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09-01-2011, 03:07 PM #1
Prince of Persia (next-gen) | Game Review
There have been several attempts to reclaim the Prince of Persia’s past over the years – ranging from the great to the tolerable – of which this outing is nothing less than the very latest. Reverting to the original moniker (no Two Thrones or Warrior Within crap) it has already been described by an overpaid marketing skunk as “a re-imagining of the franchise”. Hardly a visionary statement, it’s the same glib sound bite that Tim Burton wheeled out before summarily pissing in the eyes of The Planet of the Apes.
Prince of Persia’s so-called re-imagining takes place courtesy of the same graphics engine as Assassin’s Creed (there’s even a secret skin that enables you to play as Altair from that game), however, while the huge vistas and vertiginous topology are comparable, PoP is very much its own game, with a bespoke art style that would probably once have been called cel-shaded, but is now described as illustrative.
Falling somewhere between Saturday morning cartons and a fully-fledged Disney feature, whatever it’s called, it’s extremely impressive, throwing you into a consistent, visually stunning fantasy world that screenshots can’t really do justice to. With no heads-up display or gaming baggage such as ammo counts and weapon selection, it’s a bold move away from the current trend of ultra-realism, and a welcome one at that, like stepping into a fairy tale. Perfectly suited to the subject matter, it conjures up such touchstones as the Sinbad and The Thief of Baghdad movies.
And while the story of PoP may not be remembered with such affection, there is one somewhere, the details of which are inevitably absolute poppy****. As a very loose synopsis, once upon a time there were two brothers who fell out, resulting in the world being a constant battle between corruption and healing, dark and light, with evil represented by oozing black pus, and good by flowers and butterflies. As a fan of good stuff, it’s your job to heal the land from corruption and reclaim the fertile grounds so that everybody lives happily ever after.
More pragmatically, to start with you’re some bloke in an ornate waistcoat wandering through the desert with a donkey laden with stolen gold when you stumble across a damsel in distress. That damsel is a Princess called Elika, and doing the decent thing you save the day through what is essentially an interactive tutorial that teaches you the basics of swordplay, climbing, dropping, wall running, ceiling running and all that stuff.
While there’s some initial swearing, controlling the Prince soon becomes second nature, with a mouse and keyboard proving adequate for even the most athletic of moves. However, so stringent are the paths through the game that it soon becomes apparent that you’re not doing much more than pressing the right key at the right time. Clearly, we’re exaggerating slightly, but it’s fair to say there isn’t a great deal of skill involved, as there’s a distinctly binary approach to the gameplay in that you either do something or you don’t.
As for the sultry Elika, once you’ve rescued her she follows you around like a pretty pot of glue, proving to be not so much a damsel in distress as a guardian angel, helping you out of scrapes using some fairly nifty magic. For instance, if you attempt a jump that is too far, press E for Elika and she’ll fly through the air and give you a helping hand. Further, in what is arguably one of the game’s biggest deals, even if you don’t ask her for help, should you be plummeting to your death she’ll appear and haul you to safety in the nick of time, ensuring that at no point in the game do you ever actually die.
While it might sound like a feature that makes the game too easy, Elika’s life-saving is a permanent quicksave, and is arguably an extremely elegant way of overcoming the immersion-breaking concept of saving and loading, a quandary that gaming’s greatest minds have grappled with since the three lives of Space Invaders.
As for the overall structure of the game, you dart about a hub-based environment fighting minions of evil and then healing the relevant area. Or more accurately, Elika heals the area while you stand by making wisecracks. In many ways the game is more about the Princess than the alleged Prince, and she even joins in with the combat, throwing in some magic while you stick to your sword, gauntlet and an acrobatic attack. With a fixed camera view, defeating beasts is a matter of stringing the right combos together, and rhythmically tapping the right button in a series of quick-time minigames. The environment can also come in handy, as it’s possible to kick a monster off his ledge.
While the early monsters can be laid to waste with a few lashes of your trusty sword, you do eventually have to resort to the various combos. When these go right, they can be spectacular, but the combat is one sticking point that might turn people off. Indeed every time we stormed off in disgust during the review it was a result of boredom having circled a monster for 10 minutes, pressed pause to access the combos menu, attempted to remember a couple and then spent valuable minutes of our lives chipping away at his health bar, which replenishes if Elika has to save your life. Almost as tacit acknowledgement of this time-sapping routine, some of the bosses will piss off halfway through a fight, only to reappear later to enable you to finish off the job. With the bosses becoming progressively harder as the game continues, they each take longer to beat, and given that you can’t actually die, time is your only currency.
Well, time and your fingers, as this is an area of the game that betrays its console roots. Tapping out combos on a pad is less ruinous, both to the hardware and to your index finger, which can seize up in the midst of a long scrap. Repetitive strain injury notwithstanding, having beaten the boss and healed the land, collectable ‘light seeds’ magically appear, a certain number of which grant Elika further powers enabling her to access more of the land and perform more healing. These can be collected during some more predetermined platforming, and so it goes on, an essentially repetitive, if spellbinding and occasionally exhilarating, tour round a magical world with a Princess hanging off your back, a few nonsensical cutscenes, a clutch of rudimentary puzzles and some vaguely sinister dream sequences.
Hardcore gamers will inevitably dismiss PoP as not being challenging enough, but you’d have to have a steel heart not to be slightly seduced by the fantastical setting. That said, the magic is shattered the minute the Prince opens his mouth, proving to be an appalling dullard. All the same, this is a brave attempt at doing something different in a gaming marketplace littered with war and aliens. Despite being the work of Ubisoft Montreal, it’s probably as far away from a Tom Clancy-branded title as it’s possible to get.
And despite an original approach to the gameplay, in many ways PoP is imbued with an old-school sensibility: kill the boss, save the girl. Although she spends a lot more time saving you, and you do sometimes feel like a spare prick at a wedding, bringing little more to the party than a series of excruciating one-liners and some functional swordplay. All the same there’s a definite elegance to the action, with the sublime animation complementing the setting, and a superbly realised colour palette that visually demonstrates the difference between the corrupted and healed areas. It’s undeniably charming, but how long you remain charmed depends largely on your patience.I trust cigratte more than a girl.
It will damage my lungs but will never break my heart ;-)