Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: Q4 2008
As a kid, one of my favorite games was the PC classic, Prince of Persia. It was a crushingly hard and deeply unforgiving game that nonetheless manages to be addicting enough that I memorized every pixel of it. A variety of sequels have ranged from fun to terrible, but few could ever match the enjoyment of the original Prince of Persia. When they announced Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, I wasn't expecting much and found myself blown away by some of the finest action-puzzle gameplay ever, quite possibly the best 3-D action-platforming, and a genius method of allowing players to experiment without fearing death. The sequels were strong and fun, but despite their quality, they never quite matched the pure joy that came from first playing the new Sands of Time. When Ubisoft announced another new Prince of Persia title, my hopes were high, and they have not let down.
For those expecting the return of the Prince of Persia and Farah, you might be a bit disappointed. Not unlike The Sands of Time, Prince of Persia: Prodigy is a reboot of the franchise. That isn't to say that everything has been changed, but you're going to be following the adventures of a new duo. An evil god, Ahriman, has conquered the world and spread a dark, viscous fluid called Corruption that kills all life that's not under his control. The prince is one of the few people still holding out against Ahriman's conquest, but all seems hopeless until he discovers a young princess named Elika. She has the unique ability to heal Corruption by reaching certain Corruption Grounds, and it is up to the prince to guide her there so that Ahriman's evil plot can be stopped.
Acrobatics have always been the Prince of Persia's forte, but the new prince really takes it above and beyond what we've seen from even The Two Thrones. For one, his movements are far more fluid and smooth; he can jump from location to location, swing from poles, wall-run, and he has many of the same abilities as the last prince, but he makes them look really good. However, he isn't lucky enough to have access to the Dagger of Time, and so he can't rewind or slow down time. One of his new abilities is a powerful gauntlet, which seems fairly normal but has a plethora of uses. It increases his strength both in and out of combat, and it has sharp claws that can be used to slide down any flat vertical surface, which leads to some interesting scenes, like the part we saw in the demo where he had to slide down a steep wall covered by deadly Corruption, using the claw to steer so as to avoid a painful death.
The second of the prince's new abilities is actually a person, not a weapon. Elika is a major character in the story, and she travels with the prince at all times. Don't mistake this for a dumb AI partner or an annoying escort mission, though, because she's quite possibly the best partner a hero could ask for. For one thing, she never gets in the way; if she's ever standing in the prince's way, she'll simply do a skillful acrobatic maneuver to clear a path. She's as athletic as the prince, so anywhere he can get to, she can too. She's functionally immune to damage, so you also don't have to worry about watching her health.
It gets even better! She also has powerful magical abilities that can be used in a number of ways to improve the prince's acrobatics. By teleporting and tossing the prince in mid-air, he can perform a double-jump to reach inaccessible gaps. Likewise, she can power Rebound Pads to allow the duo to jump super-long distances in a single bound. Perhaps the most useful ability we saw in the demo was one that gamers are sure to appreciate: Elika makes it so that you will never die. Whenever the prince enters a fatal situation — be it a misstep off a cliff, touching a pool of Corruption, or simply falling on an enemy's blade — Elika will instantly save him. Think of her like a sentient version of the Sands of Time.
The areas you can explore are worthy of the prince's upgraded acrobatic skills. They're huge open environments that, much like the other Prince of Persia titles, require agility that would make Spider-Man sick to traverse. The big twist here is that Prince of Persia: Prodigy offers a far more open-ended world than any of the previous titles ever did. There are multiple paths to explore, and you're not forced forward at any time. The world is broken up into hubs of Corrupted areas, each of which has a Healing Ground, and it's your goal to reach the Healing Ground with Elika. Once you do, that particular part of the world is purified of Corruption, but remains open to explore. New areas and hidden power-ups are available for you to discover, or you can simply enjoy the fun of exploring with your duo. The developers have promised that Prince of Persia: Prodigy will not force you into a linear world, and you'll be able to clear Corrupted areas in the order that you wish.
Until the areas are Corruption-free, though, you're going to have to deal with enemies. Prince of Persia: Prodigy's combat is a significant change from the previous titles in that you'll never face more than a single enemy at a time. The result is that enemies are a lot more powerful and intelligent than those you encountered in the previous Prince of Persia titles, and combat is closer to a fighting game than a button-mashing fest.
The enemy we encountered in the demo, the Lieutenant of Ahriman, was a nasty fellow indeed. Short and troll-like, he attacked with a bizarre sword/axe hybrid weapon that allowed him to do massive damage in a short period of time. To make matters worse, he could cover himself in Corruption, which rendered him immune to all damage! Thankfully, the prince has a wide variety of new skills that he can employ to deal with enemies. He's got powerful sword combos, but those are arguably the least interesting thing he can do. For one, he can use his gauntlet to toss enemies into the air for a powerful air combo attack that does substantial damage. He can also summon Elika to attack the enemy, which splits the lieutenant's Corruption armor in half. He can also use the environment to his advantage, such as kicking an enemy off a cliff or knocking him into a wall to stun him.
However, there are a few things to be careful about in regards to enemies. One is that the prince is fast and agile, but not particularly durable. Taking a blow from an enemy places him in what the developers called "weakened" status, so he'll move slightly slower and be vulnerable to killing blows, which are a second attack that knocks him down and, if you're not careful, will result in his untimely death. The prince doesn't have a health bar, only those two states, so two blows can very easily mean the end of your life if you're not careful. The good news is that Elika can save him from death with her magic, but at the cost of refilling some of the enemy's lost HP.
Secondly, overusing Elika's attack causes the enemy to enter an enraged status. They'll piece up their Corruption armor and begin attacking much faster and fiercer than before. If you try to use Elika when an enemy is enraged, they'll grab her before she can unleash her attack and toss her aside, rendering it impossible to use her again until you actively walk over to her and wake her up. You can counter and parry attacks from the enraged enemy to calm them down, but it isn't something you want to risk in a fierce battle.
Prince of Persia: Prodigy has done everything it can to distance itself visually from the last game in the series. Instead of the realistic grim and gritty style, Prodigy resembles nothing so much as an amazingly well-animated cartoon. It uses a very clever cel-shaded style that really renders the world a bright and beautiful place once you've healed the Corrupted areas, which returns plant and animal life to the locales. It's really amazing to witness in motion, and screenshots can't do it justice. The clever thing is that it really does separate this game from the previous Prince of Persia while still retaining some of the distinct visual flair that made Sands of Time and its sequels stand out. The combat scenes are cinematic and dramatic, and the developers admitted that they were inspired by movies like "Final Fantasy: Advent Children" and similar films. While Prince of Persia has always been impressive in motion, it has never looked this good.
Prince of Persia: Prodigy looks like a superb addition to one of the finest franchises in video game history. Any concerns I had about the title vanished the moment I witnessed the prince and Elika traverse a seemingly impossible gap in a variety of absolutely stunning acrobatics. It didn't feel like a video game, and if I hadn't seen the controller myself, I would have been sure that I was watching an animated cut scene. In addition, the new two-on-one combat system means that combat is a lot more fluid and interesting than the button-mashing, single-combo combat that proved to be the weakest point of the last Prince of Persia titles. As long as the rest of the game holds even half of the amazingly fluid gameplay and stunning graphics that were showcased in the demo, Ubisoft has a surefire classic on their hands.
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