Prince of Persia: In Desperate Need of a Subtitle, was a big risk for Ubisoft Montreal. After POP: The Sands of Time won numerous accolades in 2003, the series went in a different direction, opting for a darker, more mature prince. Which, ironically, made for a shallower, less mature prince who only thought he was mature because he did a lot of brooding. The Two Thrones alleviated this to a great extent, but by then the brand name had worn stale and it was just another in a long line of action-platformers. Ubisoft knew it was time for a revival of the series and the advent of next-gen (actually, now current gen) consoles was the time to do it. Opting for cel-shaded graphics, a free roaming environment, and an all new cast of characters, does the new prince have the acrobatic chops to make it a worthwhile change?
About the new cast… The "Prince" here is not really a prince, and I’m not entirely convinced that the game takes place in Persia. He’s aided by a magical royal hippie fairy girl named Elika. Or rather it’s the other way around. This is really Elika’s story. The plot revolves around her being given mysterious magical powers around the time an evil god has been resurrected, and it’s her duty to put things right. The Prince is merely along for the ride. The new cast takes some getting used to. I was especially turned off by their modern day yank accents which felt woefully out of place in this illustrious fairy tale setting. Initially, I found myself hating the Prince with his obnoxious, sarcastic retorts, but after a while I found myself really caring about him. Sure, he’s brash and immature, but you get the impression that it’s all a facade and that he really is a deep, if pathetic character. Elika is far more serious and smarter, and her reaction to the Prince echoes our own; hating him at first and then warming up to this plucky, wannabe tough guy. It’s not a game romance for the ages, mind you, and it’s certainly not as good as the former Prince’s relationship with Farah in The Sands of Time, but it’s better than you might expect given the game’s first few hours.
The other most striking change about the game is its art style. The cel-shaded graphics bring to mind Okami, something echoed in its story regarding replenishing the land of a dark curse. Each area is varied and unique, and the cel-shading does a wonderful job at painting this storybook setting. The lush color palette conveys an idyllic sense of wonder, but also lonely isolation; something reflected in the new Prince. While the different environments may sound rather bog standard for this type of game — derelict temples, deserts, windmills, etc. — the fact that they all look so different from what we’ve seen before is truly an achievement. Simply put, the game looks amazing. The best graphics of the year, in my mind.
The game mechanics have also been revamped, and for the better. The Prince, who already had a Spider-Man-like level of agility, has even more here. He can now climb on ceilings, for example. Fancy that. He’s also got a cool claw/gauntlet thing that allows him to slide down walls, as well as employ his tried-and-true wall-run. The controls are extraordinarily streamlined with a more than generous timing window to pull off the fancier maneuvers. Even the most extraordinary platform sequences amount to little more than hitting the right face button at anywhere near the right time. While naysayers will complain that the game is too dumbed down and easy, I like to think of it as the most well-realized iteration of the concept of "little input/big output" that we’ve seen yet. And really that’s what Prince of Persia boils down to: a game about doing cool shit.
The game makes yet another bold move in not allowing you to die. Ever. When you fall down a chasm, Elika will save you from certain death, bringing you back to the last sure-footed setting. When you get slain in battle, Elika will revive you and you’ll continue mid-battle, the only punishment being the enemy will have a slight health increase. This gives the Prince (and by extension the player) a Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day level of quasi-suicidal riskyness. No wonder he’s so cocky all the time. This does make the game easier, but really it just trims the fat, so that practically every moment you’re playing you’re doing something new. For platforming sequences, I was grateful for the change as poor checkpointing can make even the most exhilarating sequence become a chore. I was less keen on it being used in combat, however, as I’d like a little more suspense regarding whether I die or not. Perhaps it would have been better if the enemies were to fully replenish their health (i.e. like starting back at the beginning of the fight), but I understand the designers’ reasoning behind this, as not everyone will be good at combat and wants to get held up for something that isn’t really the focus of the game.
That makes it all the more surprising that combat, the biggest bugbear in earlier POP games, is actually really good this time around. Utilizing a simple array of sword swings, grabs, magic attacks, blocks, and parries, combat is a simple, but involving, process. It’s always a one-on-one affair (or two on one, if you count Elika, making the odds in your favor), and this allows for a greater focus on the enemy at hand, without having to worry yourself about enemies off-screen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Prince of Persia’s combat camera does the best job I’ve seen yet of making things cinematic and visceral, while still framing all the necessary action.
The camera is equally amazing for the rest of the game, making it among the best I’ve seen in a 3D platformer. It always points you in precisely the direction you’re headed. This is no small feat as there multiple ways to traverse the environments, but the game always manages to read your mind. 3D platformer designers could really learn a lot from studying Prince of Persia’s camera.
Not all that glitter is gold, however. Aside from the new cast and art style, the core game design is much different, and not entirely for the better. That’s because a majority of the game is a collect-athon. That’s right, a series that has contained little to no collecting in its past has suddenly reverted back a decade to the good ol’ days of early 3D platformers.
The game is split up into an open web of different stages. After you restore an area (something that will rarely take more than a ten minutes), you’ll have to go about collecting "light seeds" in order to gain new powers, so you can go to new areas, restore them, and then go about collecting more light seeds. In all fairness, the restrictions are very limited as you’ll need little more than half of the 1,001 total light seeds in order to beat the game, but that’s what you’ll spend the majority of your time doing. In this regard, Prince of Persia reminded me more of the first Jak game and Rayman 2 than The Sands of Time trilogy. Depending on your point of view, this will either make the game feel padded and tedious, or it’ll add hidden depth if you’re attempting to collect all the light seeds, as some are dastardly hidden and will require a clever understanding of the games’ mechanics to seek out.
Personally, I happened to enjoy collecting light seeds quite a bit, but I realize not everyone will. Designing a collect-athon to me says "we want to make a game that’s fun to play, but we don’t want to try." It’s passable game design, but extraordinarily lazy. It’s a shame that with mechanics this stellar, Ubisoft Montreal didn’t push the game design further in a more unique direction. In fact, they arguably went back a step in this regard.
There’s also surprisingly few puzzles here. There are a few lazy crank turning head-scratchers, but that’s about it. There’s nothing like the brilliant "find Farah" sequence in The Sands of Time or the statue puzzle in The Two Thrones. Given that those were among the highlights of The Sands of Time trilogy, the almost complete lack of puzzles here is truly disappointing.
There’s also the issue of how the narrative develops. Most of the dialogue between the Prince and Elika is purely optional. At any point you can hit either of the left shoulder buttons to trigger talking to Elika, but these conversations happen in brief, unskippable cutscenes that really hurt the flow of the game. Sometimes you’ll want to hear the dialogue as it helps flesh out the relationship between the two, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to chat with her while platforming; something you could do half a decade ago in The Sands of Time.
For all its whiz-bang effects, Ubisoft Montreal’s renovation of the classic platforming saga takes as many steps backwards as it does forwards. The graphics are gorgeous, the controls are spot on, the combat is exciting, the setpieces are spectacularly over-the-top, and the new cast shows promise. It’s just a shame that Ubisoft only utilized these improvements for a simple, retro collect-athon. My mind tells me this lazy game design is worth no more than a 7, but I enjoyed it like a 9, so I’m following my gut and going with that. Even if it is just a collect-athon, it’s still among the most spectacular collect-athons I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Sure, there’s a lot of untapped potential, but moment for moment, Prince of Persia was the most fun I’ve had with a game in a long time, and that’s why we play games, isn’t it? To have fun? So go out there and have some fun now, will ya?