Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rambling About Prince of Persia

The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. ...
What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?
--from the intro of Prince of Persia
A few years ago, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time reinvented an old PC platformer, bringing the complex environmental puzzles of the old title into the modern world of 3D gaming. It was a sterling game in spite of some repetitive and difficult combat sequences. The acrobatic puzzles were very well executed, and the wrapper story was very well done indeed. The game also included the limited ability to rewind time, which encouraged experimentation with complex puzzles that would have otherwise been brutally unforgiving. The next two Prince of Persia games, which completed a trilogy, were not as well received, but neither were they failures. So, it's no surprise that a Prince of Persia game was slated for the newer hardware of the current console generation. What was surprising was that it would be using a totally different art style and be unrelated to the Sands of Time games.

The mechanics set out by The Sands of Time influenced many games that have come out since, not only the Prince series itself, but titles such as Assassin's Creed, Mirror's Edge, and the more recent Tomb Raider games. So how does the originator fair in its fourth outing? In my opinion, it's well worth playing, but for somewhat different reasons than The Sands of Time.

The new game has taken some flack for being too easy, which I find somewhat comical. Instead of the limited rewinds offered in Sands of Time, the new Prince has the aid of a companion, Elika, with the magical ability to rescue him any time he gets into trouble. And I do mean any time, whether you miss a jump, or are getting pounded in a fight, Elika is always there to provide a bailout. The end result basically immitates an automatic quick save that occurs every time you are standing on solid ground. It makes the game far more forgiving than Sands of Time, and I for one am fine with t. While it does reduce the tension of the game, I have always believed that tension born of forcing lengthy or repeated retrying was not a good thing in games. Along those lines, the acrobatic maneuvers performed by the prince are also easier this time around. They are simple button presses with fairly loose accuracy and ample visual and timing clues. This is a far more valid criticism if that sort of thing bothers you, because it really does make the game a simple one to learn. I found that I had enough fun making the Prince flow through the levels that the simplicity didn't bother me unless I played for more than an hour at a time. Which brings me to the biggest criticism of the game.

Prince of Persia is a simple game with heavily repeated mechanics. The combination of simple controls and a semi-open world design means that the game is best experienced in smaller doses so it doesn't all sort of run together. The repetative nature is actually worse in the combat sequences. For starters there are maybe twenty enemies in the game. Not twenty types, twenty total. You will fight the four main bosses six times each. And the combat mechanics, always a weakness in the Prince games, are arguably the worst yet. The developers were going for a cinematic presentation and attempting to preserve the simple button press chaining mechanics of the rest of the game. I can completely see what they were trying to do, but where they ended up was an awkward fighting game presentation constantly interrupted by the dreaded quicktime event rather than something that preserved the smoothly flowing nature of the platforming elements. The primary criticism of quicktime events is they pull the player out of the game by having them focus on the hit-this-button prompts rather than flowing organically from the game world. It's an even bigger shame here, because oh what a world they have created.

The game world in Prince of Persia is simply stunning. I really can't say enough about how good the game looks. The main characters are beautiful and detailed, and their B-movie banter (think Brendan Fraser in The Mummy) works to provide a context for all the running around. However, the environment, rendered in a style that resembles paintings more than reality, is the real star of the game. I often found myself stopping to just look around. The wrapper story for the game relies heavily on exploration of the milieu they are presenting: the decaying and corrupted city of Elika's people. The visuals add greatly to the mythological feel of the story. A decayed civilization, a lone princess, warring gods, and a rogueish hero all add to the feel of a fireside tale told for entertainment. I can't help but compare the setup to the Zelda games, especially as the Prince games drop the necessity of continuity. Each Prince, like each Link, has their own tale. Similar but different. It's impossible to explain why the story worked so well for me without spoiling elements of it, but it seems I am in the minority in finding the ending of the game quite appropriate to the overall tone.

So, yes, I really enjoyed the game in spite of it's flaws. There are good elements I haven't even mentioned, such as a spectacular camera that simply always works (a major accomplishment in any third person 3D game). It isn't a "hardcore" game. It doesn't have the ground breaking originality of The Sands of Time. It's repetitive. But it's also beautiful, funny, and simply fun to run around in. It shares one critical quality with its previous generation progenitor: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

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