All this Prince of Persia talk has got me thinking of way back towards the start of the 21st century when I used to like video games. I got my PS2, I was still fresh off the N64 and craving a new 3D platformer. Jak and Daxter was fucking terrible, Ratchet and Clank was fun but more action-adventure than I wanted and I don’t even remember anything else until late 2003 when not only was I over my interest in platformers thanks to Super Mario Sunshine being one of the most deflating experiences of my life, but I played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and was blown away.
Sands of Time is one of the few games that gets nearly everything right, from the music to the characters to the general feel of the game, it oozes playability. If you fuck up on a puzzle, you tap R1 and you can give it another shot. If you go too far and can’t, it doesn’t matter, the Prince just says that’s not how it happens and you’re good to go.
Even the combat, which is by far the weakest part of the game is easy enough to run through. I don’t know why the game even needed swordplay but having the springboard ability that could cut near enough anything down to size in a hit so it never got in the way and also left you feeling at least slightly empowered even if the rest of your world is a nightmare.
Starting at such a lofty position, it was obvious that the franchise was always going to turn to shit. As soon as reports of low sales and poor combat rolled in, it was only a matter of time before any semblance of integrity and artistry were to disappear and be replaced by baditude and bullshit. Only a year later, in fact.
I was still naive in 2004. I had Warrior Within pre-ordered. I got it on Christmas Day. I traded it in before the New Year. Warrior Within must have been designed by someone who listens to metal because it’s fucking horrible from top to bottom. Gone is the aloof but funny and personable Prince, instead he’s grizzly, somehow American and swears too, just in case you didn’t know he was meant to be a badass. Gone is Farah, the sexy and smart sidekick. Instead you get two slags who look like they order their clothes from Kink.com and have approximately zero personality between them.
There’s 417 words in this blog so far and I’m still in the preamble but don’t worry, I am getting there.
I think I made the right decision to skip over Two Thrones. After hearing it carries on as a direct sequel to the last game to finish the trilogy, I realised I didn’t give a fuck. There’s only so much you can piss on me and call it rain, but enough about my sex life, this franchise was dead in my eyes. Thankfully. And that’s kind of sad. So, imagine my excitement when a reboot is announced that will take the franchise back to its roots: Mild.
As much as I’m willing to accept a reboot, so far the ratio of bad to good in the PoP scheme of things is 2:1 so I can’t be that hopeful and, Christ, even as a game I was only kind of looking forward to, I wasn’t willing to buy full price and got as a Christmas present meaning I never even had to pay anything for it, I was disappointed. No, worse. It’s definitely a disappointment but it’s the kind you see in the eyes of your mother when you’re now unemployed after going to a private school. It’s that kind of disappointment that means I can say, with a straight face, that Prince of Persia on the Xbox 360 is the worst game ever made.
Before you all start whining and calling out games like Rogue Warrior and Big Rigs, consider he development cycle of Prince of Persia. Ubisoft had a full studio to work with, a large budget and were in no rush to finish the game. Obviously there must have been deadlines but when you play this game, what you get feels complete. The problem is that it’s a complete layer of absolutely nothing and with the resources available, that’s a complete slap in the face to anyone who paid the full £40 or whatever it is in your part of the world to play this and here’s why:
The Awful Characterisation
I love Han Solo and I’ve come to like Nolan North but dropping an All-American rogue into a game like this is entering Richard Gere as Lancelot territory, especially when it’s laid on so thick. Everything he says is snarky backchat that is seldom earned and never funny. From the second you start playing as this guy, he’s a jerk. And not even a good jerk, you get the sense that the developers played Uncharted, liked Nathan Drake and just wanted that without even thinking if it fit their game or not.
Then you meet Elika who’s obviously set up as the hate-at-first-sight love interest but as the game progresses, you never get a reason to like her. One minute, she’ll be giving a sob story then next, she’ll be the feisty ‘strong woman’ archetype and it just reeks of lazy writing. Making you stand still and press the R Trigger to get exposition is bad enough but when it’s hack writing that can be accessed in any order, it really grates. Also, if I remember correctly, one time she told me about how her mother had died somehow and in the very next zone, either she cracked a joke about The Prince’s mother or vice versa and all it did was emphasize how disjointed and gamey the whole thing is.
I’m sure the heads at Ubisoft believed that the rat-a-tat dialogue was meant to generate chemistry but by the time I got to the ending, I thought The Prince was still a dickhead and Elika was a fool for putting up with him, but more about the ending at the end. Apt.
Besides that double act, you’ve got the stock evil father/king character and the final boss of the world, Ahriman, who’s evil. You know, because. Working for these guys are the four underbosses who, for characters that don’t have much personality, all have remarkably elaborate backstories. Much like The Beauty and The Beast Unit from MGS4, you hear a lot about what these monsters were and how they got this way in exposition scenes but in the battle themselves, it means nothing. The Warrior is a brick shithouse who you have to beat in the same way as you beat all powerhouse bosses, the fact he was once a king and took a deal with Ahriman has absolutely nothing to do with his level or his fight. It feels incredibly tacked on.
The Empty Sandbox
True story: When I first played Prince of Persia, I ran into the far right world and started going and going and going and going and going and then I came out the left side and felt incredibly confused. Turns out what I thought was the easy opening stage was actually the full game.
As trendy as it is to let the player go where they want, when they want, in a game like this all it does is keep everything even. You can’t spring late game stuff on the player if they’re not expecting it and it’s always possible the player could do the opening level at the end causing a flat finish. This leaves every area of the game being identical to the next in all but colour palette and magic runes, completely defeating point of an open world and almost making it feel even more arbitrarily segmented than the typical platformer.
The Fucking Orbs
As much as I didn’t enjoy Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, a different blog for a different time, the opening section where you ran in a straight line to collect pointless trinkets is the perfect parody of the arbitrary orb collection mechanic that Prince of Persia is based on. Aware that the game offered no challenge or interesting gameplay, it seems the designers went to the oldest trick in the book and filled the world in Light Seeds which you have to collect to progress.
When I say filled, I probably should have said coated or smothered because for every step you take, there is an orb to find. If you stop and look out into the horizon of any level, it looks like Christmas has come early as the orbs defy draw distance and litter the landscape with no rhyme or reason. They are everywhere. If you need to make a jump. you’ll jump through one, if you need to wall run, you’ll run through a million of them, if Elika needs to fly somewhere, she’ll fly through a chain of them conveniently placed in a spiral in the sky.
A glance at the achievements points out there’s 1001 to pick up in a game which is divided into 4 modestly sized segments. Even in the collect ‘em up heyday of the late 90s, 100 was the limit so having two and a half times this amount bumbling around is fucking obscene.
The Tap X to Win Gameplay
For three full games, the combat in the Prince of Persia franchise was shit at worst and like a bad Devil May Cry at best so a reboot really should have either overhauled the mechanics completely or had the stones to take it out, after all, judging by the art style, they weren’t going for gnarly metal anymore and at least look like they were going for a more fairy tale experience which is bound to be a softer experience unless you're a Tim Burton apologist.
What we ended up with here is the bad parts of every previous game brewed into one horrific system. A huge combat system that went on 10 hits longer than an enemy health bar, that is assuming you didn’t accidentally knock them near the edge of the level where the tap X mingame kicks in. Whoever designed this needs to die. It works when revving a chainsaw but not when you’re getting ready to This is Sparta another one of the respawning enemies off a ledge. That’s right. You kill a guy and another appears, ready for you to ice in 20 seconds with a guaranteed kill animation.
Not shoehorned and unsatisfying enough for you? Just wait till the boss battles. Each one revolves around removal of one aspect of The Prince’s move set. Kind of like those guys at the end of BioShock that you couldn’t shock anymore because of something. The Concubine provides the best example of the boss battles where you spend a few minutes tapping Y to get to the arena where the battle begins and you’re locked into awkwardly sidling towards the boss with no fluidity waiting to trigger a QTE in order to do a bit of damage. After a while, she disappears and you have to do more Y and A tapping to reach the next arena. I’m sure this was meant to be for dramatic effect, but it feels so linear, drawn out and pointless that it perfectly matches the tone of the rest of the game.
The 'No Risk, No Reward' Mechanics
With a several indistinct cliches all wrapped into one excuse of a personality, it makes sense that Elika’s magic powers follow the same formula. She might be trying to convince you she’s a damsel in distress but she can fly all over the place and throw you over double jumps. Though, she conveniently can’t attack an enemy if she’s a pixel or two out of range. The one that’s the most gamey however occurs if The Prince is careless enough to jump into the abyss, which is far harder than it sounds, or die in battle, which is borderline impossible, Elika brings you back in an instant with no penalty to the player or herself.
In Sands of Time, there’s at least a screen and a reload process to go through which is accompanied by some meta narration that at least makes it interesting. Here, it almost makes you a God. A God because you’re a fucking retard. The Lawnmower Man. If there’s no punishment for dying, where’s the incentive to get better? Being a game that’s accessible to everyone is great if you’re a mini game collection but in an adventure you play for 4+ hours, all this does is humour the lowballers and infuriate anyone who’s played a game before.
The removing of the corruption is probably the closest you get to some kind of real forward momentum but a level changing colour once you beat the boss doesn’t exactly get my on my feet. Especially knowing that once you’ve beaten said boss, there’s nothing else to do other than high tail it back to the hub world.
The Full Game's Worth of QTE
In a world where people are actively complaining about Heavy Rain not being a video game, it’s bizarre that no one said a word about Prince of Persia anti-gameplay mechanics. It seems that unless it expressly comes up on the screen every time to ‘Press B’, a lot of people can’t tell that they’re just doing QTE. Think about it. With the rings on the wall, all you had to do was press B and the game did it for you. You run to an edge, press A and the game will home in and take you to where you need to go. There’s less skill involved than a typical Wii game and Heavy Rain combined but because it’s tarted up, no one seems to mind.
This is all before you reach those coloured pads that have another embarrassingly convenient backstory. Any time there’s a tower or something interesting in the game’s Eastern Bloc bland architecture, these pads appear and with the tap of a button, you sometimes literally fly to the top. In the other sections, the QTE is hidden but here, it’s plain as day. Press the yellow Y button when you reach the yellow pad. How did anyone think that would be a good gameplay mechanic in a game where you’re essentially meant to be a gymnast?
Sands of Time wasn’t exactly Demon’s Souls but there was at least a part of playing where it felt like you were actually playing and got something out of it. Here, the game plays itself and at that point, why even play?
The Coldly Calculated Art Style
I could let this slide. After all, the game looks alright. Not great, not good, but alright. As with the rest of the game, it feels soulless through sheer tonal inconsistency. First off, the game is called Prince of Persia. We’ve already discovered that the guy isn’t exactly a Prince and now we’re in a land that looks nothing like Persia. Might sound petty but if you took this art style and put it in Batman: Arkham Asylum under the excuse that it’s a reboot so it doesn’t matter that it looks nothing like the grizzly streets of Gotham, it wouldn’t be OK.
So you tell me it’s a storybook. Great excuse. While the hand drawn effect looked great in Okami, here it makes levels look last gen. The levels are both completely empty and boxed into tedium. Where a normal game would have textures that give the levels life, here you’ve basically got bare geometry. I feel almost like I’m a tetragrammaton cleric giving this kind of analysis but in a game where there is nothing to do besides follow the trail from A to B, you notice. It feels like someone forgot this was meant to be interactive.
Also, if it’s a storybook, why is the story nothing like a fairytale? With Nolan North channeling Chandler Bing and Elika just being sad, I mean thoughtful, I mean heroic, I mean strong, I mean a love interest, I mean fractions of all these things wrapped in a story that literally goes round in a (semi-)circle, it’s a jarring juxtaposition but hey, it looks nice, right? People will pay money for that.
The Retard finish
I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you know what happened at the end of Prince of Persia but if not, here’s what happens. After hours of collecting orbs, tapping X, listening to exposition and collecting orbs, you finally get up to the big bad who’s been trying to destroy the world and, like the rest of the game, he’s a push over and everything is fine but whatever, Elika dies. Seems the Okami revitialisation ripoff she’s been doing through out the game has finally killed her. Notice how she wasn’t getting weaker in the zones or during play but in one fell swoop, R.I.P. Working on the assumption that he can even revive her, you now have to go and cut down those 4 lovely trees and then the one inside the temple to bring her back to life.
First and foremost, look at the balance of this. It’s literally Elika vs. The World. Elika’s life vs. millions and millions of people who are either going to die in a horrible fashion, get absorbed into the Persian nu-metal band The Corruption or live under the tyranny of Ahriman. Why would Nolan North do this? He’s known this girl for either 12 or so hours worth of arduous playthrough or, let’s be generous, a day or two of in-universe time.
For this amount of time, they’ve ran around, collected orbs, fought monsters, collected orbs and she’s saved him from dying numerous times. From this first date, how has The Prince decided she’s worth saving? Maybe he’s heard her tell him a few stories about her life before her world got shitsmeared but is that worth the universe? For a guy who’s meant to live like a loner, fight like a professional and love like there’s no tomorrow, he falls head over heels for this girl pretty quick and with absolutely no justification. He didn’t even get a handjob.
Balancing the inter-character relationships with the more genuine relationships of those characters and the player is something that has seldom been done right. The only time I can remember it working was in Metal Gear Solid 2 where Raiden felt he was unworthy and had as much desire to be Solid Snake as you did. With most gamers believing a 'subtext' to be what appears on the bottom of the screen when an NPC is talking, don’t be surprised if you didn’t get it and thought Raiden was gay.
I understand that I, as a rational non-Japanese shut in, am not going to fall in love with Elika but I’m at least meant to believe that The Prince did. I don’t give a shit about Alyx but I see why she gives a shit about Gordon and that’s why it works so well.
The worst part of all this is that once Elika is conscious, the game ends. We see Ahriman fly away ready to go wreck innocents somewhere else, The Prince just walks off with her in his arms and an achievement pops up saying ‘To Be Continued...’ which sounds a lot like code for ‘Play the sequel in 2011.’ While a lot of games end on cliffhangers, something which is never good, at least they’re actual cliffhangers. Here, I can’t see where the series could go. Ahriman terrorizes another sparsely populated desert, Elika is back awake with a new gimmick to use as a selling point and The Prince now treats her nicely all the time. Not exactly Empire Strikes Back.
Instead, some epilogue DLC came out and there’s another reboot going back to the days of Sands of Time which will tie in with the upcoming move. Thankfully, no actual sequel has been announced which I hope reflects poor sales but the Ubisoft’s track record, I wouldn’t be shocked if that meant Prince of Persia 2 is coming with a soundtrack from Mastodon.