There aren’t many video game series that have survived long enough to evolve from their original form and remain popular in the eyes of ever-changing video game audiences. Prince of Persia is one of those rare games. It began as a simple 2D platformer, created, written and programmed by Jordan Mechner in 1989. Left to rot in the palace dungeon, you controlled a young boy who must fight his way through the palace, avoid traps of cunning manner, save the beautiful princess and defeat an evil vizier. And all of this in less than one hour. A tall order, especially when compared to the more precise controls of today’s platformers.
But, I’m not here to rattle on about the history of Prince of Persia, something which is chronicled on a number of fine video game websites, anyway. What I’d rather like to share is my experience with playing Ubisoft’s latest current-gen Prince of Persia game. With no subtitle of any kind (one was rumour at some point, but has since gone unused), the new Prince of Persia is, once again, an attempt to revitalise the franchise, with a new setting, a new story and a new prince. Quite frankly I feel a little cheated after my time spent with the game.
The Sand of Time – which my brother and I received quite by surprise, as a surprise Christmas present – was absolutely staggering when it arrived in late 2003. 3D platforming the way it was meant to be, with puzzles, traps and time abilities, which completely turned things on their head. Suddenly navigating a corridor of intricate and dangerous mechanical traps was more fun than it had any right to be. No more long load times, no more agonising death animations, they could both be avoided with the touch of a button – provided you had ample sands to perform the action. Previous to Sand of Time I had also spent time playing the earlier versions of Prince of Persia, the predominately-poor Prince of Persia 3D included. Fortunately for Ubisoft, they manage to carve a half-decent story out of their Sands of Time trilogy, but only after making some major cock-ups, and stretching the canon to Hell and back. Gripes aside, I really enjoyed the games from the PS2 era.
Why then am I feeling a sense of disappointment about the newest prince’s Persian misadventures? It’s not something I can put my finger on that easily. In other Prince of Persia games, I’ve always be strongly invested in the narrative, the characters’ emotions and reactions to circumstances. The music (by Stuart Chatwood and Inon Zur) had a kinesis when you traversed precarious ledges and trap-filled corridors, but was equally evocative in the lighter, and more melancholy, moments. And the gameplay itself was responsive; an example of platforming control mechanics at their finest. However, simply put: the latest Prince of Persia leads you by the hand, one button at a time, to a dismal conclusion that makes the whole thing seem entirely redundant.
At the time, I was sceptical when I saw some of the middle-of-the-road review scores. (I’d also like to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for Platform’s dismal review – rest assured Mr Hendey won’t be reviewing another game on my watch.) Nevertheless, now that I have played the full game it is clear to me that the wheels of marketing obscured this game’s true persona from the beginning. I can picture it now: Ubisoft Montreal tinkling away in their Canada dev-tower, trying all sorts of new design ideas for the game until settling on the mentality that death, and the ‘game over’ screen, should be cut from the game completely. Quickly and quietly the promotional campaign was round out, disarming one and all with its seductive trailers, promotional art and talking heads.
The last time I was this frustrated with a Prince of Persia game was Warrior Within. That story may have been worse than an emo-inspired fruit cake, but at least it had gameplay. With the latest Prince of Persia I just don’t know what to think. Either I’m not pressing the action button enough, or I’m pressing it too much. In both cases the end rest is four seconds of waiting, or more accurately the saviour animation, as companion and magically-infused princess, Elika, automatically leaps to my rescue. To be honest, though, after a full game I’m rather tired of being saved after every missed jump or failed battle. That gold trophy for having Elika save you few than one hundred times in the whole game can take a hike as far as I’m concerned.
Much of this is due to the fact that the game is too straightforward. The core platforming controls (excluding analogue movement) can be boiled down to merely three buttons and a handful of situations for those buttons. For example, if you come across a high wall with a ring set halfway up, all you have to do is hit jump and then the gauntlet button to ascend the wall. If you wish to wall run from A to B, you do so with timed presses of the jump button, and almost nothing else. While it doesn’t pay to overcomplicate things with complex controls, particularly were platformers are concerned, controls that reward players who’ve spent many hours using them are all the more satisfying. With Prince of Persia, you can get a nice rhythm going, but there’s little, or no room, to experiment.
In Jak and Daxter I could quite comfortably pick the controller up, after not playing it for some time, and execute a rolling long jump that would land me on any surface I set my gaze on. In Ratchet & Clank, years spent messing around with the Heli-pack and Clank-less-Ratchet have left me with near-immediate recall of the manageable jump distances, and an effective means of increasing your ground speed (very handy if, say, you have to escape from a tunnel of rising water). Even Sand of Time had more depth, with players forced to alternate between rolling, wall running and jumping until it became second nature. The crux is that a seasoned player of any of these titles will be able to approach a variety of situations within each game in different ways, thanks to their gameplay knowledge and the flexibility of the controls.
So, herein lies the problem. The newest iteration of Prince of Persia may be saturated with Miyazaki-esque visuals, but on the gameplay front it’s scrapping the bottom of its box of tricks less than halfway through. If I also include the combat, which frustrated me to no end – particularly when I realised that enemies began inverting the controls, the picture isn’t any better. Strings of QTEs with individual button-bashing or more careful one-button jabs. Elika’s cries of “I’m not close enough”, when she was literally three feet from the foe, only served to deepen the frown on my forehead. The repetitive battles (and you do face every one of the four evil emissaries at least five times) with enemies became too much for me by the end of it. Though, the combo system has some nifty looking co-op attacks, the constant blocking and screen pauses meant that many of my battles went on way longer than any of them had any right to.
Elika’s relationship with the Prince was duly full of emotional anguish, and more than a touch of arrogance on the Prince’s part. From the beginning of the game itself I had some doubts. It just seemed too by the numbers. My fears were confirmed by the game’s rip-off of an ending (‘To be continued’ indeed!). After working hard to lock the Darkness away it’s ridiculous that the Prince, the player, should be force to release it anyway just to save Elika. What little exposition the story had practically seems like a waste. I’m fine with the Darkness being released to continue the story, and Elika being saved, but I feel it should have been handled in a different way. They certainly shouldn’t have blocked off the entire game once you finish it – forcing you to restart if you want to collect light seeds and go after the remaining trophies. I know Ubisoft are more interested in “producing franchise titles that expand the narrative across several products, and solidify their relation with new markets, investors and yak, yak, yak…”, but I’m more interested in satisfying gameplay and a rewarding story conclusion. Not for the first time, it seems they’ve disappointed me.
I set myself up for a more traditional platform adventure with this new Prince, which is something I was very much looking forward to. However, my vision of a traditional platformer, with approachable controls that vary in complexity depending on the situation, simple hub world level design and more intimate one-on-one combat hasn’t turned out to be quite the saviour I was hoping for. Ah well, there’s always next year.