Worthy of the Prince of Persia Lineage
Prince of Persia is the latest re-imagining of a franchise that is nearly two decades old now. This new addition retains all the qualities that make a Prince of Persia game great with fun platforming, interesting characters and acrobatic swordplay. There is a special emphasis on the presentation this time around and everything feels a lot more cinematic. However, this outstanding presentation comes at a cost and while the semi-automatic platforming is fun to watch, it's not as interactive as previous games in the series.
Ubisoft Montreal decided to tie up the Sands of Time trilogy and start afresh with this game. The Prince is a wandering trickster this time around instead of the royal figure shown in previous games. He has exchanged his emo persona for a quick mouth and wit, and it's all for the better. The story begins with him lost in the desert, looking for his donkey Farrah ( aha!) as he bumps into Elika. Before he knows it, he is involved in the middle of a thousand year struggle between the Gods of Light and Darkness. The antagonist here, Ahriman, is trying to break free from his eternal prison and Elika is trying to stop him by restoring the Tree of Life. She plans to heal the land by using her magic (thanks to the God of Light, Ormazd) and due to a lack of better option, the Prince decides to tag along. The story is engaging and without spoiling anything, it has one of the most touching endings since Shadow of the Colossus.
The fairytale style story succeeds because all the characters here are so well developed; especially Elika, who is your constant companion throughout the game. It's easy to classify her as a damsel in distress but her character has a real strength to it and is arguably the central figure here instead of the Prince. Nolan North (Prince) and Kari Wahlgren (Elika) give some real personality to their characters. A big part of the witty dialogue between them is voluntary since Elika won't bother you unless you ask her something but the back and forth between them is interesting enough that you shouldn't skip it.
This fabled version of Persia is still a mix of old Arabic architectures and strange industrial equipment but the new non-linear design is a departure from the old series. The landscape is broken up into four main regions, each occupied by one of Ahriman's lieutenants - the Warrior, the Hunter, the Alchemist and the Concubine. These four regions are further divided into five levels each and the dynamic duo have to reach the fertile lands in each of these levels and cleanse them of the corruption. Once a level is cleansed, you gain access to light orbs which help Elika regain her energy. After collecting enough light orbs, you can unlock new levels to explore and cleanse. You can tackle these levels in any order you like and there in lies its biggest strength and weakness.
The open world feel gives you a lot of freedom in terms of exploration but it also breaks the flow of the game. You will constantly need to backtrack to an earlier region to collect more light orbs so you can unlock new levels. A little direction from the game to nudge you in the best (or least frustrating) path possible would've really improved the overall experience.
Thankfully, this never becomes a big problem because the platforming itself is so enjoyable. Apart from wall walking and climbing ledges, the Prince can now also scrape along roof, use conveniently place rings to extend his wall runs or use Elika to double jump in mid air. He can also use special plates spread throughout the land that temporarily give him inhuman abilities like hundred feet jumps or scaling large vertical walls. The controls are well defined and all these actions are extremely fluid and effortless. Infact, its a bit too effortless sometimes. The game starts a wall run as soon as you jump near one and sometimes you get the feeling that the Prince is on autopilot. Its still extremely fun to watch but it doesn't have the same feedback loop that the previous games did.
The only other problem here are the camera angles, which have difficulty keeping up with the Prince's acrobatics. The camera work is very cinematic and its not a problem on its own but when combined with the semi-automatic nature of the platforming, it leads to inadvertent wall runs and suicidal jumps. It can be easily solved by just taking a second between your inputs but that just slows down the fluid nature of the game.
A big part of all the platforming is Elika, who has the ability to teleport and can sometimes take short flights. She can help you extend your jumps by giving you a hand in midair. And if take a fatal fall, she just catches you and brings you back up to the last piece of solid ground you stood on. Its a great mechanic that essentially functions as a death penalty without all the frustration that usually goes along with it. This unconventional approach might seem not challenging enough at first but that's not the case. This unique death mechanic just allows the game to throw more complex puzzles at you without frustrating you if you happen to fail. The game does feature a large number of interesting environmental puzzles to take advantage of this and fulfill you adventurous needs.
This forgiving death mechanic is also a feature in the combat system where she will save you from a killing blow but the enemy recovers a small amount of health in return..The combat system is actually surprisingly deep and complex. It features the standard acrobatic swordplay expected from a Prince of Persia game but its presented better than ever before. All fights are a one-on-one affair now, so no more button mashing through hordes of minions. The Prince uses his sword and gauntlets to fight but this time he also has Elika and her magic to help him and they essentially form a tag team against enemies. There is a branching combo system at work here and you can chain different types of attacks together. The long combos are very rewarding as you do exponentially more damage with every single hit. There is also a standard parry and block mechanic here that tests your timing and it can lead to some interesting swordplay. The whole thing is well choreographed and looks spectacular. The only complain here is that there's just not enough of it. You can easily get by without ever learning some of the most difficult combos because the fights are so few and far.
The biggest draw here is undoubtedly the outstanding presentation. The game just looks incredible. It has a cel-shaded art style which looks like it was taken directly out of a Disney feature. The characters animate gracefully and are very expressive which helps the narrative too. The world is colorful and the big draw distances mean they are always in the backdrop. There are visual clues throughout the world to help you during gameplay like scratches on the wall to help you decipher where you need to wall run. The HUD is mostly hidden and only pops up during combat. Its not groundbreaking but all these little things help make the game look beautiful in motion. There is a great soundtrack here which nails the feeling of being in Persia. The whole experience is so enthralling that you might as well be watching the latest Pixar movie.
Recommendation: Ubisoft took multiple risks with the gameplay and art design in this game. They've succeeded with a great new combat system and some satisfying platforming. But it's the outstanding presentation, a moving storyline and charming characters that make this a game worth playing. At the time of this review, this game was already down to bargain prices so I say buy it. If not, at least rent it. It doesn't last very long (10-12 hours) but its a beautiful experience that's worth your time.