Review by Steerpike
Prince of Persia
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher Ubisoft Montreal
Released December 2, 2008
Available for Windows XP/Vista, Xbox 360 (version reviewed), PS3
“…Prince of Persia is a lazy, careless game, both stubborn and annoying due to clumsy mechanics and constant repetition. It is neither innovative nor particularly fun to play. At moments it teeters on the very edge of greatness, but always it falls back, as though afraid to shine.”
I find it difficult to avoid sarcasm when talking about Prince of Persia. We’re dealing, after all, with a game that does not take place in Persia and in which your character is not a prince. It is a reboot of a reboot – the original franchise started way back in 1989 at Broderbund, did well, fell off the map, got slurped up by Ubisoft, which first rebooted the series with the outstanding Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003, followed it up in 2004 with Warrior Within and again in 2005 with The Two Thrones. The trilogy sold something like eighteen million units before “ending.” Of course, Ubi had no intention of killing that particular goose, but it had kind of wrapped up the Prince’s story, which was about a young man’s struggle with himself and his undeserved sense of inferiority, one that drove him to ever-increasing heights of dumbassery in an attempt to earn his father’s love.
So, what to do? The Two Thrones created a situation in which the character no longer had any great internal conflict and was in fact no longer the prince but the King of Persia on account of his father – who had loved him all along – getting killed and left to rot in a basement. (Were there Kings of Persia? Would they not be Caliphs, or Emirs? I do not know).
Anyway, the reboot (I’ll call it “the first trilogy” from now on, since we can safely disregard the prior Broderbund games) was also a reflection on the character of time, or more specifically causality, and how the decisions we make can haunt us – but how they are nonetheless part of the tapestry of our lives. Efforts to untangle or re-weave sections with which we aren’t pleased lead inevitably to disaster. The Prince’s accidental power over the passage of time, and his obsession with doing everything over and over again until he was satisfied with the result, caused him unimaginable grief and nearly cost him everything he held dear. But it was in coming to realize that fact that he was able to finally accept himself and find peace.
In the end it worked out. In addition to all the Campbellian hero’s journey stuff, the Prince had found love, conquered his personal demons, and saved the world twice. Despite the many flaws, that trilogy can be counted a success because the core gameplay was always either good or excellent. The ranging, diabolical jumping and logic puzzles of Sands gave way to some of the best combo-driven third person swordfighting ever in the followups, with all three games sporting a luscious fluidity that was nothing short of exhilarating when firing on all cylinders.
There were bumps along the way, oh yes, serious and often game-threatening moments where the writers stumbled badly, where casting decisions caused major damage to the game’s credibility, where even the soundtrack seemed to turn against the sublime harmony of gaming awesomeness that was The Sands of Time.
This is an important point: Warrior Within and The Two Thrones had pustulent flaws. They spat in the face of Sands with astonishingly bad writing and careless, juvenile character decisions; weakening of the principal mechanic of play and threatening more than once to derail the whole affair. But in the end, the heart of the gameplay remained rock steady, and those mechanics the developers added or tweaked turned out, for the most part, to work. The first trilogy was, beginning to end, outrageously fun – even if it was sometimes embarrassingly poor.
When Ubi hunkered down to reboot its reboot with Prince of Persia, they made some good decisions and some bad ones. In many ways this is similar to the way they handled Warrior Within and Two Thrones… but here the heart of the gameplay is no longer bedrock. It’s not quicksand either, but it teeters, veering drunkenly from really good decisions to really bad ones. And at the end of the day, the bad decisions outweigh the good in what could have been a really fine game.
Verdict? Prince of Persia is not awful, but it’s far from excellent. Taken as a whole package, from 30,000 feet, it is “good.” But taken as a moment-by-moment play experience it has a whole host of problems. It is a lazy, careless game full of issues that didn’t exist before, a game far too puffed with self-importance, both stubborn and annoying due to the integration of clumsy mechanics and constant repetition. It is neither innovative (skirting as it does outright theft from Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, and Ico) nor is it particularly fun to play. At moments it balances on the very edge of greatness, but always it falls back, as though afraid to shine.
Sit Down, and I will Tell You a Tale the Likes of which You’ve Heard a Million Times
Obviously Ubi couldn’t use the old Prince, but what to do? How many princes does Persia have?
Being a “Prince of Persia,” Ubi decided, is more a state of mind than a birthright. And I love the idea. There can be as many Princes as there are stories to tell, and because of this the entire series gets a lovely 1,001 Nights feel. The developers completely reimagined not only who the Prince is, but what it means to be the Prince.
Our Prince is a bit of a rogue – we find out that he robs tombs for a living – roaming the desert in search of adventure and a donkey. Said donkey, named Farah (this is funny because the first trilogy’s love interest was named Farah, and she was not a donkey at all but a shapely human female), has wandered off in a sandstorm, inconveniently laden with booty. Before he can track his quadruped down, though, a shapely human female falls out of the sky and lands on him, then darts off with nary a thank-you-for-letting-me-use-you-as-a-cushion, armed men in hot pursuit. Ever the one to incite violence which is not his affair when there’s a hottie involved, the Prince fights off the bad guys for her. This is how you meet Elika, a young princess from a strange and cursed land, a woman with a tragic past who dreams of escape and adventure… and from now on, she is your constant companion.
Elika’s father has been a bad kitty; he has sprung the lock on the dark god Ahriman’s prison. This is blighting the landscape, spreading a nasty tarry pudding called Corruption all over the place, and threatening a network of holy groves that, together, bind the evil deity in a temple. Elika needs to heal these fertile grounds, which are protected by Ahriman’s most loyal servants. Through the will of Ormazd, god of light, she has gained the magic necessary to do so. The Prince tags along, acting as protector and bickering partner on their sprawling journey.
Prince of Persia is not like its linear predecessors. Here you start at a giant temple and choose any destination available. Certain locales require upgrades to Elika’s magic in order to reach. But more or less you can go anywhere from anywhere, and Elika can teleport you back to any location you’ve already purified. It’s not exactly an “open world” in the official sense, but you can certainly set your own compass.
Elika’s magic has another feature, one that replaces the time-rewind power that was a mainstay of the first trilogy. When the Prince falls, either in combat or during the many platforming sequences, Elika will pull him to safety. Every time. Instead of requiring the player to ration Sand (of Time, it powered rewinds), it… doesn’t. It is literally impossible to die in this game. Rather than opening it up to a wider audience or simplifying what had been admittedly pretty hard in the past, this mechanism seems stale, weak, and careless – as though the team implemented it without thinking it through, realized it didn’t work, but lacked the courage to replace it with something more robust.
I am not a Committee
During their travels, the Prince and Elika naturally become better acquainted. They chat after major events, sometimes about important stuff and sometimes not, but the bone I have to pick here is the nature of the conversation mechanism. You talk to Elika by pulling the left trigger… which seems fine, but a complete conversation usually requires eleven or twelve pulls, between which the camera zooms all the way back out and then in again in what may be the greatest affront to cinematography ever. The point of the mechanism is so that you can skip any or all conversation if you want, but they could have accomplished the same thing myriad other ways. It would have been much more innovative and immersive if these conversations took place on the fly, while the duo are clambering around the scenery. Instead you just stop and pull the trigger again and again whenever the “Talk to Elika” icon appears on the screen, and then move on when it vanishes.
The fundamental problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Since these dialogue instances can take place at various times and locations – depending on where you are in the game – it’s impossible for the script to move beyond fairly low-level banter. The game can’t know what you’ve accomplished so far, and as such scripted dialogue can’t make references to experiences they’ve had together or evolve their relationship much at all. The the emotional bond between Elika and the Prince is therefore shallow at best; despite the fact that both characters have a lot of history and the game would have greatly benefited from their sharing it with each other.
That’s a problem because much of this game is about their relationship, and it exists only as the weakest thread you can imagine. Similarly, much hay has been made about the writing, the acting, and the fact that the Prince is kind of a douchebag. I read these things over and over in other reviews before finally getting the game, and…
…I kinda like the writing. I kinda like the actors. And I kinda like the Prince.
Look, the story is moronically cookie-cuttered (and totally plagiarised from Okami), and the characters aren’t allowed to develop true emotional bonds, but the script has its share of wit that in some cases had me laughing out loud. Not everything works in it – Elika is sometimes kind of curt and even a little bitchy, and the Prince… well, we’ll get to him. I’ve already said that the over-arching narrative came out of a gumball machine, but much of the dialogue is better than you’ll find in most games. To my mind, the same goes for the people playing the two leads. Actors Kari Wahlgren and Nolan North don’t nail every line, but there’s definitely a sense of chemistry between them and they get it right more often than they miss. It’s line delivery versus quality of dialogue. There are moments of great script juxtaposed with wide-scale dumbness.
Finally, there’s the Prince. I kept reading that he’s a dick, that he’s full of obnoxious one-liners, that he behaves like a kegged-up frat boy. And frankly, I don’t see it. They were going for a Han Solo/Buck Rogers/Carefree Adventurer type and they didn’t quite hit that mark, but I went in expecting to hate the Prince and instead found myself rather liking him. He’s amiable, patient, kind, and full of humor, while still arrogant and greedy and a little lecherous. But “asshole” is the last word I’d associate with him, and I don’t understand why so many other reviewers have. Generally he seems shellshocked to have found himself in this situation, and he strikes me as a man who’s trying to take it in stride because that’s what cool people would do, only he’s not that cool, he’s a bit of a doofus, and he knows it. I thought he was a likable doofus. They’re both likable, though I wish the pacing of their evolving relationship had been managed better. If only Ubi had bothered to come up with a more creative backdrop than dark gods and nature in peril, not to mention the obligatory Shocking Surprise Ending You Didn’t See Coming™ (actually I was kind of surprised), we might’ve seen something here.
More Like Falling with Style
I’ve played all my other PoP games on the PC, with a keyboard and mouse, as God intended games to be played. I thought that the switch to Xbox 360 controls might prove difficult, and it did, but not because of inexperience on my part. You might think this game is easy since Elika saves you from death no matter what, and from some perspectives it is easy. But I “died” at least a thousand more times in this game than any of the others – not because the puzzles are harder (they’re nonexistent) or the platforming requires keen timing (my grandmother could make these jumps), but because the controls often simply ignore you.
Prince of Persia is recalcitrant and unresponsive, eschewing the fluidity that has been a series standby. This is especially true in combat, which has been reduced from Warrior Within’s ballet-kata to a series of obnoxious split-second Quick Time Events, something all gamers despise but which developers seem endlessly keen on including. While the instructions make mention of chaining attack combos and deflective counter attacks, these work so rarely (because buttons so rarely do as they’re told) that your battles are little more than constrained, frustrated button-mashing. Enemies will knock you down repeatedly, swat away your attacks time and again, and recover huge amounts of health whenever it falls to Elika to rescue you. Potentially this game’s cardinal sin is that combat is so frustrating and unsatisfying, such a pity when you consider the epic, acrobatic battles of the previous games.
The structure of PoP’s encounters is similarly broken. The Prince and Elika roam a sizable jungle gym of a world, but face – literally – only five foes. These monsters keep repeating themselves again and again, fleeing at the moment of defeat only to reappear later on when it’s time to tidy up another plot of fertile ground. They use the same general attacks and strategies, are vulnerable to and resistant against the same combat approaches, and serve as the same dreary boss fights every time. On display here is the frank laziness of Ubi’s developers; they just couldn’t be bothered to include a variety of foes or settings, choosing instead to repeat what they had over and over. While it’s clear they were going for the massive set-piece battles of Shadow of the Colossus, the dearth of enemies and the broken-record nature of the encounters render the effect not magisterial but irritating.
The platforming elements are not so lifeless, but this installment hardly does credit to its forebears in that department either. The nature of an open world means you can go almost anywhere you want at any time, so any platforming challenges must obviously maintain an equilibrium of difficulty, so as to prevent a neophyte from wandering into a deathtrap. The result is an absence of ramping challenge; no fiendish puzzles and certainly no call for particular precision in your constant running, crawling, jumping and sliding. You just go where Elika’s little magic ball points to. It offers no pride-worthy sense of accomplishment in merely getting from A to B, especially since Elika’s there to scoop you up every time you go flying into the void.
The situation of camera control is more mixed, but once again displays serious problems that good playability testing should have revealed. The camera works fine during platforming moments, though you usually aren’t able to tilt or pan to the precise field of view you’re looking for. But in some of the game’s, shall we say, more challenging sections, you can’t control the camera at all. Take the many plate-jumps – lengthy Sonic the Hedgehog-like (honesty, are there any games this one didn’t steal from?) pinball bounces across the landscape using Elika’s magic and a variety of colored plates to propel you ever farther as you dodge obsctacles along the way. No camera control. None. And the screen is often obscured by shimmery magic, making pitfalls hard to see. Similarly, you have no control over the camera during combat. And while the automated combat camera does a pretty good job of focusing, cinematically, on the action, there were many times when I needed to see something I couldn’t – not because it was obsctructed, but because the camera was not looking at it.
Defeating one of the five monsters in one of the 25 or so regions means Elika can reclaim that fertile ground (accomplished by tapping Y repeatedly – rewarding). Then you get to traverse the same territory again to collect little glowy light seeds in what’s basically Pac-Man without the ghosts. This is a weak-sauce attempt to lengthen an already unnecessarily long game, and I don’t like it. Light seed collection is necessary to buy new powers for Elika; she needs them to bounce off the colored plates that litter the territory , granting access to new regions, and you have to pick up a lot of them. I’m sure the game’s apologists would argue that these sequences offer you the chance to enjoy the scenery in a more stress-free environment, but because the game’s platforming is so easy, and because there are no regular encounters, there is no reason why you couldn’t enjoy the scenery the first time through.
Ubi dodges one of the age-old problems of NPCs that consistently follow the character by making Elika just mirror your move a few seconds later. That way her pathing never gets screwed up and she’s almost always right alongside you when you expect to see her there. This does lead to issues when you hesitate (or pause to admire the scenery) and she knocks you off a cliff, but these instances are infrequent and in general Elika works as intended, supporting your platforming efforts and otherwise staying out of the way. Playing this game gave me a lot of respect for Elika, who is clearly in very good shape. Not only does she toss the Prince around like a rag doll even though he’s got at least a hundred pounds on her, but she mimics every one of his acrobatic moves in bare feet.
Maybe He Uses Hot Oil Treatments
I read somewhere that this Prince has more geometry in his hair than was used in the entire Prince from Sands of Time, which is awfully impressive when you think about it. His hair does look pretty good.
Powering that hair and the rest of the game is the Anvil engine, originally designed for Assassin’s Creed and incrementally updated here. That mighty renderer, combined with the gorgeous cel-shaded graphics and smooth, flowing animations, result in one of the prettiest games I’ve yet seen on the 360. I imagine the PC version, with its higher resolutions, looks even better; PoP’s brightly colored vistas are a pleasure to behold. The artists at Ubi should be commended for their character designs, and for managing to make what could have been a pretty dull world (the desert is boring) something that at times is almost eye-popping.
Another point goes to the developers for Elika. While her capri pants, poet’s blouse and flip hairstyle seem a little out of place in Medieval wherever-this-is, I like her overall design very much. She’s proportioned realistically (aren’t we in a sad place when reviewers have to make a point to applaud appropriately-sized breasts? Doesn’t that say something about how sick we are of juvenile, pneumatic women with hips the width of Coke bottles and boobs the size of outdoor decks?) and moves with an efficient, demure grace. And, given this so-often-misogynist industry, I also like seeing a female character who’s just as physically capable as the Prince. Indeed, she really only needs him along to talk to; he does all the fighting, but with her magic she could deal with the five foes (again and again and again and again) on her own.
Before we wrap up, the music of composer Inon Zur deserves a quick mention: it’s gorgeous. I’ve not been terribly impressed by Zur’s range until now; after all, his scores for Crysis and Fallout 3 were almost note for note copies of each other. But here he gives us a lush, sweeping, string- and pipe-heavy orchestral score at times thrilling and then full of quiet intrigue, bringing to mind distant lands and faraway adventures. There’s not a lot of it in there, but it’s great stuff.
Also: Apathetic, Careless, Idle, Inattentive, Passive, Indolent, Torpid, Somnolent, Supine, Bromidic, Slothful
The word I keep coming back to when casting about for adjectives to describe Prince of Persia is “lazy.” The designers were lazy about the combat, lazy about the resurrection mechanism, lazy about optimizing the controls. Rather than come up with a gripping original story, they lazily cadged it from Okami, along with that game’s visual style. Ever lazy, they liberated the idea of regular boss fights from Shadow of the Colossus but were too lazy to implement it well. In their laziness, they lazily stole the companion-always-at-your-side element of Ico, but, what with all their lazing about, failed to recognize what made that mechanic special.
This is a lazy game, a lazy game made by lazy developers who knew it would sell like mad because of the title, and so turned in a lazy excuse for a franchise update. It is too lazy to be bad, and far too lazy to be good. It settled instead for that laziest of all states: merely sub-mediocre. And that kind of breaks my heart, because there’s still a spark of the old Prince of Persia magic here. You catch it in glimmers, in the banter of the leads and the awe-inspiring views from high towers; the breathless jumps over yawning chasms and the grasping dangles from teetery poles. But those glimmers last only seconds and are gone, afterimages behind the eyelids. They are not enough.
Ubisoft Montreal has now presented us with three comparatively shitty games in a row – Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2, and now Prince of Persia. While normally this might warn of a developer in serious decline, in the case of Ubi Montreal I can’t feel that way. It is one of the most concentrated talent pools in the business, owns some of the most lucrative franchises, and seems committed to innovation in gameplay and design. They haven’t succeeded yet; the developers of Assassin’s Creed forgot to put a game in their game, Far Cry 2 was so packed with bad design decisions as to make us yearn again for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles and wonder why we were so hard on them. And now there’s Prince of Persia. Ironic that this is a game about swinging from ledge to ledge, climbing ever higher into the heights of adventure and possibility. Where The Sands of Time showed us the view from the top, Prince of Persia reminds us what a long, long fall there is to the bottom.
Minimum System Requirements for PC
Windows XP/Vista; dual-core processor 2.6GHz+; 1GB RAM; 256MB DX9 video (DX10 supported)