A sandstorm, a lost donkey, a desperate princess, a corrupted land, and a dangerous god – these are the set pieces around which Prince of Persia is built. When a sandstorm hits, our nameless hero loses more than his donkey Farah – he loses his identity. Instead of continuing on as a thief he meets Elika and ends up helping her save the world by restoring the corrupted lands and reestablishing Ahriman’s prison.
In a return to Sands of Time’s form, Prince of Persia is smartly written and has a much greater focus on platforming, story, character interaction, and creating an interesting world than it does on combat. There are corrupt enemies to be fought, but it is obvious that enemy encounters have taken a back seat to adventuring and exploration. There are enemies though, and their presence is important from both a narrative and a gameplay mechanics perspective. Gone are the days of taking out wave after wave of sand creatures – the new Prince fights one on one, and the sword you start with is the sword you’ll end with. The Prince’s repertoire is limited to three attacks: sword, grab, and magic, but the combo attacks available more than make up for the lack of upgrades. Combat feels important since it is presented sparingly, and there is a real sense of danger when taking on an enemy one on one when surrounded by life-ending corruption.
A typical level plays out this way. Elika and the Prince arrive in a corrupted area; Elika explains what that area used to be and how one of the four main enemies has altered it. After that, dialog is optional, but recommended. Pull the left trigger to get to know Elika through short, smart exchanges that feel more like two people actually talking to one another than two video game writers ensuring that plot points A, B, and C are all fully explained to the player. After the relevant plot details have been explained, dialog is still encouraged and where the writing really shines. Elika and the Prince’s relationship really grows here, and many of the interactions are genuinely funny.
Prince of Persia plays fast and loose with its physics decisions, and the game is better for it. None of us will ever run on a ceiling, grab a brass ring, run on the ceiling a bit more, grab another ring, run up a wall, vault over to a pillar, quickly turn, shimmy down a bit, jump to a faraway platform, and then call on a magical princess to extend our jump, but it all works and feels right inside the game world. The Prince’s animations are exceptionally fluid (the Assassin’s Creed engine is being put to good use here) and he manages to make running on the ceiling actually look possible.
After the area’s main enemy is defeated, Elika can heal the land and create a secondary challenge – collecting light seeds. While collecting light seeds there are no enemies. The player’s only obstacle are inactive plates which signify magical powers that Elika does not yet have access to, and environmental platforming challenges that often result in “how on Earth do I get over there” and great satisfaction at finally getting there. Collecting light seeds isn’t optional – though there are more than twice as many as required in the entire game; Elika needs them to gain additional abilities tied to the colored plates found throughout the game world. New plates open up new areas, new areas release more light seeds when cleansed, and more light seeds collected opens up new magical abilities like wall running, on-rails flying, and exceptionally powerful jumping.
In a year full of depressing and gray (but still great) games like Fallout 3 and Gears of War 2, Prince of Persia – with its beautifully cel shaded and lovingly animated characters, staggering draw distance, relaxing light seed collecting, and gorgeous vistas – is a welcome change and a game that ought to appeal to everybody.
Pros: great writing, fluid platforming, fun combat system
Cons: it ends
Plays like: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Assassin’s Creed
ESRB: T – the Prince is suggestive, but you’ll find far worse on network television