When the Prince of Persia series started way back in 1989, it was celebrated for its blend of platforming and puzzles, as well as the lifelike animation of its characters. When Ubisoft revived the series with 2003's Sands of Time, these qualities informed the design more than anything else, and the product was one of the best games of the decade. Then came the sequels, and with them, a new emphasis on combat, distortion guitar, and stories with "edge." The formula of SoT was evident, but suffered under the weight of these…improvements.
The new, un-subtitled Prince of Persia was promised as a return to the series' hallmarks: namely, the acrobatic exploration and environmental puzzles that made Sands great. It delivers on that promise—mostly. It improves on the regrettable sequels, but it's a very different game from the original.
The story is straight out of chapter one of The Big Book of Game Plots. A dark god has been unleashed, darkness is spreading, heroes must drive said god back into his magic prison by systematically restoring life to the land, etc. etc. Luckily, the world itself is more interesting than your reason for being there; the vivid, quasi-cel-shaded environments are gorgeous, if a little cartoonish. They're the star of the show, and you can move through them in a completely non-linear fashion, with the option of quick-traveling between cleared areas.
Prince is all about leaping, scaling, and clambering around this world. The good news is that such movement is fairly well done. Wall running, swinging from poles, and a few new maneuvers look and feel quite fluid, and the game is at the best when you're stringing them together. Unlockable "powers" (i.e. magical forms of locomotion, initiated at plates scattered around the environment) mix things up a bit as well, although two of the four of them are nearly identical and non-interactive, and the one that should be the most interesting ends up being the most irritating. The powers exist mainly as a gameplay device to control your progress through the non-linear world. Combat encounters and genuine puzzles are present as well, but are few and far between, and they take a back seat to travel itself.
The bad news is that this travel, while exhilarating, is not all that challenging. Virtually every route in the world is signposted to a grossly excessive degree. Every place you're meant to wall run is scuffed; many jumps are indicated by projections or wooden beams extending from platforms, and other features like climbable vines and wall rings are dead giveaways (particularly in some environments, like caves, that are totally bare except for things you can grab). At a glance, you'll be left with very little doubt about where you're going and what you have to do to get there. You only really ever have to think on your feet when your path takes you around a corner. In Sands of Time, the way to progress along a route—or even its starting point—was rarely so immediately obvious.
Combat is similarly less than arduous. You'll only ever face one enemy at a time, and it's possible to avoid any or all non-boss encounters. It's not that the combo-based fighting system isn't enjoyable; achieving longer and longer strings of cinematically balletic attacks can be almost as pleasing as a good stretch of platforming. No, the thing that might cause the hardcore to gripe is the simple fact that you can't lose.
This is thanks to Elika, supporting character and walking, talking checkpoint system. Besides driving the plot, Elika is tasked with saving the prince's sorry behind. In platforming, she catches him whenever he falls and returns him to solid ground. In combat, she revives him the moment the bad guy gains the upper hand, and the only penalty is that the enemy regains some life.
However, this doesn't make things quite as easy as it might sound. After all, even if you never see a "Game Over" screen, you still can't actually advance until you defeat the enemy or make it through the platforming run without making a mistake. It's just like any other game in that you must keep trying until you do it right, only here the retry is instantaneous, and that's surely a good thing. Besides, executing combos or perfectly completing platforming runs does task your timing and reflexes, and pulling it off can still feel like an achievement.
But Elika is more than a mere gameplay device, and in a welcome twist, there's a button set aside for talking to her. Mostly, her replies are functional, reminding the prince of his current goal or destination, or doling out hints about one of the rare puzzles. Sometimes, however, you'll find yourself starting a purely expository or characterizing dialogue, and you have a high degree of control over how much you engage her in conversation. The voice acting for both principal characters is above average, but the writing is hit-and-miss.
Of course, designers of fantasy worlds have leeway to craft a world and the characters populating it as they see fit. Still, I think it was the wrong choice to write the prince as a wisecracking twerp straight out of any circa 1990's U.S. sitcom, anachronistic parlance and all. For every heartfelt glimpse of the burgeoning relationship between Elika and himself, there might be five jokes that fall flat with toe-crushing leadenness. There are scenes that approach genuine beauty, when the melodic, orchestral theme is playing in healed lands, with the life and color restored, and the pair help each other along as they make their way together. Then the prince cuts in with yet another quip about his lost donkey, and the atmosphere comes crashing down.
There are a few more minor problems: occasionally, the music will hitch in mid-note. There are a startling number of typos in the subtitles. The camera doesn't always point where you want to go, but it pretty consistently lets you see where it wants you to go, and since there doesn't seem to be much point in diverting from the paths as they're laid out for you, I didn't encounter such trouble often.
Gladly, none of these complaints is enough to badly diminish the overall enjoyability of the title. But is it a return to Sands of Time's form? Not quite, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, even if that direction happens to be backwards. Much of the fun of the original is reclaimed here, but it could have been even better if it engaged the brain as much as the eyes and reflexes. Maybe the promised follow-up to Prince of Persia will do just that.
Prince of Persia is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS, PC and Xbox 360.