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Review – Prince of Persia

posted on February 12th, 2009 by christian

The games and film industries are currently obsessed with the concept of reboots. While this is not a new concept, traditionally reboots are greenlit for franchises that are fairly old, and only when the IP holder feels that it will remain commercially viable after a modern facelift. Certain entities in the gaming world have bucked this trend, prescribing reboots for series that are still currently popular, and have likely had at least one new entry in the last five or so years. From a theoretical standpoint, this makes sense. If you are choosing something to to reboot from a list of modern franchises, it is much easier to determine their viability when your audience still remembers them. It also allows a publisher to continue churning out sequels at a steady clip without the new entries feeling immediately stale.

That being said, the industry’s reboot decisions have often been poorly made. Tomb Raider just had one not long ago with TR:Legend, and already Eidos wants to consider another. Namco has also decided they wish bring back Dead to Rights, a series that few were interested in from the start. When used incorrectly, a reboot reeks of desperation; a way to recycle an old IP rather than coming up with something new, and potentially doing little to shake up the old formula.

Prince of Persia’s 2008 reboot is one of these curious decisions. After the conclusion of the Sands of Time trilogy, it made sense to keep PoP going with a new setting and a fresh start. Yet I am unsure of exactly what the developers were trying to accomplish. It doesn’t do enough to retain the old audience or entice a new one, and it winds up being more predictable than the Sands games ever were.

I still cannot understand the complaints that this game “plays itself” or is excessively easy in comparison to its predecessors. The Prince still has most of his acrobatic arsenal. The only difference is that you no longer have to hold down a button to do a wall run or swing off a flagpole. Removing this does not have an affect on timing and execution, which are still necessary in order to get across hazards. Hitting certain buttons may make the Prince double jump or move along the ceiling automatically, but failing to hit them in the heat of it all will still cause failure.

As for the combat, I would never go back to the old approach from Sands. Battles in PoP 2008 are much less frequent, and always one on one, meaning that the platforming takes center stage throughout the experience. While it is true that the game makes it very difficult to actually lose, the combo system is so freeform that a good player can end the fight quickly and efficiently (while still experiencing some excitement), while less skilled players won’t be left banging their heads. It strikes a balance that is much appreciated, and rewards me for smart thinking.

There is the issue of your companion, Elika. Apparently her constant ability to rescue you takes any and all difficulty out of the game. The way I see it, she simply removes any remaining frustrations from the old rewind system. With the sands, you could shift time in an analog fashion, whereas now whatever predetermined reset Elika chooses is your only option. For most players facing death in the old games, there were two situations: either you were pretty slick and only needed the sands to correct small mistakes, or you made them constantly and would eventually face the game over screen. In PoP 2008, the former scenario becomes mildly frustrating because you are forced to redo a small portion of the game, though sharp players will be able to tear through old obstacles in less than a minute should they be reset. The latter scenario is completely undesirable, especially when failure sometimes forces you to go through combat or excessively long stretches of levels you already completed, and so removing it as a possibility improves this new PoP. Elika’s revival simply cuts out having to hit “retry” and watch a load screen, which was especially frequent during boss battles.

The bottom line, however, is that the newer PoP games have never been terribly challenging. It has always been a matter of “when” you get to the end, not “if.” The difference in each approach to rewinding is minuscule in the big picture.

Instead, there is one flaw in PoP 2008 which I think truly hurts the game, something that many reviews have not touched upon. In Sands and its sequels, the platforming took place in large environments that often felt natural. That isn’t to say that all the conveniently placed flag poles and crevices in the wall were natural, but if you found yourself in a massive room, and could see the floor, chances are that you either started from there, or will get there soon. It added a sense of impressiveness, when you realize “did I really get this far up?”

In PoP 2008 all of the platforming takes place in areas that are high up in the sky. You can see the ground far down below, but you will never visit it. This makes it feel like you are jumping around on platforms that have been illogically scattered throughout the sky. I was reminded of Mario 64, though that game was intentionally abstract. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance when you are told you are saving a once great kingdom that looks instead like someone blew Laputa to pieces. Furthermore, if there is anywhere that the game has regressed towards simplicity, it is in the story. The Sands trilogy had some cute twists based on time travel, but the tale here is entirely predictable, right down to its ending.

The story also has a negative effect on the gameplay. Each area of the game starts off in a “corrupted” state, and after a few basic hazards and a boss battle, you purify it, which unlocks the entire region to explore. And you must explore it in order to collect Light Seeds, which are needed to access other areas. If you aren’t very good at tackling each location quickly in both their Corrupted and Purified forms, you may spend an inordinate amount of time exploring (and re-exploring) them. At that point the game becomes a matter of running and jumping because you have to, not because it remains exciting. I assert that the same would have happened in the old games (and it indeed did by Two Thrones), but their linear nature helped curb this feeling.

When you finally get to the end and discover that the conclusion is both incomplete (enjoy that DLC) and highly predictable, you won’t be blamed if you feel like you should have quit six hours earlier when playing began to feel like a chore, or that there was ultimately no reward for your efforts.

Just who is the market for this new Prince of Persia? It hasn’t changed enough to be much more palatable to casual gamers, and seasoned vets do not have a lot of incentive to run across yet another wall. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this reboot. It just feels like it boots into safe mode.

Buy from Amazon: Prince of Persia

3 Comments

  1. Max said on February 13, 2009:

    see, this is why I love you guys :) Your reviews show evidence of an actual cognitive process taking place, as opposed to a mindless rattling off of “graphics, story, sound, gameplay,” etc.

    I haven’t played the game yet (GameFly gods haven’t bestowed it upon me yet), but definitely high on my list to try. I am secretly hoping it takes me back to the very original PoP, because Sands of Time wasn’t really my cup of tea.

  2. pat said on February 20, 2009:

    this is a thoughtful review, and more generous than i expect from christian.

    i was a big fan of sands of time, but i count myself among the people who consider the game too easy, but it has little to do with the fact that you can’t die. you havent really been able to die in video games (with the exception of shmups) for years anyway. the fighting also isnt why the game is too easy.

    each area is basically a series of elements, and navigating these elements involves pressing the appropriate button at the appropriate time. while this is essentially every game ever made, the fact is that this is laid bare in this game. the button presses seem arbitrary (b is pretty much the “do everything not otherwise mapped” button) and the window for hitting the right one is huge (this is what makes it too easy); it almost feels like the game is just one long quick time event.

    my other complaint is actually related to the primary reason i liked the game (and i really did enjoy it). the game has a great momentum. you keep moving, climbing, jumping, and sliding from one element to the next. the prince and elika are great to watch in motion, working together or leading one another, and having the whole game laid out before you keeps you constantly on the move. this quick, light, fun and borderline breathtaking experience is broken when the game tosses the (albeit rare) lever puzzle at you. the game plays to its strength most of the time, with you are moving so smoothly and gracefully through the world, and then you stand in the same place for several minutes lining up valves in pools of water. FUN!!

    to address one of your main complaints, christian, i had similar thoughts on the setting. it never feels like it had ever been lived in, and it hardly makes sense that after so much destruction the things in the sky would remain while the things on the ground wouldnt.

    i also have some complaints about how the title is inappropriate as our hero is certainly not a prince (and definitely not persian), but at least the game takes place in a vaguely persian (the plot, such as it is, is based on zoroastrianism) setting.

  3. christian said on February 20, 2009:

    Great thoughts Pat. When it comes to the platforming, would you say that the way it was implemented in Sands of Time required more in the way of timing and spontaneous decision making? I would say that these elements were very much present in all three games from the last trilogy, though in some more than others.

    If the review seems generous, consider it an attempt at a new approach. I can’t say what it was exactly, but somewhere along the line I realized that cursing and kicking about every game that seemed derivative or cliched did no good, and would only stress me out (and make it appear as if I liked nothing). My latest trend has been to review games based on what I consider the developer’s intent, which is not necessarily better. In any case, I can tell that PoP 2008 is fully aware of its ease of use and reliance on momentum to drive the player. It may not be original, or perfect, but it is clearly an attempt to tweak the franchise without shifting it entirely, and I can appreciate that effort.

    On the other hand, I will soon be getting very angry at a certain developer due to what I consider their developer intent. More on that soon…

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