More and more, the influence of the casual gaming market is being felt in traditional or hardcore games such as RPGs and adventure games. Simplified interfaces and gameplay are becoming more common – complicated multi-button attack combos are being replaced by single button attacks, huge inventory lists are narrowed down to short categories and icons, and more obvious visual cues pointing where to go. Even the concept of seeing a GAME OVER screen is being challenged.
Examples are everywhere: the DS iterations of The Legend of Zelda, Fable 2, and in the subject of this review, the subtitle-less Prince of Persia. This game was 2008′s entry into Ubisoft’s popular franchise – a departure from The Sands of Time trilogy in visual style, story and in particular, the gameplay. However, one has to ask whether these are welcome changes. Are games becoming more balanced or are the simplifications making hardcore games too easy? Let’s see how Prince of Persia fares, shall we?
Prince of Persia’s story is straight forward. Set in ancient Persia, you play this platforming adventure game as an unnamed hero, “The Prince”. The Prince becomes entangled in an adventure where he must help Princess Elika (no relation) defeat the big proprietor of unimaginable evil, Ahriman, who has poisoned the land with darkness and corruption. Your quest is to heal the various areas of fertile ground that are guarded by Ahriman’s top cronies, in an attempt to weaken his power and re-imprison him again, this time forever. The story and background is mainly told through the many, many conversations between The Prince and Elika during the game, as well as through several flashbacks. It’s an interesting enough story and luckily the characters are voiced nicely and the script is well written. Just be prepared to hear the phrase “fertile grounds” a LOT.
Before I get to the gameplay, let me just say that Prince of Persia is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen. The art design is simply gorgeous. It’s a cel-shaded animation style, but with a sort of hyper-realism rather than being cartoony. The landscape is truly epic in scale, with so much to look at you can really enjoy just stopping and moving the camera around to take it all in. The only lack of terrain variety is in the areas you must travel to in between the major set pieces, but it’s a minor quibble. The animations of The Prince and Elika are smooth, pretty and flow very, very well. Well done, Ubisoft Montreal.
And now the aspect of debate: the gameplay. The original trilogy was focused on platforming, combat and using the Sands of Time to reverse and slow down time. This game focuses more on speed and fluidity of movement as you traverse its large landscapes and setpieces. While there is a great deal of elegance to the ebb and flow of movement in the game, it really makes it an easier game. This is where I think the influence of the casual market is felt. Movement is all about timing of simple button presses, which is fine though it means a fair amount of trial and error. The simplification is hardly necessary as the game gives you an over-abundance of help to show you the way, and so takes away a lot of the challenge. For example, with a press of the Y-button, Elika’s magical light shows the path to get to your selected destination on the map. This is on top of the visual cues throughout the game like scratches on walls telling you where you can run across or jump from, etc.
However, there’s another problem: A sizable chunk of the game requires you to find glowing light seeds which give Elika more magic powers. The more seeds you find, the more areas that you unlock. And again, that on its own is fine too, but it contradicts the idea of having your movement to be free flowing and open. Having to stop and look around for light seeds interrupts that freedom. I don’t mind having to scour an area for items as since they are so open and simplified getting to a seed is fairly easy; it just becomes tedious to collect them all, and that’s just not as fun. I found myself enjoying a couple of the achievements that involve moving from one area to another in a certain time period. I felt it was an underutilized way to actually encourage you to have those fluid movements and well timed jumps – it’s something that really could have been used in-game and not just as achievements. Perhaps the game would have become more like a 3rd person Mirror’s Edge in that respect, and it would work well with the world design.
As you play Prince of Persia, you will find that the dreaded word “repetition” comes to mind for a variety of reasons. Once you’ve made your way through a dark corrupted area and healed it, you can finally get the light seeds… but that means traversing through the same land all over again. It’s lush and green and pretty this time, but you have to go through it all over again without any enemies to fight. Kinda dull. The game is somewhat non-linear in that you can choose what order you want to do things, but outside the collecting of seeds I lost a sense of progression as everything seemed to stay at the same difficulty level throughout. The combat is unfortunately very repetitive as well, as you don’t really need to vary your offense much to beat the enemies. Attack combos can be interesting and you can acquire unlockable outfits and achievements by using as many different combos as you can. However, in-game there’s really little incentive to use many of them as the enemies don’t provide a challenge. You can even kill them before they spawn with a single swipe of your sword if you get to them fast enough.
Another point of contention among hardcore gamers is that in PoP you will never die. No matter what you do, Elika will save you from certain peril: Fall from a high cliff? Elika will place you on the last stable platform you touched. About to be killed by a monster? Elika will pull you away before the killing blow. On one hand you can say that this is again making things easy, but on the other maybe it’s not that different than dying. Your progress is reset to your last safe point, so to speak, just as you would if you had died. You do lose some of that sense of urgency or suspense, though I don’t mind not having to wait through game over screens and loading times.
The Epilogue DLC that is available thankfully doesn’t cheapen the game’s ending (which was admittedly pretty entertaining), and I did enjoy the increased difficulty in some of the new areas. The boss of the Epilogue is a very cheap battle, though – it’s a shapeshifting boss that takes the forms of all bosses from the main game, even though Ubisoft touted him as being an “all new” creation. At $10, the Epilogue is a bit steep for not much added value other than to extend the experience slightly, and for achievement hunters to capture the added gamerscore.
Despite my seemingly many criticisms, I really don’t dislike the game. It is by no means broken – it is still fun and enjoyable though I do think it would be more so for a casual gamer that is interested in getting their feet wet. In that respect it feels very much like a gateway game. For my personal taste, I need something a little meatier and with more challenging gameplay. Or, if the developers are going to be streamlined and make it all about the fluid movement, then go all out with that as a focus instead of throwing in item collecting sections. It is worth a quick playthrough (it’ll only take 10 or 12 hours) if you can put up with the repetition. I recommend it for most players, though it’s more of a rental for the hardcores who are looking for more of a challenge.
I can’t help but think of the original Assassin’s Creed when I play this; that game was also gorgeous with an interesting story and a new type of gameplay but tainted with repetitiveness It makes me wonder if a direct sequel would spawn Assassin’s Creed 2 levels of improvement. What has happened instead is that Ubisoft decided to return the franchise to the Sands of Time timeline, not-so accidentally coinciding with this summer’s blockbuster movie. Will the same casual influence be felt in the new game or will the Prince slow down again and focus on pure platforming and combat? That remains to be seen.
This review was written about a retail copy of the game purchased by the writer. All images courtesy Ubisoft.