Friday, December 25, 2015
Although I don't talk about it much these days, the Prince of Persia franchise has been one of my favorites since the 2003 reboot, Sands of Time.
It was a stunning experience on all levels thanks to the Prince’s fantastically acrobatic traversal, a unique time-rewind mechanic, and its storyteller-style voiceovers. It all came together into something fairly magical for me, and I was hooked ever since.
After Sands of Time, I played the two sequels and enjoyed them greatly despite the drastic shift towards a darker, edgier tone. Nu-metal and unnecessary profanity aside, the mechanics were still solid and I was genuinely interested in seeing what would become of the Prince after meddling in powers he couldn’t control.
However, when Ubisoft rebooted the franchise yet again in 2008, I bounced right off of it.
I think I wrote about a paragraph on it at the time, and the @Gamecritics review was a quickie written by someone who popped up and didn't stay with the site. I regret leaving the topic so soon, and I should have been more vocal about it – in a nutshell, the gameplay felt less technical and too simplified, I was not a fan of the empty-feeling open world, and having to collect items to progress the story was the final nail in the coffin.
However, as someone with a substantial soft spot for the Prince, it always bothered me that I never finished the 2008 installment. I've had a copy of it for years, and now that we’re past the fourth quarter madness of holiday review season, it felt like the right time to pull the game out from the bottom of my backlog and give it another try.
I'm glad that I did.
Revisiting the game now, I will say that the character designs and animations are strong. The Prince and his companion Elika are a handsome pair, and the developers have taken quite a bit of time to make sure that they animate fluidly. They display many little flourishes that accentuate the partnership they grow over the course of the game.
When on a ledge, they quickly leapfrog to switch places if the Prince needs to navigate in the opposite direction, or when standing on a beam, they hold hands and spin around gracefully to trade positions. In most of these cases, it would've been perfectly fine to have no special animation at all, but by including these quick touches and grasping embraces, the two really do behave like a pair.
Following this theme, I enjoy how the two work together in a functional sense. When the game first released, one of the biggest points of contention was that Elika had magical powers, and whenever the Prince missed a jump or is somehow otherwise doomed, the game immediately cuts to a scene of Elika grabbing his hand and pulling him back to the last safe platform he was on.
While I do have some issues with other parts of the game’s design, this isn’t one of them. Rather than seeing it as some sort of handholding or dumbing-down, it’s just an interesting choice that eliminates the need to waste time reloading a save.
In the earlier games, the same sort of "do over" function was a gameplay element that asked the player to rewind time at will, and it was a limited resource – it was the literal sand of time. In 2008, the developers threw this out the window, made it an automatic response to player death and removed the limitation on its use.
I don’t know about you, but I generally re-load a save and keep playing if I die in a game, so removing the time needed to perform a step I’m going to do anyway was welcome. In addition, it’s yet another thing that reinforces the connection between the two main characters, so this is a win-win.
Looking at the characters and their dialogue, the developers recorded a ton of fully-voiced lines between the Prince and Elika. Some of it serious, some of it informational, some is just playful and it’s all enriching. I compliment this writing, but the brilliant part is that most of this dialogue is optional and is only heard when the player pushes the ‘talk now’ button.
Letting the player engage in this narrative at their own pace is an incredibly smart choice - I ignored it in action-heavy sections, and when I hit quiet moments and was ready for a break, I’d chat with Elika for extended periods of time. By leaving it in my hands, it was never intrusive, and never broke up the flow of what was happening at any given moment.
Oh, and about Elika… Looking back, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t hear more about her as a strong female character. She’s fiercely independent and driven, she doesn’t take a back seat to the Prince during discussions, and she’s the reason why he can accomplish anything at all -- without her magic, he wouldn’t get far. She’s an equal (and even his superior) in most respects, and she’s a big, big part of why my opinion of this game turned around. However, rather than becoming the subject of fandom and cosplay, she vanished. I don’t recall seeing her mentioned as a good example at the time and she’s forgotten now. A true shame!
So, everything I’ve touched on has been positive so far, but if that’s all true then why did I bounce off of it so quickly back then? Well, the game was heavily criticized at the time of release, and many of those criticisms were entirely valid.
For instance, the world feels too empty in general, and while there are certainly some technical sections which require a bit of skill, it's not challenging to complete in any real sense.
Unlike the older games, Prince of Persia 2008 was structured as an open world. This sort of design was still exciting and fairly newish back then, so I can understand why the devs might've wanted to try it, but for a game that’s essentially a highly-structured platformer at heart, it doesn't feel like a natural fit.
With the restriction that the Prince can go to a number of levels in any order and that he may or may not have the appropriate power-up that lets him get to the end of each section, most areas ended up feeling like hallways camouflaged by beautiful skyboxes and interesting bits of impossible architecture – easy to pass through from one end to the other, but with nothing notable happening along the way.
Another poor choice was requiring the player to collect a certain number of "light seeds" in order to progress.
Certain parts of the world are locked behind the power-ups I just mentioned, and these can only be acquired after collecting seeds scattered throughout the environment. Unfortunately, these seeds don’t exist until an area has been completed. As such, the player is forced to travel back through the same level again at least once to collect the seeds which appear afterwards.
Going through a level the second time is far less exciting than the first, and doing so for the purpose of collecting arbitrary MacGuffins is poor motivation. Making it even less pleasant, many seeds are tucked in out-of-the-way places that often lack a clear way to return to the main path. Sometimes, there seemed to be no way back at all. It feels like the developers had the idea of wanting players to hunt for things, but never quite figured out how this level-combing was supposed to work in practice.
Speaking of things that don’t work, the combat is… Well, it’s awful.
It could be successfully argued that the Sands of Time titles had excessive combat, but 2008 flies in the opposite direction. The only enemies in the game are a handful of carbon-copy peons and five boss characters which appear over and over. This isn’t enough variety to keep the fights fresh from start to finish, and combat itself is a series of QTEs that rely on the player remembering which move beats what, paper-rock-scissors style. It looks impressive the first few times a combo is successfully pulled off, but it feels so stiff and unpleasant that I wish the developers had done something totally different with it. Thankfully, most fights can be won by pushing the enemy over an edge, so the bulk of them can be ended in a hurry.
While all that stuff is bad, the real doozy is how it finished. No real discussion of Prince 2008 is complete without mention of that ending.
Spoiler warning until the next bolded line.
Over the course of the adventure, the Prince and Elika work to cleanse their lands from evil. The twist is that Elika died before the game began. Her life was bought in exchange for releasing the evil in the first place, so by containing the evil again, she must forfeit her life and die a second time.
I thought this ending was quite touching and bittersweet, until it was revealed that it wasn’t the real ending. Once she’s laid to rest, the game keeps going. Off in the distance, an object beckons. Once there, it’s revealed that the player can re-release the evil and bring Elika back to life – essentially, you’re undoing everything the pair did over the course of the entire game.
Some people have tried to explain this decision away by saying that I could have turned my console off after laying Elika down, but I don’t buy it. The game is OBVIOUSLY still going on, there was no in-game choice to select, there was no ‘the end’ message that scrolled… Who arbitrarily turns a console off and says that they’ve completed the game? Nobody, that’s who. The developers clearly want you to keep playing.
I knew this was not the path I wanted to take but I wanted to see the entirety of what the developers had crafted, so I followed it to the real ending. It was basically “to be continued”, and it felt like the most wrongheaded and financially-driven thing I’ve seen in quite some time. What could have been an intensely poignant and memorable finale turned into a giant raspberry blown in the player’s face, and the entire experience was cheapened. It is an understatement of galactic proportions to say that this ending was a Did Not Like.
End of spoilers!
So, after taking stock of the whole thing from front to back and finally rolling credits on it after all these years, Prince of Persia 2008 is an eccentric, flawed experience… But, don't let that scare you off. I think the relationship between the Prince and Elika is actually quite special, and the way that it intertwines with the mechanics makes it that much better. And, despite the relative ease of navigation compared to previous installments, it's often entertaining to simply go through the environment and watch the Prince cling to ceilings, make fantastic leaps, or spin around on the top of a crumbling castle while holding Elika’s hand. It may not be my favorite Prince of Persia, but coming back to it now has given me a different perspective, and I appreciate the strengths in spite of its weaknesses more now than I did back then.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading!
And, for more on Prince of Persia 2008, the good men of @CaneAndRinse covered it on their podcast, front to back. Give a listen if you like!