loved the first, could have done without all the others, at least until Sands of Time resurrected the franchise in glorious style, with a beautiful and intricate plot, memorable characters, subtle, emotional art direction, and second-to-none gameplay. I even loved Warrior Within, despite all its mistakes: the recast leads, objectification of female characters, the cro-mag script. And I enjoyed The Two Thrones, in many ways an act of contrition for the crimes of its predecessor, but introducing plenty of its own.
Prince of Persia, in case the name doesn’t make it clear, is ABOUT THE PRINCE. His journey, both literal and metaphorical, must lie at the core of any effective PoP game, and it’s when this didn’t happen that the developers truly stumbled.
In this installment, we have a new Prince. This is okay; the Prince was always an abstraction, and though the previous three games supposedly told the story of the same character, he changes so much and so unpredictably throughout them that it might have been better if they hadn’t. The Prince as an individual is a proxy for his emotional journey. So a new one is okay.
In this installment, the time powers are gone. This… this I’m less thrilled about, if only because they were so revolutionary and added so much depth to the gameplay, even though they took less and less precedence as the previous trilogy advanced.
In this installment, the game is open world – sort of. We know (because they’ve told us) that the development team was heavily influenced Shadow of the Colossus, and PoP matches that game’s central hub with a larger world surrounding it, focus on platforming exploration, and intense, major boss and boss-lite encounters rather than constant combat. It’s never a bad thing to be influenced by Shadow of the Colossus, but I’m curious how the open world part will work in a Prince of Persia game. The combo-driven fighting, similar (we assume) to Warrior Within, should work fine.
In this installment there’s Elika, the mysterious young sorceress who travels with the Prince during his Okami-esque journey to rid the world of an evil blight. As Elika is always with you, and you are both expected to protect one another and form an emotional bond, we also see strong undercurrents of Ico in this game. But where Yorda was helpless and vulnerable, Elika is strong and competent. Indeed, she is the mechanism that replaces the time-rewind powers: if you fall off a cliff or get your ass stomped by a monster, Elika will catch you, will drag you to safety, will distract the beast so you can recover, will, in general, be around when you need her. It’s not actually clear whether you’re supposed to be around when she needs you.
So what have we learned about Prince of Persia? Well, we know it draws inspiration from three very important, very beloved games as well as from its own pedigree. We know that the technology – based on the same monstrously powerful engine that drove Assassin’s Creed – will look great on the 360/PS3 but will have staggering system requirements on the PC. We know (again because they told us) that puzzles are reduced, platforming is simplified, combat and acrobatics streamlined to a single button each. So in addition to all the influences already listed, we can add Fable 2 to the pile, not only for the control scheme but for the eerie parallels between Elika and the Fable guy’s pet dog (in terms of co-dependence, that is). One wonders whether PoP has any original ideas of its own.
I have serious reservations about IGN’s 9.3 rating. The review complains of Quick Time Events, of ludicrous dialogue, of major episodes of backtracking, and of a Prince who is once again an unlikable bully. To call out this stuff and then hand it a near-perfect rating is suspicious indeed.
I expect this game to be good, but then I expected Far Cry 2 to be good and I was let down big time. We’re dealing with the same developer here, a developer that has apparently gotten used to free passes from the games industry media. While I hope that Prince of Persia will live up to its potential, early positive reviews are, if anything, serving only to make me skeptical.