A rugged thief traipsing through the desert in search of his gold carrying donkey is not exactly the opening scenario you would expect from a top-tier title, but that is inherently part of Prince of Persia’s charm. The latest chapter in Ubisoft’s long-running action platformer brings a more lighthearted approach to the series with luxuriant, colorful visuals and a brand new partner system that changes the very dynamic of the gameplay. These changes are indicative of the direction that the developers are taking the series and fans of past games (given they can accept a few changes to the formula) will find a lot to love about the Prince’s new direction.
The story begins with our protagonist in search of his lost donkey Farah in a violent sandstorm that has transported him to another realm. This is where he first meets Elika, a princess of a clan sworn to guard the prison currently holding the evil god Ahriman. As you can imagine this is not a chance meeting and the Prince is teleported in just in time to save this damsel in distress from attacking guards as well as bearing witness to Ahriman’s release from his imprisonment. This in turn unleashes corruption upon the land and Elika vows to cleanse the fertile ground, with the help of the Prince of course. This is where the story begins and how it expands is entirely in your hands.
One of the most prominent features of Prince of Persia is that the game never forces the story on you. There are no long drawn-out cut scenes, but instead the game gives you the opportunity to experience key plot items at your own pace. This is done through a conversation system that can be accessed at any time by pulling the left trigger. There are key moments in the game where Elika and the Prince have choice dialogue that you can instigate by tapping the trigger. This is not simply small talk; in fact it is imperative to fully understanding the characters in the game as well as gaining a sense of who the Prince is. This voluntary narrative really lets players decide how they want to enjoy the experience and is a welcome addition in the philosophy of storytelling.
Elika is not only your conversation companion, but she is also your savior and a large part of what makes this game feel like a step forward for the series. The idea of buddy-games feels like the theme of the year. Starting off with Army of Two and its co-op mentality to the more recent Fable II with the addition of a dog as your lifelong companion the idea of having someone along for the ride makes these journeys that much more personable. Elika is probably the most well-rounded and emotionally charged of the bunch because she serves several purposes, slowly grows closer to you throughout the game and the developers have done an amazing job of forcing you to care about her. She will also aid you in combat; guide your path when you get lost and the most controversial of all: she will save your life anytime the game takes it away.
The rumors are true; you cannot die in Prince of Persia. During the course of the game you will find yourself leaping across chasms of certain doom only to be rescued before plummeting to your death by the outstretched hand of Elika. This is just one of many of her functions as a character and one of the many reasons it is so easy to care for her the longer you play the game. Essentially what the developers have done is take the concepts we have grown accustomed to such as double jumping and integrating combos into our combat repertoire and assigned them to an AI character. The beauty of all of this is that everything Elika provides never interferes with the game and is all executed with one simple button.
Everything in Prince of Persia feels based on a rhythm system. From the platforming to the combat mastering the timing is key to success. Traversing from each world feels similar to past games with the Prince leaping from narrow ledge to rusty pipe with extremely fluid animations and flawless button inputs. Everything moves so elegantly when done in perfect time that it drives you to master the system. Combine this with the idea that Elika will always save you if you make a poor jump and you find yourself experimenting with improbable jumps and taking more chances than you normally would. The levels are designed with one path in mind though, which does limit your exploration, but when you get a flow going it truly is a rush and makes you appreciate the subtleties of the game such as the flawless animation and spot-on control scheme.
The combat mimics the rhythm system found in the platforming, but is an entirely different beast thanks to our years of conditioning. Again everything here is based on timing. Each of the four face buttons represents a different attack while the right trigger is used for both blocking and parrying. Your four attacks consist of acrobatics, Elika, grapple and of course sword slash and all of them can be combined into a symphony of destruction when performed in the correct sequence. If you string the right moves together you can rack up some insane double-digit combos on your foes that are truly a spectacle to witness. However, if you have grown accustomed to mashing buttons at a manic pace Prince’s combat system may be your Achilles ‘ heel when it comes to enjoying this game.
All encounters are also one-on-one, which is certainly a change from the previous games and most combat games in general. This is really necessary when you realize that the combat is based less on instinct and more in timing. Deflecting an enemy’s strike is as simple as yanking the trigger directly when their blade connects giving you ample time to counter. There are also very few enemy types in the game. There are four main bosses that you will face several times, each time they get progressively more difficult, and a host of generic enemies that will serve more as fodder than an actual challenge. It is also worth mentioning that, much like the rest of the game, you cannot die in battle. If you are knocked down Elika quickly brings you back to your feet with the only penalty being that the enemy gets a little health back in the process.
Outside of combat and acrobatics there are a few other elements the game offers that keep things somewhat fresh throughout. First up are the four powers the Prince can acquire for cleansing each of the fertile grounds. The problem is that two of them are nearly identical and the other two only vary by one being based on the ground and the other in the air. Boss encounters also change up each time you face them becoming more and more focused on quick-time events as opposed to traditional combat. This is fine and dandy for special occasions, but by the end of the game the entire battle with some of your foes is comprised entirely of timed button presses, which can really detract from the overall experience. Finally there are small instances of puzzle elements, but they are so few and far between that they are nearly irrelevant.
The world of Prince of Persia is broken down into four core areas that branch off with each boss you defeat. The variety runs dry fairly early on, but it does not keep you from pushing forward. The formula consists of moving to a new area, cleansing the fertile ground and then collecting light seeds to open up new powers and worlds. While it doesn’t sound all that in-depth on paper, the interesting characters and vivid landscapes make the experience stand out. Combine it with the fluid acrobatics and you have a game that truly lives up to the namesake. There is truly a lot to love about this game and I guarantee you it will go down in history as one of those games people talk about for years to come.
As I have already mentioned the game is a tour de force when it comes to color. Each world is gorgeously rendered with a cel-shaded art style that makes you feel almost like you are playing in a giant water-color painting. The transition when the level is cleansed is truly awe-inspiring and the animations and facial expressions on the characters is unparalleled by most other games. The sound is equally incredible featuring an amazing score and some truly talented voice work. Elika and the Prince are both phenomenally acted (the Prince is actually voiced by the same guy who did Nathan Drake) and their dialogue back and forth is incredibly well-written. There are times when the Prince comes across a bit too cheesy, but overall you will be hard pressed to name a better duo of characters in a game this year.
Prince of Persia is the kind of game that will get lost in the sea of titles currently flooding the shelf. It isn’t full of guns, aliens or even tons of gore and it certainly doesn’t have the marketing muscle of some of the other games currently occupying store shelves, but it does have one thing most of them lack: character. The relationship between Elika and the Prince is easily the best duo found in a game yet and the developers have done an outstanding job of forcing you to care for Elika more than even yourself. The visuals are eye-pleasing, the sound is immaculate and the platforming and combat are so elegant they resemble an art form. If you have a chance to try out one new game this December make sure it is Ubisoft’s re-launch of the Prince of Persia series. Even if you have never experienced the series, there has never been a better time to get started.