Take equal parts intense sword-fighting and smart puzzle design and drench it in Arabian Knights-scented oils and you'll have the original Prince of Persia
. Jordan Mechner's side-on platform adventure set a new standard for the platforming genre with puzzles that were smart rather than hard and some utterly convincing (for 1987 at least) animations. There's nary an editor in the office who doesn't have fond memories of this title; so much so in fact, that the original game came in at a respectable number 25 in our list of the 100 Greatest Games of All Time
. And though it's been a long time coming, Ubi Soft Montreal's sequel is finally here and is every bit as good as we'd hoped it would be.
The story is narrated by the Prince of the title. The odd moments where the Prince decides to chime in and offer his running commentary on the action really help to give you a sense of what he's thinking as he completes the various sections of the game. It's a very natural and effective way to get the player into the character's mind without resorting to arbitrary, self-aware statements during his interactions with other characters in the game. The few moments where the Prince does comment on his own commentary are handled quite well. (Since the story seems to be told in the past tense, you're also reasonably sure that the Prince makes it through the story alive -- unless of course we're being thrown a Double Indemnity- or Sunset Boulevard-style curveball.)
But that's the "how" of the story; what about the "what" of it? In short, the Prince, in his zeal to gain favor with his father, the Sultan, steals a magic dagger. The dagger grants its owner control over the Sands of Time and its theft unleashes a terrible evil throughout the Sultan's kingdom, transforming the ordinary residents into horrid perversions hell bent on destroying the Prince and his home. To say more about the development and course of the story would ruin some of the surprises you'll discover on your quest to set things right.
Doing so involves running a gauntlet of enemies and puzzles that spring from a mythical Near Eastern, Oriental source. Along the way you'll fight with the guards who've been tainted by the Sands and a host of other creatures who've been twisted by the Sand's evil influence. Combat here involves lots of jumping and slashing with either your sword or stabbing with the dagger. The animations are quite nice individually and can be blended together for some visually impressive chains. Though you'll have fun just hitting things with your sword, combat requires a bit more finesse. You'll need to use the dagger to paralyze enemies before cutting them to pieces with your sword or knock them down with the sword before finishing them off with your dagger.
The combat system does have its drawbacks however. For one, the combat can become quite repetitive. There's a certain formula to the combat and, once you get the hang of it, you won't find that it varies at all throughout the course of the game. Oh, sure, the few moves you get allow you to mix things up a bit and you do get a few weapon upgrades but there's nothing like the upgrade system found in more combat-focused games like EA's Two Towers or Return of the King. Too soon combat devolves into a jump-slice-stab affair that doesn't quite offer enough variety to match my tastes. Still, the simplicity of the combat system makes the game a bit less taxing for players who prefer fewer button combos and more predictability in their games. The other half of the game involves fairly linear puzzles. Whether you're climbing up and jumping from pole to pole in an effort to reach a high ledge in the Maharajah's bedroom or whether you're running along the walls trying to dodge the spinning blades that slide up and down the wall, the puzzles in Prince of Persia are very intuitive and are solved through action as often as they are through examination. Sure, there are a few "puzzle" puzzles where you have to work an object through a maze but, for the most part, the puzzles here are action oriented, requiring you to dodge hazards, sometimes against a ticking clock. Amazingly, the oft-criticized block-pushing, lever-pulling type of puzzles are much less obnoxious here, in part because they seem to fit the theme of the game a bit more. I mean, you'd expect an Indian maharajah's palace to be filled with lots of intricate traps, right?
The puzzles are a bit easier thanks to the game's time controls. Through the power of the magical dagger (which started all this to begin with), you can alter the flow of time, giving yourself more time to react to certain hazards. If you fail, you can even use the Sands to reverse time and bring yourself back to the point before you made a terrible mistake. Sometimes we found that the rewind function didn't go back quite far enough. If, for instance, you ran up on a wall and fell to your death, it's not entirely certain that you'll be able to rewind far back enough that your character hasn't yet started the move. Of course, the Sand power limits the amount of time you can reverse; the bigger problem in these cases is that you won't pick up on the visual cues that anticipate a certain move. There's nothing like rewinding and then watching the Prince leap off the abyss for the third time.
And if the time controls aren't enough to get you through the touch spots (and they ought to be), the game also provides a nice little sepia-toned cutscene between each sequence to show you what needs to be done. It passes in flash so you won't get every detail the first time you see it. This helps to keep things somewhat unpredictable but if you're really in a bind, those sequences can really help point you in the right direction.
From a technical and aesthetic standpoint, the graphics here are almost unparalleled. Whether you're fighting it out with Sand-corrupted palace guards in a twilit garden sanctuary or fending off voracious birds while teetering on the ledge of a soaring spire, you'll be awed by every frame of this game's visual presentation. It's easily one of the best looking games of the year and we're even more impressed that Ubi Soft Montreal has married a solid technical foundation with a tasteful visual style.
From a technical standpoint, we've been wowed by the superb, soft filter effect used throughout the game. Imagine the whole game looks like a close-up of Kirk's love interests on Star Trek except instead of looking at a doe-eyed ingénue wrapped in wisps of muslin, you'll be looking at an ornate Eastern palace and some sort of shambling, zombie-like palace guards. This gauze-like filter casts a dreamlike sheen over the world and lends itself well to the game's fairy-tale presentation.
Lighting and particle effects are also quite awesome. The fact that most of the game is fairly monochromatic (I assume this is a French word meaning "sand-colored") makes the lighting stand out more than it might in games using a more varied palette. Beams of light shine down through open windows casting beautiful shadows on the ground. The particle effects are best seen in the Sands that are scattered throughout the palace. The tannish-haze twinkles with light as if small fireflies were swimming about in the cloud. The cloth modeling that was used to great effect in Splinter Cell finds a welcome home in Prince of Persia. The drapes, curtains and tapestries throughout the game all react to the physics of the world. Watching the fabric twist and curl as you walk through it adds another layer of reality and wonder to the game. Though some of the enemies are fairly low in terms of polygon counts, the detailed textures hide some of the shortcuts taken by the designers. When you examine the character models closely, you will see a bit of blockiness but this all but disappears once you see them in motion. When moving the characters look quite realistic (well, as realistic as a desiccated, slack-jawed Oriental zombie guard can look). The sense of life is further enhanced by the stunning animation in the game. Though the range of animations isn't terribly great, the quality of each is. The various jumps and flips and swipes performed by the Prince are utterly convincing.
Better still, the game runs fine on our systems here at the office. The PC version is easily the prettiest of the different versions of the game and, for once, we haven't been screwed with a loss of frames per second. If you're looking for a game to test out your newest card, this is the one to get. Our Alienware systems have handled the game beautifully and we've heard nothing but positive comments from the console editors who've wandered by as we've been playing it.
The camera alternates between scripted positions and floating free. For the most part, the free-floating camera works well. It does tend to snag on certain objects here and there and the lack of a transparency for extreme close-ups (like say when you're back's literally up against the wall) tend to frustrate from time to time. The scripted camera positions (used for certain combat moves and many of the puzzles) are generally well-chosen but can, at odd times, leave you without a clear indication of where you need to go next.
I have to admit that the weakest part of the game is its sound. Even so, being the weakest part of a game like this ain't so bad. The Middle Eastern flavor of the score won't necessarily surprise anyone but the marriage of this and a more modern, rocking idiom was pretty refreshing. I usually don't go for this kind of synthesis of styles but it works to keep the tone and intensity of the game where it ought to be.
But I definitely find the voices waver between merely laughable and genuinely obnoxious. I think we're all to the point where we can deal with British accents being used merely to indicate a certain classiness but they're far too broad here. If Ubi Soft was dead set against using Persian-style accents (or at least some sort of Near Eastern intonation), then they should at least have tried to find voice actors who weren't moonlighting as understudies in Oliver!. The worst offender is the blustery sergeant-type in the moon room but nearly every voice could have benefited from a more understated performance. Given the subtlety of nearly every other aspect of the game's presentation, these caricatured voices stand out like so many sore thumbs...er, throats.
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