I really liked Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. When it came out, I paid full price for a copy on the x-box, and did not regret the purchase. I remember thinking at the time: Hey, this is like Tomb Raider, if Tomb Raider was fun. Then the sequel came out, and for some reason they had replaced a soundtrack that made sense with a soundtrack made up of Godsmack. I was not pleased. I didn’t purchase it until it dropped to $20, and I never played it all the way through.
I couldn’t understand why they had to make the Prince… hardcore. My eleven-year-old nephew disagreed with me at the time. “It’s better now,” he told me, “he’s not all gay like before.”
I said, “No, he wasn’t gay, he was just acting like a prince! That’s how princes act!”
“No, I don’t mean gay like gay, I mean gay like lame.”
“I told you not to use that word that way.”
“You’re not my real dad.” And my nephew won another argument.
I was excited when I heard that they were rebooting the franchise. No more heavy metal prince. I hoped it would be like The Sands of Time, you know, Tomb Raider gameplay, but fun. Then the reviews came out, and the complaints stacked up against it. Everyone said it was too easy. Too repetitive. Too… cel-shaded. So I threw it towards the bottom of my Gamefly queue and figured I probably would never get to it.
Last week Gamefly sent me a copy of Prince of Persia: No Subtitle, and let me tell you, all of those reviews? They were wrong.
The control is great. The animation is great. The cel-shaded graphics are perfect. Is it too easy? No. There were times where I died ten times in a row, because it was that hard. The difficulty is there, the difference is that it’s just not frustrating. When you “die,” your partner Elika saves you. If you fall too far, she grabs you before you hit the bottom. If you get struck too many times by an enemy’s sword, she hits you with a blast of white light and you’re healed. But there are mini-consequences for your mistakes: If you fall from a jump then you go back to the last time you were on solid ground, and if you die from an enemy then the enemy regains a chunk of health. It works just like dying, only without actually dying, and with no additional load times. This means you can pick yourself up and try again, without the repetition of having to redo a whole level five times in row. It’s how games should work. It means that if there are any problems with the controls or the camera, if you jump left when you meant to jump right, it’s okay. You just get to do it again ten seconds later.
The structure of the game seems like it should be repetitive. Every level is the same: 1.) you traverse a dark stage and kill a boss, 2.) the stage lights up and gets happy again, 3.) you go back over the same stage and collect the light seeds you need to progress. If I was playing the game on a deadline, for a review, it would definitely get repetitive, so I can understand why the reviews said what they did.
I wasn’t reviewing the game, though, I was playing the game as a player, for enjoyment, like you might, for fun even, and so I played it the way I wanted to. Sometimes I would go through and kill three bosses, healing three areas, but not collecting the light seeds. Sometimes I would spend an hour or two just going after hard to find seeds that I had missed. In a way, it’s an open-world game without the missions, so you can take things in any order, and play however you wish. If it’s getting repetitive, you can always switch it up, and the level design varies enough that different stages will give you variety, without being jarring thematically.
Collecting the light seeds is fun, but not completely necessary. You only need 540 to beat the game, but there are 1,001total. I got 700-and-change, and I had a blast collecting them.
The story is one of the best told stories in recent gaming, if not in content, then in how story elements are passed along to the player. Most of the story is optional. I’m not saying this is breaking new ground, Bioshock had players collecting diaries to unravel the story, and other games have done similar things since. In Prince of Persia, though, all you do is press the L Trigger, and the Prince will talk to Elika. Completely optional, but if you’re like me, you’ll do it every time you get to a new area. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the game’s world, and not only that, it works to slowly develop the relationship of the two main characters. By the time you play to the climax, if you’ve been heavy with your L Trigger finger throughout the game, you’ll have such a connection to the characters that the twist cliffhanger will leave you floored.
SPOILERS AHEAD. And well, behind you too, but too late for that.
The boss battle is one of the best boss battles I’ve played in recent memory. Instead of giving us a nearly unbeatable foe at which to swing our sword, the entire end stage is played from the perspective of the antagonist. You’re seeing things through a veil of evil, so you know the battle is epic, but you’re still using the same gameplay you’ve been practicing all game. Since the game values traversing the landscape more than slicing fools with swords, the final battle involves traversing the boss’ lair, getting to the healing points without dying, and ultimately defeating the enemy in the same way you’ve healed all of the lands previously.
The game has one of the best endings I’ve ever played through in a videogame, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but things aren’t done when the boss is beaten. The prince is left with a big decision to make, and as a player, you have to make that difficult choice with your actions. I had to use the skills I learned throughout the game to do what had to be done, and because it actually forced me to go through the actions, and not just watch a cutscene, the drama and suspense played out in a way that is unique to gaming. For those who have played through to the end, I tell you, this is what game storytelling should be. It shouldn’t be like a movie, we have movies for that, it should affect you like only a game can, by making you complete the actions, by making you end the story.
So the prince isn’t metal anymore, but he’s definitely not lame (or “gay” if you’re eleven and won’t listen to your uncle when he tells you not to use the word in that way ARE YOU READING THIS BUDDY? STOP BEING A STEREOTYPE OF AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD BOY). The prince is kind of a dick, though. But that’s okay, because just like the unlikely hero of your favorite action film, he does the right thing at every turn, despite being an asshole. He saves the day, or at least does what you expect him to do as the good guy, even if he does it while sexually harassing a princess. Constantly. Well, if you pull the L Trigger, I guess. Which I did. A lot.
I am now very excited for a sequel to this Prince of Persia. I just hope that Ubisoft doesn’t take the industry reviews and the whines of bitter “hardcore” players too seriously. The game is fun already. I don’t want to see a sequel that punishes me with its “challenge.” I want to see the continuation of this story, the fluidity of these controls, and I don’t want to have to replay levels over and over again when I die a lot.