Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Prince of Persia

Post-Launch Review
Prince of Persia (PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montréal
Released: December 2008
Played: finished story in 11 hours

Prince of Persia (unsubtitled) is a game that stands apart from the Sands of Time series to tell its own, unrelated story. A thief is travelling the desert in search of his lost treasure when he stumbles into a crisis: an ancient god of darkness, Ahriman, has broken his bonds and is nearly ready to escape his confinement. Elika, a princess wielding the light magic of Ormazdt (Ahriman's good counterpart), convinces the thief to help her purify the lands and push back the corruption in order to re-seal Ahriman and prevent his escape. The thief and Elika must roam the abandoned desert city, using their acrobatic skill and magic to find and heal the fertile grounds and keep the land safe from Ahriman's corruption.

At Launch
Prince of Persia was well received overall, with review scores averaging in the low 80s across platforms. Critics praised Elika and her relationship with the prince, the art direction, and the animation of acrobatics and combat. Many critics felt that the game was highly repetitive and too easy for the hardcore crowd.

Post Launch
One downloadable content update was released: Epilogue, a short post-story addition. It's not available for PC - only on the consoles. There seems to have been a patch to prep the game for the addition of Epilogue but I'm not totally clear on what it did exactly.

The very first lines of dialogue of the game are a reference to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a very obvious callback for series veterans. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but the reference is pretty great and unexpected. That deliberate callback is an invitation for comparison to the Sands of Time series, with which Prince of Persia shares its name and setting.

Some elements of Prince of Persia feel smoother and even more refined than previous games. Others, however, feel clunkier. The first difference I encountered is that the camera changes angle slightly but noticeably when you press the movement keys. It's not quite enough to actually screw up my gameplay, but it did throw me off a little bit. 

Movement overall feels fast and fluid, but any acrobatic tricks that involve both the prince and Elika provide a different rhythm of movement than I remember from the Sands of Time series, which was weird but I did get used to it after a while.
The prince... wait, is he a prince? I don't even know, the game hardly tells you anything about him. Well the game is called Prince of Persia so I'll call him the prince. Anyway, early in the game, the prince is so ridiculously, insanely, annoyingly snarky and flippant that I constantly want to punch him through the screen. It's like three quarters of the words that come out of his mouth are sarcasm or jokey banter. I knew it would be bad only five minutes into the game when Elika says "the temple is under that tree" and the prince replies "you guys worship a tree?" NO THEY $%&#ING DON'T SHE SAID THE TEMPLE WAS UNDER THE TREE LISTEN TO THE WORDS SHE SAYS BEFORE YOU MAKE FUN OF THEM. It's like the developers wanted to capture the charming immaturity of the Sands of Time prince, but only managed the immaturity half and not the charming bits.

Fortunately he gets better as the game goes on. He gradually opens up a little bit to Elika, and even though you really don't learn that much about him, he becomes less of an ass as the two grow closer.
The most changed element of the game compared to previous entries is probably combat. Fighting is similar in a lot of ways to previous PoP games - you can attack, block, counter, combo, and use acrobatic moves during the fight. But the  feel is very different. Animations are flashier, faster, and more fluid, which makes combat look very exciting. The big difference is that it's visually presented as a duel: the camera swings down to showcase the two fighters, much like a fighting game. 

At first I was all "whoah, that's awesome!" but the more I play the more I dislike the duel format. Movement is slow and trickier to control due to the camera angle, so it can be quite frustrating to try to close distance or evade. And if you or the enemy get pushed to the side of the available space - towards a wall or ledge, for example - you get an animation where you throw the enemy back into the centre of the area, which is completely stupid, because why not push him off the edge instead of rescuing him so you can fight more? From a mechanical standpoint I understand that it's to prevent the animations from looking weird or to prevent one-sided fights with a guy backed into the corner, but the frequency and not-make-sense-ity outweigh that.
There's a hell of a lot more magic in this game than in previous PoP's - at least, it feels that way. In previous games the prince wielded an assortment of magical abilities, and the story was tied to a powerful magic artifact. But in this game the magic is more visual: Elika is with you all the time and her magic is as important an element of movement and combat as any of the character's abilities.

The cooperation with Elika is a very effective way of getting the player to bond with her. Every time you step into corruption or fall off a ledge, you get a quick one-second cutscene of the prince's hand reaching up, and Elika's reaching down to his to pull him to safety. Playing this every single time you "die" is some pretty powerful symbolic reinforcement of the connection between the characters.

For all the good, though, there are a lot of technical problems with the game.
The first is something a lot of people might never notice, but it's a problem for people like me. You don't get the Steam overlay in Prince of Persia, which means no screenshots or quick access to the internet without alt+tab. And as someone who likes to include screenshots with my reviews, I will always notice when a Steam game doesn't use the Steam overlay.

The game's control icons are clearly tailored for an XBox 360 controller and can be pretty confusing when learning the game on PC. As an example, the first couple of times you jump, the game will tell you to press the jump button (spacebar), represented by a green icon. But after the first handful, the hints will only show the green icon, not the corresponding key. This happens for pretty much every control in the game, and is especially confusing in the combat tutorial - by that point the game has already stopped telling you which keyboard press corresponds to which action, so in the middle of a fight the game goes "press the claw button!" and I'm going "which one is that?"

The biggest technical problem is the frame rate. When I start up the game it runs smoothly and everything is great. But after a while, the frame rate drops to abysmal levels. Alt+tabbing out of the game and back in resolves the issue... temporarily. This doesn't happen all the time, and the length of time it takes for the problem to trigger seems random. I couldn't find any information on what the problem is or how to fix it, so it looks like we're stuck with occasional poor frames.

Prince of Persia is one of the most repetitive games I've ever played. There's a solid enough intro, and then you're told to purify 24 areas. Each of these is done in the same way - an acrobatic jumping segment to get to the place, then a fight, then purification, and finally light seed collection. Light seeds are annoying as well - almost all the seeds are scattered across the areas you just ran through to get to the fertile ground, so you have to run it again (with some slight variations) to collect all the seeds. So not only are you completing the exact same sequence of actions over twenty times, half that sequence involves repetition. And each set of areas has its own miniboss that you encounter at each location, where it escapes every time until you fight it in its lair. The timing of the attacks of each boss is identical as well, so if you can counter one boss, you can counter them all. There isn't even anything to disguise all this repetition - right from the start the game just tells you "cleanse these 24 areas".

This is a game that is not really well served by its open world. The repetition is the biggest problem, but the other issue is that some of the dialogue seems to be intended to play in a certain order, but too much freedom means you won't get the "correct" order. More specifically, dialogue in the areas of the Hunter and the Alchemist are mostly getting-to-know-each-other chatter, while the bits with the Warrior and especially the Concubine are much more personal and emotional. If you do the Concubine first, it feels weird to have such emotional conversations and then go back to light banter about traps and history.
The world does have its benefits, though. Your reward for cleansing a fertile ground is that colour and vegetation returns to the area as the corruption is cleansed. These environments are actually really beautiful, even in ruins, with all the colour and detail in the architecture. The first few make you feel really good with that wow factor. Unfortunately, when you have to repeat that twenty more times, it does kind of lose some of the appeal.

Oddly enough, though, all that repetition kind of pays off in the end. The finale was, to say the least, pretty unexpected, and potentially off-putting for a lot of people. But I really like what the ending does to you as a player, and what it makes you think about.

So in the end, Elika sacrifices herself to finish the job of sealing away Ahriman. It seems like she knew all along that this is what she'd have to do, and she deliberately didn't tell the prince. You carry her body out of the temple and the credits roll... but that's not the end. The game then shows you the vision again, the one that's been repeated throughout the game, of Elika's father releasing Ahriman in exchange for saving her life. The game very obviously shows you each of the seals that you've rebuilt over the course of the game... and turns you loose.

The only option the game gives you at this point is to destroy everything you've done over the course of the game to save Elika. This is really interesting because as a player it felt very wrong for me to destroy all the beautiful lands I'd purified, to throw away the eleven hours I'd spent on the game by undoing all the work I'd done. But it's the only option available (unless, I suppose, you shut off the game and pretend the prince resumes looking for his donkey). When Elika is revived, neither she nor the prince look happy with the outcome.

Recommendation: maybe.

Prince of Persia has some solid core gameplay (which might be nitpicked by long-time series fans), beautiful visuals, and characters you'll grow to like over the course of the game, but with some pretty massive repetition problems and some notable technical flaws. Prince of Persia reminds me of Braid - it's a competent enough game with some interesting stuff going on, but I got bored of it pretty quick... until the ending which validates the entire game. The question here is whether you feel like trudging through a merely competent 10+ hour game just for the ending. On the other hand, without all that time and repetition, the ending loses all of its impact and meaning.
If you do play Prince of Persia, note that the downloadable Epilogue is only available on the consoles and not the PC, but also keep in mind that it's considered to be pretty bad and doesn't add to the story or conclude anything.

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