It is widely recognised by certain members of the gaming community that the Sands of Time trilogy is some of the best gaming to be had. Regardless of what people might think, the time-rewind mechanic and overall journey that takes you across three solid games is as close to perfection in terms of that series that we're going to get. There's always a worry when you take an established franchise and attempt to reinvent it, it's rather like reinventing the wheel.
So I can say I truly admire Ubisoft Montreal when they made their decision to reinvent the Prince of Persia. Since then I've been keeping a sharp eye on the new game's progress and watching it shape up from a concept idea to something that's truly worth playing. What we have here is a story game that's simple to play, beautiful to look at and manages to get by without the need for the previous prince's time dagger and so on.
This is a bold move in terms of gaming in general and let me tell you why.
Time is a dangerous thing to mess around with in terms of game mechanics, Prince of Persia: SoT managed to make it fun and balanced with a perfect blend of death traps, puzzles and combat. To take something as core as the time mechanic and remove it is an even bolder move. It has been replaced by a fresh new approach to the idea that synergises well with an article I wrote recently about Game Over situations and so on.
The new Prince of Persia is a hat-tip to the old; it's taken the free-running system from Assassin's Creed and an iteration of the Scimitar Engine to make this game and right from the get-go it's a fantastic experience. I loved Assassin's Creed and I loved the original Prince of Persia SoT trilogy so I was eager to see how this marriage of ideas and mechanics would synch up.
I can tell you this, if you're a fan of lots of puzzle solving, breakneck combat with multiple opponents and game over screens, you're not going to like this game at all because it thinks outside the box that the game industry seems to have been locked in for years. If you're interested in a new look at game mechanics, a cinematic combat system, free-running that flows beautifully once you learn to master the controls and storytelling, then read on.
Welcome to a new prince, a nameless prince lost in the desert at the game's beginning. He soon meets up with his beautiful sidekick, Elika, a princess of a tribe that has been guarding an ancient secret and prison for a long time. The prison contains Ahriman, the God of Darkness and in a typical Arabian Nights style moment the prison is broken, the god freed and darkness descends upon the prince's world forcing him to team up with this sorceress and save it.
Prince of Persia is one of those games that you need to enjoy for what it attempts to bring to the genre. It takes away many of the old SoT puzzle elements (there are a few puzzles, don't get me wrong) and adds more of a platforming element to the game. There is combat as well, but it's not like SoT in that you're battling more than one foe, these are prolonged several-stage battles against Ahriman's 'Corrupted' the boss-style characters of the game.
Firstly: the controls, whether you're free-running or swinging a sword, are easy to learn and fairly simple to master. The first thing you'll need to remember is that A now allows you to jump, there's no pre-loading your jumps so you can just leap off at the end of a wall-run. Pressing B allows you to interact with the various rings that are situated on the walls and so on, letting the prince extend his wall-run or catch onto another ring.
There are several new acrobatic features in the game, including that of the roof-run. When the prince is against the ceiling of an area and there's a place this trick can be performed, a quick press of the A button will send him running upside down along the roof and if there's a ring, you can tap B to extend that even further. You can slide down walls thanks to the prince's sharp taloned metal gauntlet, so no longer do you need to worry about finding the right tapestry to shred.
Many of the acrobatics are based on wall-runs, extended moves, pole swinging, wall grinding and using Elika's magic to help you leap further.
By pressing the Y button Elika will reach out and hurl the prince a greater distance allowing you to get to distances you normally couldn't reach. The game will let you know this since all the colour bleeds out of the world as you jump towards the further point, time your Y press correctly or you'll end up falling. This brings me to the important point: THERE IS NO DEATH in this game. If you fall, Elika will save you and deposit you on the nearest safe platform. If you get swallowed by the corruption, Elika will save you and pull you out of harm's way. If you're knocked off a platform or about to be killed in combat, Elika will save you.
You might think that removes a lot of the challenge, and yes, it does in a way. It is also a gutsy move on Ubisoft's part to mess around with a core mechanic of so many other games and that's what makes Prince of Persia different and enjoyable. I haven't had to interact with a Game Over screen, I haven't had to really bother with a menu apart from the in-game map where you can set a destination and use Elika's magic compass ability (Y outside of combat and greater jumps) to point the way.
In battle the combat is cinematic; it's a gorgeous tweak of the Assassin's Creed combat system. There are small simple quick-time events where you have to press a button to avoid an untimely demise (where Elika saves you) or counter an opponent's furious barrage of attacks. Timing is essential and it can really be broken down like this, you can block, time your block correctly and you'll get a chance to strike your enemy whilst they reel from the impact.
You can attack with a sword (X) and Elika (Y) along with your gauntlet (B) and acrobatics (A) in various combinations. There are at least 20 hit combos that are possible (though I haven't managed it yet) in the game and the combat system is beautifully fluid when you get to grips with it. It does seem rather simplistic at first until you work out the nuances. The strength in the combat system comes from the fact that it's not legions of bad guys, these are all varied boss characters (even Ahriman's rank and file warriors are dangerous) with their own set patterns of attacks, defences and even special moves.
It's worth noting that you can also taunt the enemy by using the left trigger in battle. This will allow the prince to snap out some amusing one-liners based on his opponent at the time and can give you an advantage by making them angry.
When you're not in combat you can learn a lot about the world, Elika and the current situation by using the left trigger to talk to her. Elika is pretty chatty and her dialogue is superbly written, there's a great sense of character to her and whilst the prince comes across as standoffish, typical of the anti-hero of his type in these kinds of stories, he still manages to be a likeable character in my opinion. I don't hate him as much as I despise some of the video game characters that have flitted across my screen in the past.
The game will let you know when you can learn something useful by flashing up a small hud icon of the woman's face. This is another thing about PoP, there's no hud to speak of. Health in combat is denoted by a change in stance and a flashing red heartbeat effect that warns you that the next blow to land could be the one to end it. Of course since you can't die, it will give the enemy a chance to recover some health if you miss the correct button in the quicktime event.
Elika has magic outside of combat and apart from her ability to throw you greater distances, point the way and catch you when you fall. She is the only person that can heal these sacred lands by finding the right place in which to cast her magic. The healing points are often protected by the Corrupted of Ahriman and things like the Hunter will fight with all they have to make sure you can't purge the darkness from the area. Once you have purged the darkness, the colour will return to the land, the life with it and you'll find 45 or so Light Seeds to collect meaning that you're going to have to backtrack into areas you've previously cleared, since Light Seeds allow Elika to unlock magical powers to get you further into areas you normally can't reach.
For example, she can activate certain magical plates that let her jump you around like a pinball. You'll be shown on the map what powers allow you to get to where and how many seeds you need to collect to unlock that ability. To summarise in terms of gameplay and design, the core mechanics of the game are intuitive and easy to learn. You'll be leaping around in no time and exploring to your hearts content, stopping to admire the wonderful world that Ubisoft have managed to create and battling to purge Ahriman's Corruption from the lands.
Oh and it is a beautiful world, the graphics in Prince of Persia are gorgeous. They have a theme for every area and when the corruption is driven out it's worth stopping for a minute or two to just admire the view, listen to what Elika has to say and take a breather. After all, there's no real rush to finish the game unlike the first ever PoP game where you had a timer, ah the joys of the old 'old' 2d platformer days. It uses an illustrative style that's akin to a vibrant watercolour painting, it's bright and it's cheerful when you're in a healed land. When you're not, it's like someone has sucked all of the life and colour out of the world and the darkness feels truly oppressive.
The level design is fantastic, the areas are all unique and there is something impressive about the sense of scope. Since you don't need to load an area, you can run from one side of the world to the next, taking the areas as you want as long as you have the right powers. From the broken majesty of the Royal Palace to the eerie heights of the Windmills, these vistas are truly awe inspiring, much more than Assassin's Creed.
It's not just in terms of level design either that the game shines, model design is superlative with the prince being an excellently created character. His wit and semi-charm is echoed in the detail that's gone into his whole makeup. He is a vibrant, cocky, sarcastic guy and he has colourful clothes to showcase this. He is very much a Sinbad or Aladin style hero. Elika on the other hand is a gorgeous person, in terms of clothing and modelling. Ubisoft have managed to make a bright, sassy female character that actually manages to be sexy without resorting to showing ample amounts of flesh.
Every enemy in the world is also given a meticulous amount of detail; the Hunter is a dangerous looking adversary with a personality that oozes danger. Whilst he does not speak he has been modelled in such a way, he doesn't need to. Even the normal Ahriman warriors are well modelled and designed, they look threatening.
Great graphics don't mean much if you don't have good animation and once again, the animation in this game whether you're running, jumping, fighting or just watching the background animations of the world, is all excellent. The way that Elika interacts with you outside of combat is fantastic, she never gets under your feet and the sense of camaraderie between the prince and the princess is superbly done. She always manages to find her way across with you, never falls, never loses her footing and she's always there to help.
In combat, it is the same; the battles are cinematic and extremely fresh. The scything blades of the hunter when crossed with the prince's own sword clash in a beautiful but deadly dance. Elika supports with acrobatic magical blasts and fluid combat moves that give you an edge against the tougher foes.
The AI is excellent, both on Elika (mentioned previously) and the foes the prince must fight. With their attacks growing more frenzied when they're angry and more determined if they have the upper hand.
The game isn't just a visual feast either; it's an audio one too. The ambient sound effects are gorgeous, the spot effects are nice and the clash of the prince's blades in combat has just the right 'ring' to it. The voice work is good, Elika is a delight to listen to and the prince has made me smile on more than one occasion. Whilst some people have remarked that he's annoying and coarse, he is typical of that kind of character. He's got a decent voice actor that manages to deliver his lines with a solid performance, even if Elika's voice actor manages to steal the show.
The music is superbly done and I really want a stand alone soundtrack, it's gorgeous stuff and echoes the theme of the area you're in. The game also pitches the music in combat depending on how well you're doing it seems, it's exciting and enthralling as you battle to save the world from the darkness that is Ahriman.
This is one game that you deserve to give a shot to, even if you find the concept of change a little daunting. Prince of Persia, for me, is a worthy successor to the Sands of Time trilogy and I look forwards to seeing where the next sandy steps of our new prince take him and Elika.
It's hard to find any bad points, since I've encountered no odd glitches, every missed jump has been my fault and every failed quicktime in combat too. I suppose you could argue that the battles are rinse and repeat, but to me that would be a shallow argument since I could say the same about Halo 3, Gears of War 2 and anything else - after all you're just shooting the same bad guys most of the time.
I can't even say that removing the Game Over death from PoP is a fault either, since in this game it works like a charm and I've found the story and gameplay more rewarding because of it, I've been encouraged to explore and try new acrobatic strategies since I don't have to worry about falling to my doom(tm)