Main image
26th February
2009
written by Tony
prince-of-persia

Grrr! Grrr?

What happened to us? I know that the prince and I have had our ups and downs over the years, but I still believed. He wasn’t good about returning calls and was always late for everything and what do yellow roses mean, anyway? But this, blatantly phoned-in, latest effort has me thinking that not even counseling can save us.

Ahem. I recently finished playing the latest installment of the Prince of Persia franchise, and since this game was released more than three months ago I’ll dispense with any pretense about this being a timely review or anything like that. Instead, I’ll create some talking points and assume that anyone who is interested in this game has already played it. I’ll also show my cards early in the game: I think that Prince of Persia 2: Warrior Within is one of the best games ever made. Ever. This latest installment continued what I consider a downward spiral of what could have been an excellent, potentially unmatched, franchise. First, the good. Then the bad. Then the why.
It's like being there in person

It's like being there in person

Good The graphics in this game are simply beautiful. The art direction, voice acting, and visual style are some of the best work in a video game I’ve seen to date. The game feels like a graphic novel, owing that the illustrative visual style really pulls the game out of the limitations of the clichés that mire so many titles in the “just a game” category. The power of the PS3 allows stylistic choices to be more than a compromise or a cover for processor shortfalls and ascend to the realm of genuine artistic merit. The movement system is well refined and smooth, the essentially single button movement interface is straightforward and rarely fails to do what you expect it to. Pretty much everything in the world is interactive and you can run, jump and climb as you please (though no smashing things, sadly). The game was generally bug-free and the few glitches were small (extreme shadow pixilation in some areas, some pauses while the game took some time to think, nothing major) and did not affect gameplay  in a real way. Bad I know, you’re thinking, that’s it? That’s all the good there is? Trust me when I say that the visuals and the smooth gameplay temporarily forgive a lot of shortfalls. You’ll get so immersed in the beautiful environments you’ll sometimes forget how boring this game is. Boooooorrrrriiiiinnnnggggg. Guess what you do? You collect little (poorly named) light “seeds,” (ew) which you give to your female companion (who is magical and needs you to get these seeds for her. Insert bodily fluid joke here). And guess what you do with the light seeds you collect? You get to unlock plates that let you land on them and do “special” moves that allow you to get around the environment to new areas. Where you can collect more light seeds. And guess what you get if you collect all 1000 seeds? NOTHING. That’s it. There are no big secrets, no life upgrades (or life bar of any sort), no hidden areas, NOTHING. You fight a boss, collect light seeds, fight the boss again, collect more light seeds, fight the same boss again. On and on.
The Hunter. Oooooo.

The Hunter. Oooooo.

There are five bosses you fight in this game (I don’t count the final battle/boss because you don’t do any actual fighting with the super huge, slightly androgynous and pissed off lord of darkness). You fight them all four or five times. There are usually two other generic enemies in every stage, which you can avoid fighting at all if you are moderately quick getting to the fight area. So, potentially you could beat the game by fighting 17 or 18 enemies (1 in 5 of which are the same enemy, warmed over). Maybe 20 total. So this isn’t a fighting game. The developers make this obvious distinction even more painful by making the fighting system absolutely terrible. Restricted movement, restricted camera angles, limited fighting techniques (you can chain combos, but only in a specific order and only if you get the timing right and then it might still not work), little or no utilization of the environment, tricky timing on some moves that doesn’t matter in the overall outcome of the fight (deflections, for one) and fight patterns that are stiffly choreographed and repetitive to the extreme, all add up to a really poor experience. And, if you get bored halfway through a fight (which I did) too bad, because… YOU CAN’T DIE. Ever, at any point. There is no way to die in this game. Now, that may sound like a new, interesting evolution in gameplay, it’s certainly unusual for a game in the platformer/action/adventure genre. But, guess what? It’s dull. It takes all of the anticipation, the anxiety and the drama out of the game. Go ahead, jump off the ledge, see what happens, it doesn’t matter. Cock up the timing on the difficult looking obstacle course, you’ll get to start over from wherever you were last on solid land. Over and over and over again. I never actually thought I would miss continue points, miss the thrill of getting something right because I had to nail it, not because it was the fifteenth (or fiftieth) time I ran through it and I just wanted it OVER.
Here we go (imagine Mario saying it, it's a lot more fun that way)!

Here we go (imagine Mario saying it, it's a lot more fun that way)!

The movement plates, as mentioned above, are kind of cool at first, but eventually end up being stupid time wasters that add little to the gameplay. Two just zip you to another location without you having to do anything, kind of slingshot style. Two involve usually unduly long sequences of either flying or running around like a monkey. Apparently the developers thought the monkey one was pretty cool, because every time you do it they make you run to something like 17 of the plates, and it inevitably takes five or six or twenty tries to get it right. And since the sequence is so long, this kind of made me want to die. For real. Oh, and there are three, maybe four puzzles all in all. If you are going to make a platformer that has little to no fighting, and what little it has is bad, then you need to give people something to do. Two of the puzzles are kind of hard, two are not, but overall it just isn’t enough. Running and jumping is good for only so long, especially since the Prince goes on autopilot for 70% of the moves you do anyway.
Saucy! Not really.

Saucy! Not really.

Then there is the Prince as a character, and his tired interaction with his magical lady friend. Apparently Ubisoft wanted him to come off as a worn-out cliché of a fratboy filled with needless bravado and just a touch of misogyny. Because he does, and not in a charming Seth Rogan (on a good day) kind of way. And even though it’s obvious that he and the Princess/fairy/witch/desert woman/Elika are going to get together (or try) Ubisoft couldn’t be bothered to let him stray too far from the formula. Unfortunately, Elika is just flat and uninteresting as a character, though she manages to get a few zingers off when the Prince is being a total cad, she tends to blend in to the background. Which is disappointing considering that there are only two people in this story and one of them sucks. And I must say, since there is so little else going on, no fighting, no real goals other than the end game objective, and gameplay is strangely linear, the whole interpersonal relationship subplot would have been a breath of fresh air, had it been done right. Why This requires some history to provide perspective. You see, PoP 4 wasn’t created in a vacuum. PoP 2 was the first game in this series that I played. I loved it, and still do. So that’s my tilt factor in this. I just can’t look at the new game without thinking about how great the second one was. PoP 2’s gameplay was innovative with new platforming methods that had really just never been done before (okay, there was PoP 1, but that's a given). The fighting, of which there was plenty, was brilliant. You could run around, at normal speed, target whatever enemy you wanted (because they almost always came at you in groups) jump off of walls, do rolls, and do pretty much anything you wanted to find a way to deal out some pain. You could steal an enemy’s weapon and use it to kill him (sweet!) and then you have two weapons at once! Of course, you could always pick another weapon up as you found it, either dropped by dead foes or on weapon racks, and having two weapons opened up a whole new array of moves you could do (and there were a few snazzy "secret" second weapons hidden around the game).
Stab stab stab, that monkey's face ain't so pretty anymore!

Stab stab stab, that monkey's face ain't so pretty anymore!

The true strength of the game was variety. Puzzles, fights, platforming, good plotting and a non-linear movement system that allowed you to travel through the same area as many different ways as you could imagine. The fights were never the same, you always ended up doing something new and creative based on where the fight started, where it moved to and what the surrounding enemies did. And there were a variety of enemies, and a variety of strategies to face them. It was all you. The inclusion of the whole Sands of Time thing was also awesome as it let you rewind, slow down and otherwise manipulate time to your advantage, adding another layer of diversity to every situation. Oh, and the prince in this one wasn’t such a dick. I mean, he wasn’t the coolest guy ever, but he was certainly a more mature, believable and well thought out character, which hardly mattered because the game was just so good. Gameplay was varied and intense and there were puzzles and secrets galore. Sometimes the puzzles were just where to go next and how to get there. No sissy “compass” to show you where you have to go (and the map was useless, why they even included it, I don’t know). If you got lost or went the wrong way, well then too bad Charley. And guess what? If you found all the secret areas, you not only got more life, a better weapon, but you also got a different ending to the game. The in-game movement was pretty much set by this time and has changed little since then, but you definitely had more control, and more thinking to do about where you were going than any game that had come before, or after. And you could die, boy could you ever. There was just such a sense of achievement in this game. When I got through a particularly deadly area, I always felt such gratification, even if it was dumb luck that got me through. The first PoP (Sands of Time) was obviously a less refined version of Warrior Within, and playing it after Warrior Within definitely highlighted the differences in the fighting and movement. While still good, it was not quite there, not like the second. The third (Two Thrones) game was the death knell, in my opinion. The fighting changed to this “sneak up on the enemy and then execute a precisely timed button prompt sequence for an immediate kill” system (maybe that isn’t the best name ever). And if you didn’t do this? You generally got your ass handed to you by super strong enemies that were able to block pretty much everything and take like, a thousand hits. And if there were more than two or three around? Forget it, just run. Most of the rest of the third game was pretty similar to the second, but I just felt that the fighting system sucked so much of what was fun out of the game that it became untenable. In fact, I never did finish the game, so there you go. So, maybe if you don’t look at PoP 4 in the light of PoP 2 (and even one and three) you might think the game is pretty fine. But in light of its distinguished predecessors, it just feels kind of dumbed down, like Ubisoft has tried to insulate you from the actual gameplay. One button to jump, wall run, climb, grab, swing, you name it. Every so often you have to push another button to do some ancillary action, but more often than not you don’t even have to use the joystick to direct your character. Add this to a fighting system that is restrictive at best, boring and frustrating at worst and linear gameplay with an objective (light seeds!) that is just mind numbing and you have kind of a crappy game. It sure is pretty though. 2 out of 5 render_prince_of_persia_4_01

8 Comments

  1. Ben
    02/26/2009

    Well, $50 well spent. Thanks Ubisoft, lure us in with your stunning graphics and fond memories of your old games then crush our souls like a big soul crushing machine….thing.

  2. 02/27/2009

    You know, I’m glad I played it, really (and I do appreciate the gift, honestly), while it was boring (so boring) it did offer a glimpse into where video games can and should go, stylistically. I think the excellent Drake’s Fortune and Heavenly Sword did much the same (except they managed to also be superbly playable games in addition to being beautiful), showing us that games can be more than just games. The problem is that Ubisoft clearly has no idea what made PoP 2 such a great game, but they made this game sooooo beautiful that the buzz surrounding it talks about little else. Technically speaking it really is a solid game overall, it just feels a little soulless.

  3. 03/02/2009

    My son has The Warrior Within and he likes it a lot. I was thinking of getting him this game as well, but I just don’t think I can justify spending that much on a game that sounds so sub-par. You can’t die? Really? What’s the point? I am going to point him to your review.

  4. 03/03/2009

    @ zibilee: Probably a fair call. I might say the game is worth renting if your son is really curious, but that’s about as much money as I would put into it.

  5. Formerly known as...
    04/16/2009

    When you finished expounding the good points of the game and moved onto the bad; you rather presumptuously put the words in my mouth ‘that’s it, that’s all there is?’

    To the contrary; I wholeheartedly agreed with your surmation of the good points and then found myself asking ‘what more could they possibly want?’

    With regards to people bitching about not being able to die (you suicidal abominations)…
    I honestly don’t see how not being able to die counts as a negative aspect. In actuality it’s a boon as it prevents the flow of the game being disrupted. You can still mess up and metally chastise yourself for missing that ledge or whatever, but I for one don’t need a superflous ‘death animation’ to ram the point home and spoil the flow of the game. Seriously, are you all that dependent on every single video-game cliche being present, that immortality presents a painful and abhorent concept to you?

    It seems clear to me that the author of this review is a fan girl who’s bought into a franchise and now feels short changed because the game has taken a new direction (she says as much). I can empathise with that, but nonetheless it remains true that this has become yet another biased and misleading review of a truly brilliant game.

    Frankly I could rant on this subject all day, but I wont. Suffice to say that people the world over are being far too judgemental of what is quite simply a superb game that now sits in the hallowed halls of my top ten games of all time.

  6. Formerly known as...
    04/16/2009

    He/she, whatever…

  7. 04/16/2009

    Formerly known as…
    First, let’s clarify something: if I were a “fan-boy” who simply bought into a franchise, this would have been a glowing review. Instead, (and I posit this in the review) I am a person who knows what I like in a game, and this game does not deliver that. What I see is wasted potential. The whole “not being able to die” thing isn’t a big deal at all, and, again, if that were my only beef, this game would be a 4 out of 5, not a 2.

    Some questions:
    Do you disagree that the making the only in-game objective collecting light seeds and then giving no encouragement or reward for said collection needlessly limits the scope of the game?
    Is it enough for a game with such an ambitious scale of design to simply start and move through to a conclusion, telling a small story that does not match the size of the game?
    Do you disagree that the Prince is a brilliantly animated and wonderfully voice-acted character who is entirely unlikeable (and not in an interesting or compelling way) and that his companion is as dull as he is clichéd?
    Do you think that the simplified and restrictive combat system is better than its predecessors?
    Did you not think the plotting was painfully linear, in that nothing you can do as a player can change the outcome of in-game events?

    Ultimately, these things are all true to large extent and are the main points of my review, and you did not bother to dispute them in your comment. My evaluation of their effect on my enjoyment of the game is my personal opinion and I present it as such. I’m glad you have the courage to disagree (that’s a part of what the internet is for — an open forum of shared thoughts), but remember: all reviews, either positive or negative, are biased, as surely as your comments here are biased in their own way. What makes a review interesting is the slant the reviewer brings to the article, because how can anyone evaluate something subjectively without a bias? To say my review is unfair because it is “biased” is reductive and unnecessary. Bias is not a universally negative thing, but it is universal.

    Objectively, this game is a success because it does its job well, it has good graphics, easy gameplay, no glitches, a start and a finish. It succeeds as a game. What it doesn’t do is go beyond being just a game and move into a realm that demands personal, emotional investment. It has no hook from a human standpoint. That is why I did not like it. If you like it for other reasons, bully for you, that makes my take on the game no less valid.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Silvermist67
    08/24/2009

    I have never played any of the other Prince of Persia games, but I have played this one. I liked it, even though I think it is a little to easy. I think the Prince and Elika are good characters, but it is a little hard to develop them more in a game that can be completed so quickly. If they were developed more, they probably would have been better. More fighting would have been more fun, and more puzzles. The not dying thing is not that bad, and I think it would have been REALLY annoying if it went GAME OVER every time you fall.

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