Thursday, December 18, 2008
In 2003, the Prince of Persia series was brilliantly revived with The Sands of Time. It featured intuitive platforming, a great environment, and an unmistakable charm about it. Unfortunately, the charm was effectively killed with its sequel (Warrior Within), in which Ubisoft turned the prince into a brooding, laughable attempt at a "dark, badass" character. The game even featured Godsmack riffs and big-breasted Persian whores. It seemed like a drastic departure from what made Sands of Time so likable, and not even the slightly better third installment The Two Thrones could bring the series back. Now, in 2008, the Prince is back with a brand new look and feel. He no longer even resembles the Prince from the previous trilogy, and the art style has been completely revamped to resemble a living oil painting.
These changes are absolutely for the better. It's good that they got away from the Prince from the last two forgettable installments, and the art style is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game. The entire world is absolutely beautiful, and there are numerous points in the game where you'll just want to stop and rotate the camera around to admire your surroundings.
Core gameplay is similar in many ways to the previous games, as it wouldn't be a Prince of Persia game without copious amounts of platforming. For the most part, the controls are incredibly smooth, allowing you to wall run, roof run, climb, shimmy, and swing on poles with ease. There are some very impressive segments that involve a huge string of jumps, one after another. You'll ascend the inside of a giant circular tower, running along the walls and flinging yourself forward without stopping until you reach the top. Other areas have you sliding down sequential inclines, stopping to run along the side of giant hot air balloons.
While some of these moments are breathtaking, others are infuriating. Sometimes the controls can be a bit finicky, causing the game to think you want to run to the side instead of up, or that you want to jump off the wall rather than scurry up the vines faster. On some of the longer platforming segments, it's awful to get near the end only to have to start all over because of a control mishap.
Another aspect of the game that separates it from the previous trilogy is the inclusion of Elika, a princess with magical powers. She's crucial to the gameplay, flinging you further if you need some extra length on your jump, helping with combat, and even reaching out to save you every time you fall to your "death". She's the reason it's impossible to die in the game. If you get struck down by a foe, she brings you right back to life. Jump off a cliff and she's right there to save you. It seems like it would make the game too easy, but the platforming segments still retain some difficulty.
While she certainly helps the gameplay, you'll curse her existence once you start hearing the dialogue between her and the Prince. It resembles awful awards show banter, with the two constantly trading one-liners and lame quips. Here's a typical conversation:
Elika: "Compared to you, I'm a saint!"
Prince: "Aw come on, I've helped some old ladies home from the market"
Elika: "Only if they had attractive daughters"
Prince: "Well yeah, then I helped them too!"
At no point during the game do these awful conversations and jokes stop, and I hope that Ubisoft seriously tones it down in the inevitable sequel. Even when the conversation turns from quips to stories, the dialogue is as insufferable as the story is bland.
Previous games in the series were fairly linear in nature, but this new installment lets you go where you want, when you want. The select button pulls up the world map, which is basically four hubs of four stages (or "fertile grounds"), each with their own boss area. You can go to any area whenever you want, but some require you to have special abilities. You essentially purchase these abilities using "light seeds", the orbs that pop up all over the stage after you've healed the fertile ground. Get enough, and Elika will gain the ability to unlock special plates that allow you to fly, bound, and sprint across specific areas.
The weakest link of the entire game is easily the combat. It initially seems like a great system, with each face button mapped to a specific kind of move. You can perform acrobatic moves, gauntlet attacks, sword attacks, and Elika attacks. Despite this, it's by no means a button masher, as you'll need to string together fluid combos in order to deal any real damage. Enemies change states from time to time, with each state requiring a specific attack type from the Prince. Unfortunately, this can happen at inopportune times. There were dozens of times that an enemy would turn to a "gauntlet-only" state just as I was flinging Elika towards him. This would cause her to lie on the ground, motionless and useless until I ran over to revive her.
Another gripe I had with the combat was the fact that there's no way to lunge towards the opponent or move the Prince faster. This means you'll have to slowly walk up to the enemy, giving him ample time to slap you across the face with his sword before you get a chance to do a thing. Enemies also have specific attacks that require quick-time button inputs to repel. For some reason, the necessary button appears on screen approximately a fourth of a second before you have to press it, so expect to lose these clashes about 90% of the time.
It's disappointing that it's so easy to love the game during the impressive platforming segments, then quickly hate it once an enemy pops up. Many aspects of the game (art style, most of the platforming) are incredible, but others (combat, some platforming issues) are infuriating. It's not without its glitches, either, as there were times the controls would lock up or the map would become inaccessible for long stretches of time. With some more polish and a better combat engine, a sequel to this game could be stellar. As it is, it's still nice to see a beautiful new art direction and a return to the platforming-centric gameplay the series is known for.
First Play: 9.0
Replay Value: 7.5