The Prince of Persia franchise has a long and varied history going back to the ol Nintendo Entertainment System days as a side scroller. The Prince was resurrected a few years ago as dark and brooding, and had a successful trilogy of games. Now hes been reinvented once again, this time as a thief with a heart of gold. Specifically, his heart is wherever his gold is, and at the beginning of the game, that gold is attached to a donkey that has run off without him.
While searching for the love of his life (his money, not so much his donkey), he stumbles across another vision of love. Elika, a beautiful, dark-skinned woman, is running for her life from some ruffians. She is afraid that the Princes cries for his donkey are going to get HER caught. He fights off the thugs and learns that Elika is a Princess. As he and the Princess run for their lives, she demonstrates some extraordinary magical powers.
The world they live in was run by two gods who were brothers: Ormazd was the god of light and Ahriman was the god of darkness. Elikas people were like all people, some shades of gray between good and bad. Ahriman discovered that people were easily swayed to darkness so he tempted them and tipped the scales in his favor. This actually worked to his disadvantage because with his power all spread out, he was weakened and eventually trapped inside of a magical tree, supposedly for all time. Gradually, he was able to whisper to outsiders from his prison in the tree, and the tide turned back his way.
Good god Ormazd is now nowhere to be found. Ahrimans four most loyal subjects are preparing the world for his return to power. For some reason unknown to us, the temple itself has given some of the powers of Ormazd to Princess Elika. She concludes that she is the key to putting Ahriman away for good.
The first part of the game sets up the story and in usual fashion, serves as a tutorial for the player. The Prince learns how to do the basic mechanics of the game, such as wall-running, extended wall-runs, jumping to and from suspended columns, roof runs, and so on. Then there are the combat mechanics of moving, attacking, blocking, acrobatics and the use of his armored gauntlet to grab and throw the opponent.
The game has one major mechanic that makes it stand out. You cant die. There is no Game Over. In comparison, lets look at Halo. Any Halo. You fight, you die. Gameplay stops, reloads the last checkpoint, and resumes. For those couple of seconds, youre taken completely out of the game. Prince of Persias solution to this dilemma comes in the form of a magical power given to Elika.
Elika can use the light of Ormazd to save the Prince from falling and to break up fights when hes getting his sundial cleaned. In any other game, gameplay would be reset, but in Prince of Persia, the Prince simply lets out a shriek (it's ok, its a manly shriek) and Elika intervenes, dropping you right back where you were. Its basically the exact thing that happens in Halo, but the effect is that youre not taken out of the game.
Elika has her own attacks during combat, and you fight as partners. Some enemies can only be attacked with her light attacks, or they will morph from one state to the next, forcing you to alter your style of attack. You never play as Elika, but rather, you call on her assistance. Besides the saving power of her light during falls and battles, she can assist you with a co-op jump, adding to the distance you can leap between surfaces.
Elika is also made stronger by collecting light seeds. After you clear an area of corruption, you heal it, and one of the results of this healing are light seeds that appear scattered throughout the level. Collecting these and returning to the Temple opens up new powers for Elika, and access to new locations in the game. The areas overlap each other a bit, so that it takes more than one power to be active before an entire area is accessible. These powers also unlock the ability to use light plates that are placed around the lands. In order to get access to all of the light seeds, you need to have access to at least two of the plates in each land, which open up once their equivalent power is granted. You will play every area basically twice: once to clear it of corruption and a second time to gather the light seeds.
The game is laid out with the Temple as the central point, and four lands, each land guarded by one of Ahrimans followers. Each follower has a certain style of attack as well as a certain weakness to attacks by the Prince and Elika. Each land has an area before it, four areas inside it, and when those are complete, a fifth area beyond it where you tangle with Ahrimans lackeys. Completing the game requires healing of all 24 areas and a return to the Temple to wrap up the story.
Before I address some of the shortcomings of this game, I want to point out the one area in which it is absolutely flawless, and that is the visual department. It is done in the visual style of a graphic novel. It does not try to duplicate real life as much as it tries to create a believable fantasy world, and it absolutely nails it. Subtle dark halos behind characters make them pop during action sequences. They get lost in the darkness when they go corrupt and stand out when theyre hit with Elikas light attacks. The draw distance is unbelievable, and in fact, there are a couple of achievements available simply by going to an extreme point on the map and just LOOKING and the enormity of the environment.
The animations are also wildly impressive. Actions during travel and combat can be strung together to make one fluid series of motions. The Prince can scale down a sheer face, leap to a rod protruding from the wall, swing to a pole, flip to the other side, scurry to the top, run along the underside of the roof while hanging from rings, flip up the wall on the back side, shuffle along some hanging vines, jump and slide down a slanted ramp and well, you get the idea.
Whats also impressive, and easily overlooked, is his relation to Elika during their travel sequences. She will dangle from his neck, or hell swing her with his arms. They will hold hands and spin around a point if there is not room to pass each other. My favorite is when he catches her after he scales down a wall first, or leaps to the bottom first. Its more than just catching her and setting her down. Theres a tenderness to it that makes you go, whoa, someone really dedicated some attention to that detail.
Shortcomings? Yeah, there are a few. Light seeds are hard to spot sometimes, based more on the performance of the camera than clever placement by the developers. Stringing together attacks for combos is also practically impossible. There is an achievement available if you can string 14 of them together, and honestly, if you can pull that off, you really DID achieve something. The combat is not nearly as fluid as the traveling.
Finally, the thing that bugged me the most was the lack of people in the environment. Unlike previous PoP games, you only fight one guy at a time. The idea behind this was to make every battle like a mini-boss fight. Im not sure what the REAL reason is behind this decision. There are no people milling about the environments. According to the story, they left because of the corruption. There are no swarms of enemies to fight off. Theres one here, theres one there. You never run across concerned citizens, soldiers, or anyone. Except for the 3-4 soldiers in the very beginning and one other key player, there are no people at all.
I hate to write reviews and dock a game for whats not there. Games should be reviewed on what they brought to the table, not what was omitted. If dropping out NPCs was a trade-off for the incredible vistas, thats fine. So rather than dock them for it, I will simply include it as a suggestion for future games in the series.
This brings me to my last point. This game was obviously set up to serve as a launching pad for a series of games, probably a trilogy. As it stands, I think a two-game arc would make a better story, but the engine is built, the universe is written, and theres plenty of time left in this gen to squeeze out two more. (Actually , I think a ONE game story arc would have been perfect, but it would have involved changing the ending of this game. I don't want to spoil the ending so I won't comment further.)
To be up-front, I paid $32 for this game and consider it money well spent. Im already playing it through a second time, even with four or five other games in a stack, waiting to be played. However, they dont want you to pay $32 for it. They want you to pay $59 for it. While I personally enjoyed it enough to have done that, Im not sure that most people would have. Im afraid that Prince of Persia fits right in that group of games like Mirrors Edge and Dead Space where theyre really good games whose only shortcomings are that theyre moderate length single player games. Theyre asking the same price as single player games that are 200 hours in length, or multiplayer games that will get hundreds of hours of online play. Now, games have been $49-$59 for fifteen years, and once in a while you get that Bioshock-quality game that is shorter, but so well done that it demands the full price. PoP just isnt one of those. Im not a fan of supporting used game sales because I want the devs to have my money because they did the work. So this is one of those games that I will highly recommend, but suggest waiting for a price drop down to $39.99, which probably isnt that far away.
Suggestions: Add NPCs.
Add multi-enemy combat.
Give us a combo-counter. I couldn't tell if I'd gotten one combo or ten, and had no idea how close I might have gotten to 14. I would be more inclined to put in the effort if I knew where I stood.
Add a middle-eastern dialect option to the voices. "Perfect, generic male American" is more offensive to me because it's "lowest common denominator" than having a actual Persian voice would have. Call Sayid and Nadia from "Lost" and see if they're free for PoP2.
And really, god of light and god of dark? There has to be a more clever way of setting up a story dilemma than that.