Hailing from the 16-bit era, Prince of Persia comes from a high pedigree, and the more recent reboots of the series, beginning with Sands of Time, have thrust the titular Prince into deviously complex and head-scratching 3D environments packed with all manner of traps and perils.
While Sands of Time is almost universally acknowledged as a classic, the subsequent releases were the subject of much debate. As the Prince became a darker, death metal version of the family-friendly Disney-esque chappie we saw in SoT, both Warrior Within and Two Thrones lost the series’ charm, while piling on the difficulty in the process. Although Warrior or Thrones weren’t particularly badly received, they still struggled to meet the lofty heights of Sands.
So, what do you do when a licence starts to flag? You reboot it, of course! Again! Yes, here we have another outing of the Prince of Persia brand, but this time the eponymous Prince is a whole new kid on the block, and this time, he’s not alone. Enter Elika, a striking young maiden who’s far more than just the token love interest. In fact, as you’ll soon discover, the Prince himself soon becomes totally forgettable as a character, and Elika takes centre stage as the story progresses.
Without wanting to fill this review up with spoilers, the story basically revolves around an evil entity that’s released from its prison, buried under the Tree of Life – an enormous shrub in the middle of the desert. Proceedings see the Prince – a wise-cracking stereotypical teen hero – run into Elika, and in turn quickly becoming involved with saving the world from the spreading corruption caused by the release of the evil force. The once lush landscapes packed with life have become dark, lifeless husks, and only Elika and the Prince can restore the world to its colourful self. Sound familiar? Well, if you’ve played Okami on the PS2 or Wii, then you’ll instantly recognise some of this mechanic, right down to the effects that spout forth as Elika brings life back to an area.
Freeing the world involves travelling around the Assassin’s Creed-style world, finding evil boss characters and whopping them into next week to reveal some ‘fertile land’, where Elika can do her thing. When she does, masses of ‘light seeds’ will appear spread around the area, which need to be collected. You need these light seeds to unlock Elika’s extra powers, which will open up new areas, and ultimately, the road to the final battle.
Now, any mention of Assassin’s Creed will, no doubt, send a shiver down the spine of many gamers, but don’t worry. This doesn’t mean PoP is a repetitive slog where you’ll be doing the exact same task over and over. My comparison with Ubisoft’s much-hated release is simply with the structure of the world. Instead of actual levels, the world is one large area, and you can travel from one location to another seamlessly, with the desert temple acting as a central hub. Couple this with PoP’s acrobatic abilities, and you have a game that shares many elements with Altair’s outing.
Speaking of acrobatics, ever since the Sands of Time, Prince of Persia has been all about the downright supernatural athleticism of its protagonist, and this reboot is no different. All of the moves we’ve come to expect from the series are present and correct, such as the wall run, balancing beams, pole swinging and so on, along with some new additions like the claw slide, which lets the Prince descend any wall slowly, and the ceiling run, which sees our nimble hero run along the ceiling, defying gravity. Very cool it is, too. As ever, there’s a wide range of acrobatic combat moves, all carried out smoothly, making for some impressive combo attacks.
Sadly, though (or not, depending on your preference), this time, combat has taken a distant back seat to the platforminng action, and battles are restricted to set boss fights. Much like the awesome Shadow of the Colossus, where you had to first find your way to the boss characters before you could finally fight them, with no enemies in between, PoP utilises a very similar structure. You find your way to a new area, see your destination (usually some fertile land, guarded by a boss), make your way there, do battle, and then finally free the area from the corruption, allowing you to collect more light seeds. This is distinctly different to previous games which threw whole armies at you constantly, and while there are some smaller battles, the meat of this adventure is platforming. This is no bad thing, as this element of the game is great, but more action-oriented gamers may feel let down by the lack of combat.
The actual platforming sections are true PoP through and through, with some intricate level design, thrilling acrobatic-laden sections, and plenty of hard to reach areas for you to ponder. Don’t expect the steep challenge of Warrior Within or Two Thrones, though, as you’ll be woefully disappointed here, and the challenge has been severely reduced, thanks to a certain lady…
The most interesting character in the game is, as I said before, Elika. As well thought out as she is, it’s painfully obvious that she has been included with the sole aim of making the game more accessible to the masses. Why? Well, because, with her in tow, you simply cannot die.. at all… ever.
Elika follows you around everywhere you go, and is always on hand to help. And help she will. Whether you stumble off a cliff, misjudge a jump, accidentally wall run into certain death or find yourself on the wrong end of a sword, Elika will jump in and save your ass, plonking you down safely on the last bit of firm ground you touched, or away from your current foe. This help isn’t limited either, and you can jump repeatedly off a ledge time and time again in quick succession, and she’ll loyally rescue you each and every time. In fact, in one early boss battle, Elika is seemingly trapped by a field of corruption, and is unable to move, leaving you to save her.
“Oh bugger!” I thought, “I can die now.” So, I carefully proceeded, being careful not to falter. But, in a feeble moment of cack-handidness, I slipped, and went falling into an abyss. Alas! Lo and behold, Elika promptly rescued me, and then returned to being trapped and shouting for my help. Eh? What? Just free yourself then!
Don’t get me wrong, this system isn’t bad, and actually works very well. But it is a double-edged sword. While it takes the previous game’s frustration factor away, and certainly makes the game more approachable, it also makes this incarnation of the series very, very easy indeed, much more so than its predecessors, and is without doubt the easiest PoP yet. What’s more, the whole “How on Earth do I get up there?!” element of the previous releases is also gone, replaced by Elika’s ever-ready magic compass, which flies off in the direction you need to go, telling you exactly where to head and climb. There are still many tricky sections, especially when trying to grab all 1001 light seeds, but the challenge has well and truly been watered down. I can’t help but think that an option to limit Elika’s help somehow would have been a welcome addition for more experienced gamers and PoP fans alike.
As well as taking one of gaming oldest systems out of play, Ubisoft Montreal have also played around with the controls, which will no doubt bother long-term PoP players. Remember using the triggers to wall run? Not here. This time you simply press a button, and the Prince will do the rest. A lot of actions are similarly automatic, with single button presses required at the right times, and you no longer have to hold down buttons to perform moves. After a time, you will get used to this, and in truth, the system works very well. At first, though, I found myself jumping to my doom on a regular basis, as I automatically expected to have more control than I actually did.
It’s safe to say that this game has its flaws, and you may be under the impression that I’m none too keen on it, but you’d be wrong. I do like this game – a lot. Overall, the game just oozes polish. Graphically it’s great, and the mix of cell-shading and more traditional fare looks superb. Animation is spot on, and the design of the world is a great mix of fantasy and reality. Once you get to grips with the controls, the game plays like a dream, and you’ll be pulling off ridiculous acrobatic feats one after the other. The use of Elika and her powers is both intuitive and a great progress mechanic, and combat, while initially underwhelming, soon becomes enjoyable as you learn how to make the most of the Prince and Elika’s moves.
It’s a shame that there’s no way to increase the challenge on offer, and this adventure is far shorter than previous games, but when it comes down to sheer enjoyment, frustration-free platforming and adventuring action, PoP delivers the goods.