I remember playing the very first iteration of the Prince of Persia concept on a friend’s cutting edge x286 PC and shortly thereafter on my own Amiga 500. The graphics were bold and simple and the prince’s 4-colour, motion captured movements were enthralling. It was tough. Timings were tricky and the fencing wasn’t easy either but it was much loved. So much so that it spawned a range of imitators that bore more than a passing resemblance, including Delphine’s Flashback and Oddworld’s Abe’s Oddysee. You might even go as far as suggest that the layout and design of the Tomb Raider series is a 3D rendering of the of the original Prince of Persia concept. Prince of Persia was a success so of course they attempted a 3D version (imaginitively titled ‘Prince of Persia 3D’) which was dissappointing to say the least.
At that point you’d be forgiven for thinking it was time to put the whole concept to rest and never talk of it again. It was afterall that peculiar period during the 2D/3D change over where some games worked and others played like utter dogs. But No! Not too long ago UbiSoft decided to give it another go and we can but rejoice at what they came up with. The most recent three Prince of Persia games are a joy to behold. I’m supposedly talking about the latest game here but most of what I’ll say is applicable to the previous two.
These games really, really work. Playing them feels effortless and natural, everything about the control system feels utterly intuitive. When you tell it to do something it does it, that sense of immediacy keeps you immersed and keeps you playing.
The most telling point I have to make about the Prince of Persia games is that they feel like the games that the Tomb Raider series should have become. Where Tomb Raider’s interface feels slow, clunky and artificial – Prince of Persia feels fast, fulid and real. The developers of the Tomb Raider games missed a trick in not refining and updating their game engine with each passing game. On the other hand, having got it so right the first time out, the developers of Prince of Persia have little need to change their game engine. It is a joy to play.
In case you’re not up to speed this is a running, jumping, avoiding traps, stabbing a monster type of game. The twist is that you’re capable of manipulating time using your “Sand Tanks”. Unfortunately these are not some manner of desert ordinance, as I had hoped. A tap of a button and time slows down, especially useful for killing monsters or slowing down traps and blades. Hold down a button and you can rewind time a little, especially useful if you went for yet another faceplant off the edge of that cliff or you decide against becoming better aquainted with those friendly spinning blades of sharp pointy death.
Rewinding time is a great feature of the game engine, it allows you a couple of attempts at anything that’s especially difficult without dying and having to be sent all the way back to the last save point. As well as being a little forgiving it allows the game to flow and maintain a sense of pace. A further point of game design is the addition of restart points within levels, other than the save points. The larger regions between save points and the very tricky regions are usually demarked by a restart point. Afterall it’s not fun to repeat the preceeding 5 (easier) minutes of game just because the difficult series of traps you came across sliced you into teeny-weeny pieces.
The only exception to this was getting the final life upgrade. Towards the end of the game there is a restart point immediately prior to a tricky series of traps, just by this series of traps is the path to the super-secret final life upgrade. I feel utterly, compelled to gain this upgrade not just because it’ll make the final boss battle easier but because I’m an anally retentive completist. Having failed to get the upgrade once you are spat out of the secret bit and you can try again as many times as you like. All good but you’ll likely have no sand tanks and the only way to get more is to kill yourself. So you have to run back to the restart point, kill yourself, restart, collect the 3 sand tanks, run back to the super-secret final life upgrade. That’s a lot of annoying lag time between each attempt. Why couldn’t there have been a couple of sand tanks available at the entrance to the super-secret final life upgrade?
But it gets better, having finally gained the super-secret final life upgrade you have to go back to the restart point and attempt the tricky series of traps with only 1 sand tank available. Failure doesn’t just mean a restart but you also have to get the super-secret final life upgrade again. So you have to do both really tricky bits with a very limited number of sand tanks in one go. I think it took me 40 mins in total to finally manage it. I would like to think that this was an error, that when you eventually get the super-secret final life upgrade it should be yours permenantly (god knows you’ve worked hard enough for it at that point). If this was a deliberate design decision I hope they hunt down whoever made that decision, find something excessively pointy and stab them in the face.
Enough of the whining; the graphics are glorious. The level of detail and the scale is quite breath taking, it makes the game totally immersive. I especially appreciated the cityscape background when you are climbing the outside of the tower at the end. On the lower portions of the tower the background is viewed from one perspective. Once you’ve gone inside the tower, climbed up to the next portion and come back outside the background cityscape has changed to one with a different elevated perspective. The loading of the new background is seamlessly hidden by the fact that you’ve just gone in and out of the tower. It’s just a small thing but having noticed it I really appreciated the attention to detail
Amazingly the plot is also bareable. A surprise in anyone’s books. It’s a little hackneyed in your fantasy/Sinbad/Ray Harryhousen style but enjoyable nonsense nonetheless. Alongside this, the dialogue isn’t utterly excrutiating, a turn up for the books in any computer game and always appreciated. The day that computer games firms start hiring decent script writers will be a glorious day. Hell, anyone who can string a sentence together would do; someone with an English degree or perhaps just somebody who read a book in English once. And on that day; birds will sing, lambs will be born and little rabbits will come out to frolic. I imagine that some kind of worldwide holiday will be declared.
I also liked the new one-hit-kill system where timed button taps dispatch enemies in short order. When the camera zooms in these moments gain a visceral, immediate quality. In fact the camera work throughout the game is excellent. You rarely get stuck behind something, unable to see where you are, and the way the camera pans and swoops around emphasises the scale and detail in the environment. When you slide down chains or down narrow gullies the camera frequently pans out to let you see where you’re going. More often than not there is a one-hit-kill oppertunity at the bottom. As you jump down the camera snaps from zoomed out view to the foreshortened one-hit-kill view. This marked contrast in camera angles is an excellent effect and one which lends a cinematic, edited quality to the game. Another lovely example of attention to detail.
But there were also bad things too. The game strikes me as short and perhaps a little too easy. Although I appreciate this maybe be a consequence of my previous experience with the earlier games. Gone too is the sense that you are freely exploring an environment. The path of the game is very linear. The game also feels as though there are less traps, spining blades and timed leaps than there were in it’s predecessor. It feels much more like you are just working your way from save point to save point with few decisions along the way. Although there is more trap dodging later in the game by that time the whole thing is nearly over.
As with the previous iterations of the game engine, fighting more than 2 enemies at a time often feels a little clunky, in fact occasionally fighting one enemy is fairly awkward. Thankfully slowing down time remedies that to a fair extent. Lastly the game does suffer a litte from SNK boss syndrome when you’re fighting the penultimate boss(es). It’s not as bad as the Warrior Within, in which I never did bother to kill the final monster, but it’s a little annoying.
Anyway I would give this fine, fine game: