When last we saw the Prince of Persia, he was gloomy, decked out in guyliner, and one step away from listening to My Chemical Romance. Reactions to Warrior Within and Two Thrones were mixed; though the gameplay was generally appreciated, the Prince’s emorific demeanor was not, so Ubisoft wisely decided to reboot the franchise with the most recent entry in the series. Simply entitled Prince of Persia, it beautifully recaptures the spirit and flavor of the older games, but ditches the cock rock, the chicks in metal bikinis, and most of the controller-throwing frustration. You may as well go ahead and update your holiday wishlist now.
As our story begins, the Prince is wandering through the desert, looking for his lost donkey Farah (fans of Sands of Time should get a good chuckle out of that), when he literally bumps into the princess Elika, who is desperately trying to prevent Ahriman, God of Darkness, from escaping his prison in the Tree of Life. Ormazd, God of Light, sealed him up some time ago, but then promptly buggered off, the way Gods of Light are wont to do. Long story short, faith wavered, bonds weakened, and the world is now in grave danger of being overcome by Ahriman’s corruption, which is spreading across the land as an oily, inky, blackness. The Prince really just wants to find his donkey, but seeing as how Elika is a Damsel in Distress- and a cute one at that – he nobly decides to lend a hand.
In order to weaken the power Ahriman is sucking from the land, Elika and the Prince must heal the Fertile Grounds, areas of purity that strengthen the Tree of Life. Of course none of them are easy to reach. Fortunately, the Prince has spent some extra time training with Cirque du Soleil, and has an impressive roster of acrobatic moves at his disposal including jumping, wall running, swinging from poles, shinnying up columns and running along the ceiling. As you progress through the game and collect light seeds – balls of light released after a Fertile Ground is cleansed of corruption – you’ll unlock Special Powers that will allow the Prince to access even more difficult-to-reach areas.
All of this jumping and swinging is remarkably easy to pull off, thanks to the game’s streamlined controls. Virtually all of your moves are controlled simply by hitting the X button, making success more a factor of correct timing or aim then overly nimble fingers. While this makes Prince of Persia far less frustrating and more accessible for newcomers, it might stymie more experienced players at first. I died more than once because I hit X more than necessary, because I wasn’t expecting the Prince to be on autopilot as much as he was. Just because the moves are easier to pull off doesn’t mean that the game is for babies, though – the navigation of some sequences is still quite tricky.
Given the game’s emphasis on jumping puzzles, it’s tempting to call Prince of Persia a platformer, but that doesn’t really do its intricately crafted levels justice. Navigating through the broken remnants of the city, you begin to feel a grace and flow that goes beyond simple running and jumping. One elegant acrobatic move flows into the next, forming a chain of supple dexterity that transports you from one end the level to the other. Any lumbering idiot can use a magic carpet, but the Prince can truly fly.
Sprinkled within the game’s sprawling levels and numerous environmental puzzles are a handful of enemy encounters. Usually, you’ll be squaring off with one of Ahriman’s four servants: The Alchemist, The Warrior, The Concubine, or The Hunter, but occasionally you’ll fight a lesser soldier, too. The servants are far more formidable than the foot soldiers, but none of them are pushovers. Success in combat is all about mastering timing and combos; hammering away wildly on the buttons might score you a lucky hit or two, but you’ll never win the fight that way. You can also use the environment to your advantage, by shoving an opponent off a ledge or pinning it up against a wall. Pull off either of those moves, and it’s an instant win – even when you’re fighting one of the four boss-type servants.
The Princess Elika is your constant companion throughout the game, but unlike most game companions, she’s excellent company. Not only does she thankfully keep her yap shut as you’re jumping, sliding, and swinging your way through the levels, she uses her magic to help swing you across particularly wide jumps or attack enemies you couldn’t otherwise hurt. She also saves your neck whenever you fall to your doom or are struck down in combat – which means, no, you can’t actually die in the game. It doesn’t really make the game any less fun or challenging, though, just less frustrating. If she saves you from falling, she drops you somewhere near where you fell, so that you can try again; if she saves your life during combat, your enemy’s lifebar refills, essentially restarting the fight from scratch. In essence, Elika is performing the same function as reloading from a checkpoint, but without the aggravating wait.
I could devote many words to how incredibly beautiful the environments in Prince of Persia are, but instead let me simply sum up by saying I have not one, but two pieces of game art currently being framed to hang in my office and home. Corrupted lands are grim and foreboding, choked with Ahriman’s tarry influence; their healed counterparts are wondrous, bright, colorful locales straight out of the pages of a storybook. Only a few areas are available when you start the game, but as you heal Fertile Grounds and collect light seeds, more will become available for exploration. And if the glorious view isn’t enough incentive for you to take your time looking around, Special Powers make new portions of explored lands accessible, giving you ample reason to revisit old areas and track down those last few light seeds.
The soundtrack, too, is lush and vibrant, providing the perfect aural backdrop for the adventures of the Prince and Elika. If only their voices were similarly well suited to the game’s environments. It’s not that the actors providing the voiceovers do a bad job – quite the contrary – but they’re woefully American sounding. It’s a minor complaint, but the game’s aesthetic is otherwise so pleasing that it’s jarring to hear someone who could just as easily have voiced Nathan Drake or Master Chief standing in as the Prince of Persia. It’s an admittedly minor complaint in an otherwise fantastic game.
Prince of Persia is a welcome reboot of a beloved series that had gone somewhat astray. The platforming is clever and challenging, the visuals are simply stunning, and while the story of the Prince and Elika doesn’t exactly blaze new trails (may as well just call them Han and Leia and get it over with), it’s rousing enough to get you rooting for the good guys and booing the bad guys. I’m almost sorry to tell you this, but your “Must Have” list of games this holiday season just got one title longer.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Susan Arendt wants a donkey of her very own.