Like many of you, recently I purchased the latest installment in the Prince of Persia series. Opinions on its radical design, character, and story changes have players and critics split between singing its praises and damning its faults as if it was the latest Britney album. After playing through it I've got a few things to say about it (good and bad), but in order to have any real discussion on the game we're going to head into spoiler territory. So if don't want the experience totally ruined I would advice you to stop reading this article now. However, if you've finished the game (or don't care about the story too much) follow me into the jump for a discussion about all types of fertile grounds.
Simply stated, Prince of Persia was one of the best and worst games that I experienced in 2008. The beautiful artwork, flowing animation, and tight controls contrasted with the sloppy bugs, awkward storytelling, hollow combat, and what is easily the worst narrative ending I have ever experienced across any media. Ubisoft Montreal's took a lot of chances with the very core elements of the series which varying degrees of success and failure, leaving this player ultimately conflicted over the entire experience.
Let's look at what went right with this game. The storybook-inspired visuals of the game are fantastic. The Prince's "still emo at heart" look still has a few silly elements to it, but at least makes steps in the right direction. Elika's visual character design is flawless. Each area of the game displays a good amount of personality. The only element of the game's visuals that I didn't think was as effective as it could have been was the "transformation" of each area as Elika healed it. I felt as if the game engine just boosted colors that were already there and removed fog. Unlike the day and night difference seen during the area transformations in Okami (an obvious influence over the entire game), these moments didn't carry the punch that they needed to. Other than this minor issue, no one should walk away from this game unimpressed with the visuals they've seen.
It seems like everyone has a different take on the game's "No death" design. I for one could not have been happier with how this was implemented when exploring each area. By making death a non-issue, I was more likely to explore and experiment with the Prince's abilities. It takes the game away from precision platforming roots, but embraces the open world layout that the game introduces to the series. This combined with the streamlined controls for performing complex moves made the experience of discovering every nook and cranny of each area an absolute joy. Some complained it made the game too easy, but unless they found all 1,001 light seeds I don't want to hear it. There is challenge in this game if you look for it (more on this later).
But just like Elika's kingdom halfway through the game, there are bright and dark spots all over Prince of Persia's design. The most apparent to me right off the bat was combat. Try as they might to make this interesting, but the series' different approaches to combat have never interested me outside of the 1989 original on my old Macintosh. The combat in Sands of Time was labored, too long, and had that girl I wanted to leave behind firing arrows at me the whole time. In this installment, it's still labored, still too long, and now replaces my backstabbing sidekick with a lazy magic user with god-like abilities to save me from death whenever she feels like it but isn't all that helpful with taking the bad guys down. While the "No death" design worked gloriously with level exploration, it devalued the significance of combat. Making this even worse was when enemies would regenerate their health upon my many deaths. While this was likely designed to offer me an incentive not to screw up, this didn't provide me with any type of meaningful impact beyond wasting my time and forcing me to whittle my foe's life bar down again.
One area of the game that wasn't a smashing success or crushing failure was the non-linear storytelling level layouts, and progression. Due to how each of the four "big areas" is unlocked, any type of progression is essentially frozen after the first two hours of the game until you reach the final battle. One NeoGAF forum poster made an interesting observation on the character development of this game and compared it to a book where you read the first two chapters of the story in order, go through chapters three through eight in any order of your choosing, and then chapters nine and ten last. The opportunities for meaningful character development inherently suffers because they characters cannot change for the bulk of the story because of continuity issues. The story also has pacing issues throughout the majority of the game and the entire experience suffers because of it.
From a level layout perspective, the nonlinear aspect opened the door to a lot of possibilities, but I feel that it was mostly wasted here. While you could take on gameplay tasks in any order, the routes to the player travels on were painfully linear. When you looked at the map, you saw exactly how linear the player's path really is since you cannot divert from its rigid confines in anyway. Personally I feel that the game should have approached this the other way around, with a linear order of tasks with multiple ways of getting there. This would address my storytelling issues and provide the player with a better sense of exploration.
For the most part, these issues are forgivable and are inherent risks when drastically changing the core design of a long established series. The team deserves mountains of praise for taking these chances, but anyone responsible for the game's ending should be fired. No other game has ever infuriated me like this game's ending. It's a cheap narrative ploy that betrays a least one character while essentially belittling the player's effort in order to make a sequel. To explain my anger with this requires a little bit of back story.
At a recent game design conference I had the absolute pleasure of hearing Sheri Graner Ray speak on the concept of "player currency." Her belief (and one that I share) is that the most valuable currency that a player can spend on a game is not money, but time. If we keep this in mind, good game design should always respect and reward the player for their time. This is exactly why Prince of Persia's "No death" system largely works for me. Only rarely do I feel like my time is wasted and the game will quickly return me back to a safe spot whenever I make a mistake. With the search for Light Seeds there are instant rewards for "just playing around" as well as boss encounters that reward my larger efforts. These aspects are balanced very well and effective in keeping me returning to the game. The game's ending is a totally different story however.
For those that want the recap and spoilers, while the Prince and Elika heal all the fertile grounds throughout the game, it's revealed that the reason that Ahrimen (the bad guy) is free is because Elika's father used the protective force used to imprison Ahrimen to grant Elika life after her own death. By healing the lands of corruption, Elika is essentially losing her life and giving it back to the land. This all comes to ahead when the Prince and Elika face Ahrimen in battle and seal him off for good. The battle is won at a tragic price: Elika's life. As the game's first round of credits start to role (a recent gaming trend more obnoxious than lens flare), the Prince takes Elika's body up to the resting alter. After laying her down on the alter, he finds himself stricken with guilt/remorse/shame and then chops down all the protective seals/trees holding Ahrimen back and restores life to Elika once again. The Prince does this knowing that Ahrimen and his corruptive forces will be released once again, but does it anyway. Upon waking up and seeing the Prince as everything begins to crumble around them, Elika asks the same question that I shouted at the TV in unison: Why?
Elika knew what she was doing by healing the lands and she was prepared to die if it meant holding Ahrimen back for the rest of time, so why would the Prince, who spent the entire game being a self-centered egotistical brat, suddenly care about Elika? And if he really did care about her why would he defy her wishes and negate everything they've done by bringing her back to life? The game offers no explanation for this but did give me the "To Be Continued" achievement.
So basically everything that I did in the eight hours it took to go through the game meant nothing and I'm going to need to fork over at least another $60 to Ubisoft and another eight hours to maybe do something about it? If my time with this game was truly currency, Prince of Persia collected stacks of it then lit it on fire in front of my face just to see what kind of reaction I would have. It's a shame that this is how they choose to close this game because I was able to see past the game's flaws and missteps before the writers decided to completely invalidate every moment of success the story had to offer. This is made worse by the "To Be Continued" achievement popping up right before the "real" credits, highlighting the facts that what I'm seeing isn't complete and my only interest in the game moving forward is to see if Elika decides to not protect the Prince the next time he jumps off a cliff.
I'm still on the fence if I will be joining the Prince and Elika on their next adventure. Like I stated in the beginning of this article, Prince of Persia is one of the best and worst games that I played last year. At its brightest moments it is the moving, beautiful, and evocative experience that delivers on its promise. During it's moments of darkness, the game is uninteresting and unable to free itself from its own set up and sequel requirements.