Like many others, I was a big fan of Ubisoft’s original ‘reboot’ of the Prince of Persia series, released in 2003 and subtitled The Sands of Time. The game did an excellent job of capturing the elements of the devilishly difficult original that made it enjoyable, transposing them into a highly enjoyable 3D world. Unfortunately, both of its sequels, The Warrior Within (2004) and The Two Thrones (2005), utterly failed to impress me. The designers had obviously not realized what elements of Sands of Time had led to its success, e.g. the excellent puzzles and platforming, and instead chose to focus almost entirely on boring combat, learn-by-dying gameplay, and frustrating quick-time events. Many within the ranks of the gaming press felt that the series had grown stale, and thus Ubisoft felt that it was time for another franchise reboot.
Hence we received the non-subtitled Prince of Persia (PoP; 2008), featuring all new characters, setting, and story. I’m going to spoil the review and establish from the outset that while I think that the new PoP is a decent game, it has quite a few design choices that just don’t work – if you’ve played the game you may assume that you know what choices I’m talking about, but you’re probably incorrect.
Strangely, in this iteration of the series, you’re neither a prince, nor in Persia for that matter. There’s actually nothing particularly Persian about anything. You’re a wandering thief (who calls himself ‘The Prince’), who has a run-in with a mysterious magic-wielding woman named Elika. It’s quickly established that Elika is a princess whose father the King, has released an evil god from its imprisonment. And that’s about all you’re told for a significant portion of the game. In the end, I thought that the story and some of its characters were fairly interesting, but I found it odd that I immediately took off on some quest to help Elika without any real sense of why I was doing what I was doing. It also doesn’t help at all that unlike in the 2003 Sands of Time, your characters speak in ‘Joe American’ accents, and crack constant one-liners. Did the folks at Ubisoft even play their previous title? I’ll get back to the story in a bit…
The graphics are probably PoP’s high point. Obviously the HD systems can produce cell-shaded graphics that look much more cartoon-like than previous systems. Image cred here.
Also, unlike in previous PoP games, you’re no longer performing acrobatic leaps and wall-running your way through a linear game. Rather you’re treated to 20 levels that you can tackle in 4 level blocks in any order you chose. I’m sorry but I have to say that this is my biggest complaint with the game: Allowing you to tackle the levels in any order means that the normal sense of progressive challenge and discovery inherent in action/platforming games is completely absent. With very few exceptions, every level feels as though it’s designed around the exact same ‘frame’ – most feel as though they have the same size and mix of horizontal elements and vertical. By the sixth or seventh level, I was already worn out.
However, the big change to the series is the fact that you no longer play only as ‘The Prince’, but rather Elika follows you automatically and provides various new actions all mapped to the triangle button. For instance, using her magic, Elika allows you to ‘double-jump’ and travel further during platforming segments. During battle, the triangle button allows her to perform a magical attack, which can often break through enemy guards, opening up the opportunity for a sword combo.
Elika’s magic is useful in and out of combat, and she’s an interesting character. The whole ‘not able to lose’ thing turned off a lot of people though. Image cred here.
Without a doubt, the most contentious issue with regards to Elika is that she saves you automatically if you’re ever placed into a situation where you will die. You read that right: You cannot actually ‘fail’ in PoP; you will always be saved and transported back to where you were just before you messed up. I have to admit that it didn’t really bother me all that much – I’m not a challenge-whore – but it somewhat inadvertently eliminates any sense of self-satisfaction associated with making your way through a tricky sequence.
Elika is an interesting and enjoyable character, and her interactions with the ‘Prince’ are amusing. I find it rather odd though that the ENTIRETY of the game’s story is narrated to the player in optional conversations between the two main characters. Basically, as you progress non-linearly through the levels, you can press the L1 button to strike up a conversation with the Princess who will reveal more of the game’s plot. Unfortunately, she cannot explain these things to you as you continue your journey: the L1 button activates a non-interactive sequence of dialog. While the idea is… interesting, it makes for a somewhat dull adventure. As mentioned above, all of the levels feel the same, and the designers should have put far more effort into telling a story via the environment, and not just in Elika’s monologs.
So in the end, what we’re left with is a beautiful game with interesting characters, and some decent platforming elements. The combat sequences are forgettable, the level design is repetitive, and the story pretty much non-existent. I know that the game didn’t perform all that well, and I’m not entirely surprised. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an excellent mix of game play, story, and novelty, which the designers unfortunately squandered in its crappy sequels. The new PoP is certainly a reboot, but not back to anywhere near the excellence of that earlier effort.