Once in a great while, you pop in a game that you expect to enjoy and are absolutely floored by the experience. Oh sure, you may have anticipated that the game would be good, but you never expected it to be a masterpiece. This has been my experience with Prince of Persia, which, had I played it in 2008, would have easily been on my short list for Game of the Year.
The game starts like so many others, with a man who can't find his ass in a sandstorm. While the prince is searching for Farah, his treasure-laden donkey, he notices an attractive young lass being chased by guards. Always being the type to help out a pretty lady, the prince leaps to the rescue, staving off the attackers and helping the beautiful damsel reach a sacred temple. We soon learn that the leading lady's name is Elika, a princess who is in a rush because she fears that the temple that is meant to imprison the evil dark god Ahriman is failing, thus dooming the land to an eternity of darkness and corruption. She's right, but all is not lost, as Elika houses within her the mysterious power of Ormazd, which allows her to heal corrupted areas of the land and restore nature's beauty. Thus, the two set out to restore Elika's kingdom and drive out the corruption once and for all.
The first thing you need to know about the new Prince of Persia is that all of the character and gameplay mechanics that were established by the Sands of Time series have been thrown out the window. This is a more lighthearted, jovial prince, and the world he inhabits is crafted out of beautiful watercolors and vibrant scenery. Also, forget fighting hordes of baddies and gigantic bosses, for combat has taken a definite backseat this time around. Every battle is structured as a duel, with the prince and Elika working together to take on a single foe. This means you'll fight four bosses repeatedly over the course of the game (with each encounter making them stronger and more cunning), as well as a handful of generic enemies who only spawn if you take too long to reach them. If you enjoyed previous Prince of Persia titles due to their frantic combat, then you're in for a rude awakening here.
Even though battle is different in this game than previous titles, it's still fully featured and ultimately a lot of fun. The dynamic duo can attack with the prince's sword, acrobatics or gauntlet or Elika's magic, and mixing and matching all of these maneuvers results in some lengthy, impressive combos. Enemies force you to fight strategically and will pick up on tendencies in order to make sure you can't just button-mash your way to victory. Rely too often on your sword, and the baddie will begin deflecting your blows; spend too much time hopping around, and he'll force you to the edge of the arena, where such attacks are basically worthless. Furthermore, as PoP progresses, enemies will begin changing states, meaning that only a certain move will work at any given time. Try and use Elika on a foe who is in an aggressive state, and he'll simply toss her aside and continue the attack. Swing your sword at a baddie who's playing defensive, and he'll deflect and counter you all day. Ultimately, the dueling mechanic lends itself to some very intricate and thoughtful battles, much different than what you've experienced in other games but just as good as or better than nearly anything else out there.
One thing the prince hasn't moved away from is daring acrobatics, and that's really what's on display in this title. If you thought his wall runs, blind leaps and dramatic grabs were something to behold in previous games, then you ain't seen nothing yet. Ubisoft has taken the acrobatic, "How does he do that?" sections and cranked them up to 11. Now guiding the prince through a series of jumps, wall runs and near-death scenarios is true poetry in motion, and it all looks so amazing you'd almost swear that this sort of thing is actually possible.
As mentioned before, the prince isn't alone on his journey, and while Elika is definitely handy in combat, she's a downright godsend when it comes to platforming. While most games simply allow players to double-jump by tapping the jump button twice, PoP approaches the issue a bit differently, allowing you to call on Elika in mid-hop to grab onto the prince's arm and fling him across otherwise impassible chasms. Furthermore, the princess acts as your lifeline in times of danger, grabbing the prince in mid-air as he falls off a cliff or yanking him out of the corruption, which seeks to consume him if he strays off course. She'll then deposit you back and solid ground, and you're all set to start again. It's an ingenious mechanic that saves players from ever seeing a "Game Over" screen and effectively removes the game paradox of how you can continue a game when the main character is dead.
In addition, as you progress, you'll unlock panels that allow Elika to channel additional Ormazd powers into completely new moves. Some of these are automatic and simply launch you from one panel to another, but others are more in-depth and require player input to complete successfully. For instance, one power allows the prince to run along walls, but you still must move from side to side to dodge obstacles and pools of corruption that seek to envelop you. Another ability allows the prince to ride on Elika's back as she flies around, and players must use the analog stick to dodge walls, pillars and other obstacles that obstruct the flight pattern. Honestly, though, the flight power is a bit hokey, and if you find yourself singing "A Whole New World" from "Aladdin" as the two twist and twirl through the sky, it wouldn't be surprising. But hey, in a fun twist, this time the princess gets to be the magic carpet!
The platforming aspect is incredibly fun and immensely satisfying, which is good considering what a major role it plays in PoP. Sadly, it's also the one area where the title shows a few flaws due to the fact that with this much running and jumping, there are bound to be a few control hiccups. First off, the controls aren't particularly tight, but that is by design. It's hard to perfectly time when you need to jump, grab or swing from one obstacle to another, so the game has a bit of a window during which you can push the button. The only problem is, since you won't know if you nailed it until the prince either continues on his path or drops to his near-death (thanks Elika), sometimes you'll fail unnecessarily due to lack of feedback. Furthermore, while the camera normally does a great job of keeping the action in the right perspective, there are a few times when the viewpoint shifts a little, affecting controls just enough to potentially throw off gamers. The whole issue is a very minor gripe, and cheap deaths are far from constant, but know going in that the entire control scheme takes a bit of getting used to.
Perhaps one of the best things about this latest PoP is that it is essentially two games in one. Each area the prince visits is first tainted with corruption, and players must follow a very linear path in order to find each region's fertile ground so that Elika can restore the realm to its natural beauty. This first trip through is fraught with danger, and players will simply want to get where they need to go, fight the boss and get out. Also, traveling across corrupted lands is very difficult when compared to the alternative.
The alternative, of course, are the restored lands that Elika has healed and are now teeming with life. These areas are rife with grass and ivy and open up lots of new paths that the duo can explore in a quest for light seeds. These glowing orbs are necessary for granting Elika new powers, and only by collecting them can players gain access to the special panels discussed earlier. In addition to presenting new challenges and routes, healed lands are simply breathtaking and show gamers how even a desert can be beautiful. While we often decry the use of brown in modern gaming as a drab and dull color, it really pops in this title, and you would be hard-pressed to find more stunning vistas in any tropical rainforest or sparkling ocean. Indeed, revisiting healed areas to collect light seeds is more of a treat than a chore, as new challenges and new beauty await those who come back to see it all again.
In all honesty, Prince of Persia comes startlingly close to being a perfect game. The visuals are gorgeous, the story is presented exceptionally well, both the combat and platforming are extremely fun, and the game features one of the most moving endings I've experienced since Shadow of the Colossus. Even so, there are some who may not enjoy the game simply because it is so different from what came before it. If you loved the Sands of Time series for the buxom babes, violent combat and brooding prince, then you'll likely hate this new iteration because all those things have been stripped away. For everyone else, however, this game is simply a must-own. While I still consider Fallout 3 to be last year's Game of the Year, Prince of Persia comes in a very, very close second.
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