It's only been five years since Ubisoft successfully brought Jordan Mechner's old PC action series Prince of Persia into 3D, and now it's already gone and reinvented the franchise for a second time. The newest Prince of Persia--presumably lacking a subtitle to set it apart from the previous three games--imagines an even more fantastic Arabian-tinged setting than what you've seen in this franchise before, and it's filled with an entertaining story and plenty of high-flying excitement. The series' trademark gravity-defying platforming has gotten so mechanically complex that it comes off as a little, well, mechanical at times, but the level variety, fantastic presentation and atmospheric soundtrack make this an engaging adventure well worth embarking on.
There's no connection whatsoever to the last Prince of Persia trilogy; this one starts fresh with an entirely different prince. Actually, he doesn't appear to be much a prince at all, but more of a roguish, tomb-raiding vagabond, a Han Solo of the desert who's in it for wealth and glory but hardly for honor. Too bad for him, he gets caught up with Elika, a do-gooding princess with magical powers who's bent on restoring beauty to her corrupted kingdom and cramming the culprit, the dark god Ahriman, back into his eternal prison. The story takes some unexpected turns here and there, and gets surprisingly poignant as it goes, culminating in an ending I didn't quite see coming. Naturally, there's a good setup for a sequel.
There aren't a lot of heavy-handed cutscenes foisted on you throughout the game. You get the important beats of the story in the few mandatory cinematics, but I liked that the majority of the dialog is optional. You can hit a talk button anywhere in between action sequences to have a quick chat with Elika. Sometimes the pair discusses the often rich history of the current level. Sometimes Elika talks about her devotion to the benevolent god Ormazd. Sometimes they flirt. Maybe it was because the dialog wasn't forced on me that I wanted to hear more of it from time to time; in any case, the brief exchanges were a clever and effective way to flesh out the game's back story and give the lead characters richer personalities. You get the sense that someone thought really hard about the game's world and its residents from these exchanges.
Of course, you get heaps and heaps of the wall-jumping, pole-climbing, superhuman gymnastics you'd expect from a Prince of Persia. This time around, you can add ring-swinging, roof-running, sliding, and even the occasional flight to your repertoire. These moves are all mixed up thoroughly enough that you have to stay on your toes to bust out the right move at the right time and avoid plummeting to your doom. There are enough different platforming mechanics here that the action stays varied, and certainly looks flashy enough.
But it's also easy as all heck. The game might as well present specific button prompts as you reach each handhold or wall-jump point; they're indicated right there in the level design anyway. If there's a horizontal scrape on the wall, you know you need to wall run there. If there's a ring, you hit one button to swing off of it. A pole jutting out of the ceiling, you hit a different button to dart across. It starts to feel a little like Platforming-By-Numbers after a few hours, but the prince looks so cool performing all these larger-than-life maneuvers that I never got totally bored with the traversal gameplay.
Even if the platforming was really tough in a demanding, skill-based way, you'd have no penalty and little frustration due to the game's wildly forgiving death mechanic. In short, you can't die. Every time you miss a jump, Elika teleports in with her fancy magical powers and delivers you back to the last solid ground you stood on. In combat, she pulls you back for a minute to rest while the enemy regains a little health. There's been all kinds of ballyhoo about this feature, and there's a psychological component at work for those people who say this makes the game too easy. There's still a failure mechanic here; it's just streamlined by really tight checkpoints and no load times in between failures. Otherwise the only difference is the lack of a specific "Game Over" screen.
One thing about Prince of Persia that really impressed me is the non-linear, open-world format Ubisoft devised for this game as a departure from the linear, narrative-heavy A-to-B-to-C adventures of the past three installments. Here's how it works. Ahriman has four lieutenants, and each one lurks in a lair with five blighted action stages standing between you and a final showdown with that boss. Every time you finish one of the sickly levels, you "heal" it into a prettier, greener version, at which time it's populated by glowing collectibles called light seeds. Then you get to go back through the level and collect those seeds. All the levels are physically connected, and you get a decent amount of freedom to go through them in the order you want.
This openness also works against the game's flow, however. There are four powers you have to unlock for Elika by collecting multiple quotas of light seeds, and each of the action stages requires you to have one of those powers to enter it. You can't clear out any of the bosses' areas entirely without having at least two of the powers, so three times throughout the game I found myself having finished every available level but still needing dozens more light seeds to gain the next power and open up more levels. I spent more of the game backtracking to completed levels, hunting for more seeds to let me progress than I would have liked.
Like the platforming, the combat emphasizes style--but doesn't sacrifice substance for it. The battles sometimes look like glorified Quick Time Events, especially with button prompts popping up here and there, but there's also a pretty robust combo system under the hood that lets you chain together sword attacks, grapples, acrobatic moves, and magical Elika attacks into really long, rewarding combos. There are infrequent, easy fodder enemies here and there, but the vast majority of the combat takes place against the four bosses: the hunter, the alchemist, the concubine, and the warrior. Each one pops up for a fight--and a dramatic exchange of dialogue--at least once in each of the levels within its domain, and they all have different fighting styles and back stories that really flesh out the sort of tragedies that led to their service of a dark god in the first place. You see and fight with them so much, the four enemies end up becoming pretty iconic by the time you actually face off with each one for the final time.
The game looks and sounds incredible. It's got a colorful, painterly visual style that runs a wide gamut between the sickly, desaturated slate blues and pea greens of the corrupted action levels, and the much richer, warmer healed versions they turn into. Some of the bigger levels with their long draw distances and massive, fantastic castles and towers in the distance are really a sight to behold. The environments and character designs, especially those of the four bosses, are all distinctive and memorable. The game's soundtrack really stuck with me, too; I found parts of it running through my head frequently even when I wasn't playing the game. It's got a flair for the epic but can also be a little haunting at times. The voice work is always at least competent and sometimes really good (the warrior comes to mind). The voice actor who plays the prince also voices Nathan Drake in Uncharted, which is appropriate because they're both irreverent, live-in-the-moment kind of guys.
If Ubisoft really had to go and release a fourth Prince of Persia game in five years, I'm glad it turned out as good--and more importantly, as distinctive--as this one did. It offers the specific gameplay features that fans of the series will be looking for, while establishing a sequel-ripe new world and story arc that are every bit as engaging as those of the previous trilogy. The slightly uneven pacing and relative ease of the gameplay are minor nitpicks in the grand scheme of this engrossing, beautiful adventure.