Computer Game Review: Prince of Persia


Prince of PersiaWarning: Possible Spoilers. What! Three XBox games, all the way to the end?! Either the games are improving, or my attention span is extending … or being dulled.

The trick seems to be to buy them one at a time. I eBayed the small backlog of unplayed games I had, and now carefully research a new purchase, play it to the end, and sell it before getting another. Since this forces me to get used to one game and one control system, I enjoy the game more. Assassin’s Creed II and Batman: Arkham Asylum were both enjoyable gaming experiences—so how did I find the new Prince of Persia?

I remember playing the original two side-scrolling Prince of Persia games by Jordan Mechner on my Mac many, many years ago (1989 and 1994, so Wikipedia tells me), and they were exceptional games for their time; challenging, fun and full of character. Of particular note was the lovely smooth animation of the little sprite that was the Prince.

In 2003 the Prince went 3D and I played about half of the Sands of Time game before getting fed up, or losing interest, or both. It was very nicely done however. I got the next one, The Warrior Within, and the first battle made me throw the controller down in disgust; I never got any further. There was another one after that I didn’t even look at.

Which brings me to the latest version, confusingly called just Prince of Persia. There’s a new ‘cell-shaded’ look, a new Prince, a new Princess (‘Elika’)—who accompanies you throughout the game—and a new quest, but how did it stack up?

Oh dear. Surely, with the huge wealth of rich background material available in the Arabian Nights genre, they could have done better than this? Yes, it’s ye olde dark-god-versus-light god again, a tired and hackneyed theme if ever there was one. Apart from a nice little emotional twist at the end, the story goes nowhere, and no amount of chatting and flirting between the prince and princess fleshes it out into anything remotely interesting. A huge opportunity lost.

The Prince himself has been compared to a Beverly Hills 90210 reject, and the criticism is warranted. He and Elika are both very American, which is not surprising—let’s face it, the Prince in the upcoming Disney adaptation is being played by Jake Gyllenhaal. While Elika is vaguely interesting and troubled, the Prince is annoyingly cliché, continually spouting his tough-loner-with-a-sensitive-core routine. If I was the Princess I’d strangle him with his scarf. As for the bad guys, they are downright boring. The main god of darkness is just a big monster, and his four main sidekicks, who you’ll fight repeatedly throughout the game—the Alchemist, the Concubine, the Warrior, and the Hunter—are virtually interchangeable despite some offhand attempts to instill some character into them.

Many reviews have mentioned how easy Prince of Persia is to play, and for the most part I agree—it’s easy to string button presses together to get the prince and Elika moving smoothly from wall run to jump to climb to swing—and there are very few places where any form of precision is required or you’ll get stuck. When you’re travelling anyway. The combat is some of the worst button-mashing I have ever come across, and many times I found myself pounding the controller on a nearby cushion in frustration and annoyance. Supposedly you have myriad button combos at your disposal, and the main bad guys have different tactics, but what it really comes down to is the kind of mind-numbing repetition and frustration that only bad computer game design can truly provide in such a finely-tuned and torturous way.

Unlike Assassin’s Creed and Batman, you really don’t feel as if you have real control over the Prince in these fight scenes. It’s difficult to get to grips with your opponent as you keep getting knocked away if you don’t press the right button at the right time. The combats are also interspersed with repetitive so-called ‘QuickTime events’—canned animations where you have to quickly press the right button, or mash one over and over, in order to succeed. If you fail in one of these—and you will, a lot—the Princess always saves you with a bit of handy magic, but the bad guy regains some of its health. There is nothing more annoying than fighting something for ten minutes, finally wearing down its health, and then having it recharge just because you didn’t press ‘Y’ fast enough. Stupid design! What’s more, you fight the same four bad guys, and a few other generic demons, over and over.

As for the structure of the entire game, I found it far too regimented and again, repetitive. There are four main lands, four main bad guys, four main powers to unlock—you get the picture. It’s like playing the largest and best-looking puzzle on the planet instead of going on a journey. And despite the obvious hard work that has gone into the game, there’s a feeling of calculation in the way assets are re-used. You go over the same areas to reach other areas (though there is some teleporting in certain circumstances), you cover the same areas to collect ‘light seeds’ (whatever they are) after you’ve changed the area from ‘corrupted’ to ‘pure’, and animations are reused over and over, such as destroying the doors into the final area of each land, or Elika’s let’s-face-it-this-is-an-orgasm-scene burst of light energy when she purifies each of the corrupted lands.

In the end, it all comes across as more of a glorified arcade platforming game than an adventure. Of course this is fine and may be quite in keeping with the series, but I feel that it could be so much more. And gamers demand more of these sorts of games these days; I know I do.

It would be churlish of me to quibble about Prince of Persia’s graphics; it does look stunning. However quibble I will! As beautiful as the game looks, there is a certain generic look to everything that, despite the bright colours and sense of scale, gives it all a kind of visual greyness. I never found myself really immersed in the environments, and one land looked much like another, all huge ruined buildings and cliffs suspended in empty air. The ‘cell-shaded’ look is nice, and it’s all very colourful, but, like the rest of the game, there’s something missing.

Prince of Persia is pretty easy, apart from the mind-numbing combat sequences, which drove me to consider chucking in the towel several times. Elika’s magic saves you if you fall and you’re always deposited back on the last solid ground to try again. Experienced gamers will probably whip through it in no time.

Prince of Persia is the kind of game that would have been mind-blowing a few years ago, but there’s a feeling of soulessness here. Perhaps it was rushed out (though there’s another one coming out in time for the film in May, and I bet they’re working hard to get that done in time), perhaps the focus was more on platforming than story, but in the end I found it somewhat repetitive, sometimes frustrating, and worst of all, lacking immersion. So I gave it a resoundingly average rating:

Two and a half light seeds (huh?) out of five.

PS: If you’ve read the last three reviews and you’re an Xbox360 gamer you probably have a good idea of the kind of games I like, so feel free to make a suggestion about my next purchase!