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Prince of Persia

One of the games that I played over the holiday period was Prince of Persia (PC, Amazon) (the 2008 one, not the 1990ish classic).

Let me get the obvious stuff out of the way first: yes, it was dumb to re-use the name; yes, it’s a “reset” of the franchise (and an attempt to start a new trilogy) — which means that yes, it has new characters.

I didn’t actually pre-order it, but I bought it sufficiently close to the NZ release date that the pre-order packs were still available (one of the benefits of staggered release dates, I guess — since the game had already been out in the US for quite a while at that point, I had a fair idea of what to expect going into it). The pre-order pack was fairly weak, though. There was a mini-comic (admittedly a very nice one, though no doubt someone has scanned and uploaded it by now), a bonus content DVD (which contained a bunch of useless fluff and about six minutes worth of video — the rest of which you had to go download off the website like everyone else), and a code card to unlock some character skins for the old Sands of Time characters (which have definitely been broadcast far and wide). What’s more, the code cards were misprinted — they have a nine-digit code, but the game only accepts eight digits. (Fortunately, the first eight digits work.)

The skins are a mildly interesting touch; they’re basically just a wardrobe change (they don’t affect the facial model), but they do have a certain amusement value. Having said that, given the choice between the standard characters and the SoT-garbed characters, my preference was definitely for the standard ones.

But anyway, enough about the fluff and on to the gameplay itself.

It is, of course, a platform game at heart, requiring a fair amount of jumping skills and quick reactions. I’ve always had an odd sort of fascination with the Prince of Persia series; while I despise timed puzzles and generally dislike precision jumping puzzles, for some reason I keep coming back to this series, which is full of both. Of course, to date I haven’t actually finished any of the previous games — there’d always come a point where I got sick of falling to my death for the millionth time at a certain spot, take a break from it for a while, and just never get around to playing it again.

This game was different somehow. Your sidekick Elika has the ability to rescue you from certain doom — if you’re falling to your death, she’ll grab you and drop you back on the last flat surface you had reached; if you were in combat, then she’ll pull you away from the deathblow and give you some space to recover. It’s effectively the same as frequent quick-saves and quick-loads, checkpoints, or a rewind power (the mechanisms used in the previous games, albeit sometimes limited), but the automatic nature of it and the way it was integrated into the gameplay instead of being an out-of-game action really made it work, I think.

This feature has caused quite a bit of grumbling from some corners, with claims that it dumbs the game down or makes it “too easy”, or removes the sense of challenge since you can never really “fail”. While there is some truth in this (it certainly makes the game feel easier), there are still plenty of opportunities for failure, whether it’s missing the mark in a wall-run and having to repeat the (sometimes lengthy) manoeuvres to try again, or nearly getting sliced in half by an enemy and retreating while they gain back some (sometimes a lot) of their health. Consequently, there’s a feeling of success and accomplishment when you finally do get past a tricky section. In the end, there really is little difference between this and a quicksave/quickload system, except that this is less disruptive to the gameplay “flow”.

The gameworld itself is semi-open; you’re presented with a map showing the areas that you need to explore and cleanse (more on that in a moment), and for the most part you’re free to choose the order in which to solve them. There are some constraints, however. The repeating theme is in fours — there are four gateway areas that require nothing special, each leading to four areas; two require one magic power to solve, two require a different power. Once you’ve solved all four, there’s one final area in each section that requires both powers; and then the finale (once you’ve solved everything else) requires all four powers at once. They’re arranged in a consistent pattern so that you can acquire the four powers in whatever order you like without being disadvantaged by it.

So, the cleansing. The initial goal of the game is to “cleanse” each of the areas by fighting, jumping, and running your way to a special spot called the “Fertile Ground”. Sometimes this doesn’t take much, but other times it’s quite a trek to get there (especially in the areas that the Mechanist has claimed, where there’s usually some kind of gear-based puzzle to solve). The path is usually fairly obvious, though — most of the side paths are blocked off by the Corruption, and if you do get lost you can always ask Elika to show you where to go next (although sometimes she does get it wrong). When you do get there, though, you’re almost always enmeshed in a fight against one of the four lieutenants of the Big Bad, which tend to escalate as you progress. After (temporarily) defeating the bad guy, once you get Elika over to the Fertile Ground itself you’re treated to the very cool cleansing animation. I’m admittedly a bit of a sucker for this sort of premise — and while this particular effect is nowhere near as cool as the one in Okami (PS2, Wii), it’s still pretty enjoyable.

After cleansing an area, you then need to traipse all over it again (now with a much more pleasant atmosphere and some additional paths opened up) to gather enough Light Seeds to take back to the temple and activate another of the powers, which will in turn let you access more areas. (Each power unlocks four areas, with a pair of powers needed for the final area in each section and all four powers needed for the finale.) This isn’t too complicated, though — there are 1001 Light Seeds in the game (1000 in the body of the game and 1 in the finale) and you only need about half that number to unlock all four powers. (If you do gather all 1001 then you’re rewarded with some additional skins. Which might not excite some people, but I quite liked them. Also, the Jade skin you get just for completing the game [with any number of seeds] is pretty sweet, and reminds me that BG&E 2 will be out soon. Yay, I hope!)

A downside of the semi-open-world style is that once you get used to the basic moves (and you have to get used to them fairly quick) then the areas do get a little same-y. Mitigating that somewhat are the powers (each of which has quite a different effect) and the way that the lieutenants introduce hazards into the areas you haven’t cleansed yet when you get too close to them, and new combat moves you have to guard against. (Though that can be a little annoying as well.) Also, while the mechanics (wall-run, ring-extend, grip-fall, jump, double-jump, roof-run) are fairly constant, the arrangement within each area is usually fairly unique and interesting (in some cases — like the two Towers — they’re deliberately similar), so while you quickly get used to (and hopefully proficient at) the moves, they never really get boring.

I have mixed feelings on the combat. You only ever face one enemy at a time (whether that’s one of the lieutenants or one of the soldiers that pops up whenever you reach the midway point between two areas), and while the fights are animated reasonably well and seem suitably heroic, they can be quite frustrating at times — such as the boss you can only defeat by leading to a specific place and jumping aside at just the right moment, or when the enemies learn the gauntlet shield (where only a gauntlet attack — an extreme short range attack — will work on them; if you’re not fairly good at the block-and-counterattack manoeuvre at that point then you’re in for a world of pain). And if you do make the wrong move then you’re treated to the joy of a quick-time-event, where you’ll either have to hit one specific attack button (or the block button) to avoid a death-blow (and Elika save, and giving the enemy some time to recover health), or you’ll have to button-mash something (usually the sword button) like crazy — except when even that doesn’t work. You see, most of the time it seems to want you to just hit the button as fast as you possibly can (and it does have to be pretty darn fast), but every once in a while it seems to decide to pulse a bit slower and will then fail you if you mash it too fast. Just to keep you on your toes, I guess. Still, no question that QTEs (or as Yahtzee calls them “press X to not die”) truly suck.

Speaking of Yahtzee: one of the points he made in his review referred to his dislike of the dialogue, character interactions, and the character of Elika in general. I couldn’t disagree with that particular assessment more. I quite enjoyed the dialogue and the glimpses it gave into the main characters and their motivations — although it was a little surprising how much Elika shared given how little the Prince reciprocated (not even his name — nor whether he really is a Prince or not; he certainly implied that he isn’t, though it’s probably still a fairly safe assumption). The banter between them was quite amusing as well — comedy (and a certain amount of snarkiness) is definitely an underused technique in games. I also appreciated the way that most of the sideline or “flavour” dialogue is optional — while I personally listened to all of it, I know that some people would prefer to skip the whole thing and just get on with the game.

There were two things in particular that I didn’t like about the dialogue. One is that you had to wait for the little flashing icon to show that Elika had something more to say, and press the Talk button again — you couldn’t just hold it down to hear everything at once. The other is that when you were near one of the puzzles the game made no distinction between Elika having some interesting bit of conversation to add (perhaps some description of the backstory, or just a bit of banter) or a (usually blatantly and pointlessly obvious) hint about the solution to the puzzle, resulting in Elika seeming to nag uselessly about the puzzle several times in a row at the end of a normal conversation about the history of the place or whatever.

Another thing that irritated me a bit is that while the map screen (which you can call up whenever you want) quite nicely shows your progress in cleansing the lands, the matching mosaic at the temple that it’s supposed to represent doesn’t change at all as you progress. It also bothers me the way that Elika pronounces “Ahura”; it’s entirely possible that she’s pronouncing it correctly, but it’s certainly not the way that it sounds in my head. 😉

The basic story is fairly straightforward; cleanse the corrupted areas, get rid of the dark lieutenants, and finally defeat the Big Bad. Once you accomplish that, though, the finale gets a bit weird. Something happens (which clearly came as a surprise to the Prince, though I saw it coming since about half way through), and then you’re given no choice but to completely undo all the work you’ve accomplished in the game thus far, and (apparently) release the Big Bad (Ahriman) on the world. Of course, it all fairly screams “sequel”, so it should come as no surprise that this game is planned to be the first in a new trilogy.

Technical issues also cropped up; I played through the first couple of hours of the game only seeing subtitles for the main characters and not hearing any voices. I can’t completely blame the game for that — my onboard audio drivers are a bit flaky; they claim to support 3D sound but choke if something actually tries to use it — and the game evidently believes what it’s been told. (Previous games I’ve played that supported 3D sound at least had a checkbox to disable it — and I can fault the game for not having that — but it’s still ultimately my sound card’s fault.) I eventually managed to work around this and get the voices back by completely disabling hardware acceleration for the sound card; but that in turn led to sound effects occasionally getting “stuck” and endlessly repeating themselves (which could be interrupted relatively easily, but it also eventually caused the frame rate to suffer), which was just as irritating.

Overall, though, I liked it, and it’s the first Prince of Persia game that I actually finished — in fact (being of a completionist mindset), I even took the time to hunt down all 1001 Light Seeds for a 100% finish. (According to Xfire, I spent 31 hours in total playing this; though that probably includes some time with the game paused.)

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