Magical game is magic.
The game starts with the new prince caught in a sandstorm, while the narrator questions the relevance of a single grain of sand, which may or not be a reference to the previous trilogy. The prince is looking for his donkey, Farah (a blatant reference this one), which is carrying its weight in gold, but winds up getting terribly lost as he gracefully falls down into a chasm. By a total chance encounter, a renegade princess falls on top of the prince and one thing leads to another – you're going to help her reclaim her lost kingdom by wiping out the corruption plaguing this almost mythical rendition of Persia, with massive structures that defy all architectural logic.
On face value, Prince of Persia has a very shallow plot. Dig deeper and it's still pretty shallow. Instead of a complicated story, much of its narrative power stems from its two characters – the prince and the princess just mentioned above, Elika. The prince is witty, sarcastic and occasionally snarky. Not an ideal lead character. However, like most characters of his nature, he shows his true colors occasionally and his strong ideals on life make him more than just a comedic lead; he's tough, he's gone through a lot, adventured a lot and seen a lot. While there's not much of a reason to label this guy as a prince other than because the credits say so, I just learned to accept it and enjoyed learning what little details about himself he occasionally spilled out. He's a great character and is very enigmatic, which gives the developers a lot of room to open this guy up in future installments.
And then there's your attractive sidekick, Elika. If I were to draw some kind of "Sidekick Likeability" scale for your pleasure, she would rank right up there with Alyx from the Half-Life 2 series. In terms of purely character, she has clear motivations (save her kingdom) and while she has had limited contact with the outside world, she is no pampered and pompous little girl; she's tough and she too has her own set of strong ideals and convictions that often clash with the prince's.
And it's really there when the chemistry between the two start bubbling. Each initially start off with their own goals, they often butt heads, but eventually, they begin to enjoy each other's company. They both change and influence the other in some meaningful way by the end of the game. It's fun to see their relationship grow and it gives the game a lot of heart, just like how Sand of Time's character growth gave it the emotional jolt that carried its story. The emotional pay-off is huge by the games end. It is so powerful and justified. Unforgettable, in one word. Just this aspect alone makes the game worth playing.
The crazy thing is that almost every bit of story and character development is completely optional. Ubisoft calls it the On Demand Dialogue system, which is just a pretty and admittedly succinct way of saying, "You can learn about the characters and the world around you, or not". Every once in awhile, you'll get the chance to engage the two characters in conversation and whether you want to take the time to listen to them or skip them altogether is completely up to you. Opting to make almost all of the game's dialogue optional is convenient, but it also feels a bit backwards. All three previous games integrated dialogue while playing. The prince would narrate or talk with whoever decided to tag along while you were platforming, puzzle-solving or combating your way through the game. Granted, seeing the prince and Elika close-up in conversation with great facial emotions and lip-synching is a quality that couldn't have been possible if they went with what they did in the trilogy, so you take the good with the bad. It's mostly good.
Six paragraphs with barely a mention of how the game actually plays. That seems long enough, so let's talk about it now. Prince of Persia is set in a large gameworld, with four different areas with their own distinct look. The objective is to go to each area and cleanse the corruption that seeps deep within the landscape, so that the land may flourish and get all flowery and pretty. There's an obvious structure that stems from this – get to an area, do some platforming, fight a boss, maybe solve one of the game's handful selection of puzzles and then get Elika to cleanse the area of corruption. With every area that is cleansed, light seeds appear and you must gather at least 540 out of the 1,001 to unlock abilities that you need to finish the game. If you don't go out of your way to gather light seeds every once awhile, you will wind up backtracking to cleansed areas to gather more. This collect-a-thon does inflate the game's play-time, but it's a whole lot of fun to go after these, because they require a lot of platforming.
The platforming, initially, is hard to come to grips with. In one word? Streamlined. To the max. Wall-running is accomplished by just jumping near a wall. All actions require nothing more than a single button press. Thing is, though, the platforming was never all that complicated in the first place. Simplifying the wall-running method from the trilogy's "W + right-click near wall" to a "Jump near wall." in Prince of Persia isn't such a drastic change to the game's control scheme. The result of the simplified controls is a game containing moments of constant platforming that can go on for minutes. Wall-running, jumping off platforms, using arbitrarily placed rings in the world to gain momentum in one grand motion without touching the ground once is absolutely exhilarating. There are some new additions to the prince's repertoire, like his metal gauntlet, which helps him climb down huge structures by simply digging his claws into the structure itself. Elika also acts a double jump, as she will give you that added lift for those out-of-reach areas. It all looks fantastic, which adds immensely to the pure enjoyment factor to it all. Animations are elegant and expertly crafted; the things the prince does, like running on a wall upside-down, look plausible, which will surely encourage dumb kids to try to do dumb stuff in real life. I had so much fun with the platforming that I never used the game's teleport option to move through the gameworld. "A lot of fun" would be an understatement.
The same presentation/intuitiveness philosophy applies to the game's combat. It's a simple and organic system and it is the best combat experience I have had with Ubisoft's line of PoP games. Combat basically consists of four different methods of attack – the prince's sword, Elika's karate magic, the prince's gauntlet and jump attacks. Each is bounded to one key and you chain these four methods into practically any combo you want. Attack twice with Elika, then lift the enemy up with your gauntlet, and end with a punctual strike with the sword. Or do the same thing backwards. Or do something completely different. Whatever. It's flashy and incredibly satisfying. There's also never more than one adversary to fight at any given combat situation, so it never feels mindless. Combat consists of roughly around 5% of the game, which is how it always should've been in the previous PoP games. While it is easy to use the same combo you discovered in the beginning of the game, it's always fun, partly because of what little combat there is and because it looks so damn cool and feels so natural.
You've probably noticed that Elika is really useful. You need her to double-jump, you need her for some of the wild combos in combat. She's with you through 99% of the game. This dependence almost creates the idea that Elika is an all-in-one inventory item than anything else, but she stands out enough as a strong character and the way she interacts with the prince makes it just almost. She latches herself on his back as the prince climbs across thorny vines, the prince and Elika work in tandem in combat, supporting each other throughout. All of this reinforces the idea that Elika is indeed human and that both depend on each other to get through everything. Even the situational dialogue starts to evolve and change as you get farther into the game, really developing their relationship that much more. An initial quip from the prince criticizing Elika turns into a running joke that both laugh at as you get further into the game. It's subtle, but noticeable and very much appreciated.
There's a lot to love in this game, but if there has been one central criticism, it is the notion that Prince of Persia is too easy. Yes, that notion is quite true. Elika will save you any time you screw up, the prince will automatically adjust if you jump at a weird angle, and if you double-jump a bit too late, Elika will give you some extra lift, practically making it a triple-jump. But all of this is fine. My indifference to this subject largely stems from my experiences with the previous trilogy. Sands, Warrior and Thrones were never challenging to begin with, so I'm not sure how this became a relevant issue. Ubisoft's PoP games have always been games that were enjoyable and lauded because of the experience of platforming, experiencing its narrative (sans Warrior Within) and so on, not because there were huge challenges to overcome.
And Prince of Persia is quite the experience. The gameplay is solid, intuitive and extremely fun, but the visuals are on a whole different plane of excellence. Prince of Persia's represents some of the best usage of cel-shading since Grasshopper's killer7 and Nintendo's Wind Waker. It's a visual style that isn't utilized just to look different; it's used because it is the best graphical method of representing the game's world. Exaggerated, implausible buildings and architecture dot all of the four areas and the implementation of the game's cel-shading makes them that much more fantastical and that much more fun to run, jump and scale around in. Bright colors, soft, detailed textures and an impressive draw distance gives the game a visually distinct look, feel and scope that has to be seen in motion. Even corrupted areas are pleasing to the eye, because of Ubisoft's bold artistic direction. Visual defects, like how Elika tends to spaz out once in awhile are tiny, tiny deficiencies in what is one of the finest-looking games this year.
Prince of Persia's soundscape is almost as excellent. The orchestral soundtrack is superb, but it could've benefited from a few more tracks, because the main theme tends to play too often. The game's voice-acting has stirred a fair amount of controversy, because the two leads don't have an accent. I was never bothered by this, and this has to do with how the game is set in world that is so distinctly not like Persia. Obviously, opinions vary, but that's why they are called opinions. No one will be able to denounce the environmental sounds, though. The rustling wind, the birds in the sky, the crinks and grinding of mechanical gears – they all sound perfect. Strong audio overall.
At most, the game will last 15 hours if you go after every single light seed. If you're not a completionist, a little over 10. There isn't much to actually go back to once you finish. The Jade and Altair skins are really cool and the concept art is kind of interesting, but the only real reason to play through Prince of Persia again is to just experience it all again. It's full of heart and moments that pumped unbridled joy into every crevice of my being. The ending goes down as one of my personal all-time favorites and it leaves the renvisioned franchise wide open for a sequel. Crazy thing is, Ubisoft didn't need to even reboot the franchise. They didn't need to undo everything they established. They did anyway and the result is wonderful. Even better? Zero DRM. That takes balls in this day and age. Prince of Persia is a must-play for anyone who can let go of the lax difficulty and can just experience what Ubisoft has to offer. It won't be hard.