IGN Review of Prince of Persia
Forget what you know about the Prince of Persia series. Let go the Sands of Time. Release your Warrior Within. Ubisoft Montreal has created a new Prince, in a new world, with a new female companion and a very different design philosophy. The longer you hold on to the style of last generation's Prince of Persia, the harder it will be to master the new one. Embrace the change and you're likely to fall in love with the new Prince (or at least his lovely companion).
When we meet the new Prince, he hardly seems princely at all. Little more than a smooth-talking thief, the Prince gets lost in a sandstorm while searching for his donkey, Farah. Of course, this is no ordinary sandstorm. This mystical phenomenon transports the Prince to another land, one seemingly made more of myth than reality. It's here where he fatefully runs into Elika, a beautiful barefoot descendant of a clan sworn to guard the prison of the evil god Ahriman. As bad luck would have it, the two meet just in time to witness Ahriman's release from his prison inside the Tree of Life. His escape releases corruption across the four areas of the world. This corruption will spread further unless the Prince and Elika can heal the infected lands. And so begins your adventure.
This is a story about love. Not the love between the Prince and Elika, but between you and Elika. She is your constant guide, able to cast a spell at any time to show you the path to your goal. Come across a gap too great for the Prince to leap? Elika can assist with a double-jump move. Want some help in combat? Elika patrols the arena, ready to attack at your command. Miss a ledge and about to fall to your death? No sweat. Elika will always save you. Elika teaches you about corruption and the battle between Ahriman and Ormazd, about the history of the four infected areas and the tragic tales of all four bosses you must battle. She's your greatest asset and far more likeable than the boorish Prince. If Elika were just a little bit more real or I was just a tad more insane, I'd marry her.
With Fable II, Peter Molyneux attempted to make us care so greatly for our dog that we would sacrifice everything to protect him. He didn't fully succeed. But Ubisoft Montreal got it right. Elika is so significant to the story and gameplay that I found myself caring far more for her safety than that of my own character, the Prince. And the real genius is that Elika is as easy to control as pressing a single button. That's all it takes. Double jumps, combat moves and magic with Elika are all assigned to one button. Her AI is perfectly designed so that she never takes the lead and never gets in the way. And that's saying something, considering how quickly the Prince moves about the world.
In truth, Elika is really just a manifestation of actions we've been performing in games for years. We've all seen a double jump before and heroes who mix in magic with their swordplay. All Ubisoft did was take these very standard gameplay elements and give them a physical form. It's because Elika is such a natural extension of the gameplay that it's easy to care for her.
The rest of the Prince's actions are just as simple as commanding Elika. Each is assigned to its own button. There's one for acrobatics, your sword and your gauntlet. These work both while free running about the world and in combat. So when you are battling the Warrior -- a massive creature made of stone -- you instinctively know that if you want to slide between his legs, you're going to use the acrobatic button. Ease of use is a primary focus of the Prince's design. In fact, it's so easy, some may subconsciously overcomplicate things.
When you're running about the world, performing acrobatic sequences, it's difficult at first to shake off years of training in action platformers. But Prince is actually simpler (and in many ways better) than previous iterations of the series or other action games. You never need to hold down a button -- there is no pre-loading your jumps. That's because you can jump off a wall at any time. So if you jump to a wall and then hold down jump as you are landing, you aren't preloading the next jump, you're actually going to jump again.
To play Prince properly, you need to relax (yes, relax) and feel the cadence of the Prince's movements. You will never furiously tap any button while free running. It's more like: Jump, pause, jump, pause, jump, use Elika, pause, jump. Finding the right rhythm can lead to some spectacular-looking and amazingly fluid sequences. And if you can't get the rhythm, your punishment is having the Prince briefly pause on beams and poles, waiting for you to get it together. When done right, you are treated to some spectacular animations both from the Prince and Elika. It's like playing a Cirque de Soleil video game at times.
This system isn't perfect. There are times when you might think you can drop down to a lower area safely, only to fail because there is a specific way the developers want you to reach that spot. And there were more than a few times when I leaped in a direction I hadn't intended (this happens most often when jumping off poles) or overshot a ledge seemingly because I was too effective in my approach. Fortunately, these issues are more the exception than the rule. For the most part, Prince of Persia handles brilliantly and manages to create an excellent sense of fluidity.
Combat follows a similar philosophy to acrobatics. This is not a button masher. In fact, button mashing is a sin in the world of Prince of Persia. Instead, combat is a rhythmic chaining of combos. You're not meant to be tensed up and leaned forward during battle. You're supposed to be relaxed, absorbing in the environment, the look of the enemy, and the Prince's incredible animations.
There's a fairly deep combo tree in Prince of Persia that can branch off from any of the four buttons (sword, gauntlet, Elika and acrobatics). Discovering how to keep a combo branch from closing allows you to string together a dozen hits for an amazing attack sequence. All combat is one-on-one (or one-on-two if you count Elika) allowing Ubisoft to manipulate the camera freely for a more cinematic experience. And just because you are only battling a single enemy, don't expect combat to be easy. The AI is tough and adapts to your play. Do well and the AI blocks more often and becomes more aggressive. Get your butt handed to you too often and the AI eases up. There's no way to individually manage this (no difficulty setting or other options), but I found the combat most rewarding when the AI was taking it to me.
The only trouble with facing the harder AI is that they more readily engage in quick-time-event attacks. These cut-scene attacks stutter the flow of combat when you get three or four in a row. And since each enemy only has three or four types of attacks, it quickly begins to feel repetitive; especially when you consider that you will fight each boss five or six times. I enjoyed the progression of the bosses, how they become more difficult with each battle and how the arenas themselves made each combat feel a little different, but the QTE moments start coming far too often.
Getting the flow of combat is more difficult than getting into the acrobatics. It's going to be difficult -- perhaps even impossible -- for some to break their old habits. For those who can't get into POP's flow, the experience may be short-lived. Prince of Persia isn't for everyone. You are either going to love it or just not get it at all. If you can embrace the idea that this is more about an experience than about the traditional "beating the game" mentality, then you are in for something special.
If the combat or acrobatics prove a challenge, don't worry. You can't die. At all. Ever. Elika will always save you. If you fall, she'll grab your hand and pull you back to safety, depositing you at the last solid ground you were on. If you're going to get squashed by an enemy, Elika will yank you to safety. This gives the enemy a chance to heal, but it keeps the combat moving. This steals some of the challenge from Prince of Persia, but it also offers some freedom for exploration. You can make leaps of faith in an attempt to get at a Light Seed knowing that failing won't penalize you.
I'm okay with removing any serious penalties from a game like Prince. After all, the more you stress about death, the harder it would be to enjoy the scenery. But I do hold issue with some of the other ways Ubisoft has made Prince consumer friendly. When you need to double jump, the color bleeds out of the world. When an enemy is about to counter attack, the block button flashes on screen. There's no way to remove these prompts for those who want to add some challenge. At times, Prince feels a bit like Mister Toad's Wild Ride. Sure, you have your hands on the steering wheel, but you're being guided along. I'm all for making things accessible to a broader audience, but there's no reason Ubisoft couldn't also service the hardcore gamer at the same time.
Perhaps the most challenging moments in Prince are when Elika uses her powers. There are four magic abilities to unlock, each tied to magic plates found throughout the world. Two of the powers are almost identical and offer no skill challenge at all. The red plate rebounds you forward -- often to another red plate) and the blue plates have Elika sling the Prince forward. Different animation, same idea. The other two powers do require some skill and are used for some of the longer sequences in Prince of Persia.
The dash power sends the Prince running up walls. Though you're on a track, you will need to move left and right to dodge obstacles and corruption traps. It's simple gameplay, but these sequences can be several minutes long and failing means starting back from the beginning. The flight power follows the same principal, only Elika takes the Prince in the air. You must dodge left, right, up and down as you soar through the air.
For all its creative juice POP comes up a tad short on the magic elements. Dash and flight are really the same thing, but with one on the ground and the other in the air. And the other powers are identical in every aspect but the animation. I would have liked to see a bit more variety here, especially since the magic plates take a prominent role the deeper you get into the Prince's world.
Fans of the POP franchise know that there's a third element to compliment platforming and combat. There are indeed a handful of puzzle elements in Prince of Persia. The majority of these are very minor things -- mostly moving plates to redirect where you can run. There are only two truly Prince-worthy puzzles. One has you changing the flow of a river of corruption so you can reach a new area, the other has you manipulating some gates to reveal a series of magic plates. It would have been nice to have more puzzles or more ways to alter pathways up walls, but it's nice to at least have something. Certainly puzzles have been downgraded in the new POP, but not completely forgotten.
Prince of Persia can best be described as an open-world platformer with boss battles. It's clearly been influenced by Shadow of the Colossus. Within an hour of starting up a game, you'll be able to run from one end of the world to the other, examining the four very different locations. You won't, however, be able to cure every area right off the bat. Each of the four areas is comprised of six sections (or levels) all of which can be explored from the periphery. But to give players a sense of progression, the majority of these sections can only be cured after obtaining a specific magic power for Elika.
You do, however, get to choose the order in which you unlock Elika's four powers. And the order in which you heal the various locales has a direct affect on gameplay. Each area has its own boss, whom you will face off against repeatedly as you slowly work to heal every section of the land they protect. And each boss has a unique corruption trap to release into the world. The Warrior creates columns of corruption that shoot out from walls and grab at the Prince; the Concubine releases bat-like creatures that chase after the Prince, forcing him forward. Even after beating a boss, the trap sent into the world remains in all of the other corrupted areas.
These traps stack, meaning that in the final levels, you'll be dealing with all four traps layered on top of one another. This dynamically changes the acrobatic challenges in each area. Ascending up the spiraling tower to the top of the Royal Palace when no traps have been released is quite a different experience than doing so with bats chasing you as corruption tremors roll up and down the wall and columns of black goo reach for your heels as you leap to the next ledge.
I was a bit skeptical that just tossing in a trap to an area could make it feel different, but it really does. Mind you, even with four traps released in the world, the difficulty of Prince of Persia doesn't dramatically elevate. Because many of the runs from one section of stable ground to the next offer few moments to stop, the traps are often solved by having good timing at the outset. Get off on the right foot and you will almost never have an issue with the subsequent traps on the run. Ubisoft did a great job of giving a sense of urgency with the traps – it always feels like you just barely avoided being nabbed by a column of corruption – but the danger is often an illusion.
When moving through corrupted areas, you may feel funneled into a certain direction, repeating similar sequences, but even then there's something fulfilling about making those jumps. After reaching the healing ground, Elika can rid that section of the world of corruption. The corruption is pushed away, replaced by lush grass, dandelions and butterflies. The sickly area you just ran through is now transformed. Walls of corruption that prevented further exploration have evaporated. And this is where Prince of Persia stands out from other games.
Often the "healed" areas of are pretty boring to travel through. It's often a necessary evil of poor design to backtrack through a completed level. But there's a reason to explore the healed areas of Prince of Persia. After healing a level, 45 Light Seeds appear. These seeds are used to unlock new magic powers for Elika. The majority of these luminous orbs can be gathered just by traveling back through the area. However, those looking to gather all 1001 Light Seeds will have to search every nook and cranny of the world. The payoff for doing so is unlockable skins, which can be used to put the Prince and Elika in different looks. But the bigger reward is seeing the game world.
As pretty as the world of Prince might be when covered in corruption, it's absolutely magical when healed. There are moments when I felt like I was running through a watercolor painting. The four areas of Prince are wholly unique in look and each manages to find the perfect balance between fantasy and reality. If you don't take some time out of your quest to stand on a plateau to admire the vista, you're missing out on POP's greatest gift.
The visuals aren't superficial. There's a story for every single area you visit. Elika's people abandoned this world long before Ahriman was freed and you can learn more of the history by speaking to Elika. There's a talk button, which you can use anytime you're stopped (or to talk smack to enemies). This adds optional conversations which give you more insight into Elika, the Prince, the bosses you're battling and the lands you're healing. Some of the conversations are seemingly trivial, but showcase the Prince's piss-poor personality (must he always be such a jerk?) and Elika's charm. The Prince is a bit too acerbic for my tastes and some of his lines are groan-worthy. But Elika and the bosses are well-voiced and make up for the Prince's deficiencies.
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