Monday, February 02, 2009

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia: now 100% more Zoroastrian.Prince of Persia is one of those rare games that is recommendable to absolutely any gamer. Regardless of who you are, it's simply a great experience.

This game, as I have mentioned previously, has a confusing title. It features neither Princes nor Persia in any explicit fashion, it's not a remake of Jordan Mechner's original game, and it has nothing to do with the recent Sands of Time trilogy.

You play as a nameless adventurer who gets lost in a sandstorm while escorting a donkey laden with gold. This "Prince", as the game seems to imply he should be named, soon finds himself caught up with a rogue princess named Elika and involved in a battle to save an abandoned kingdom from the ancient evil of Ahriman.

Prince of Persia is an athletic platforming game in the style of Tomb Raider and ... well, Prince of Persia. You'll be leaping across bottomless chasms, scuttling up and down cliff faces, wall-running along vertical surfaces, and generally clinging in a painful fashion to poles, wall-brackets, and improbable tangles of vines.

The athletic platformer is generally at the mercy of four key design elements. Known collectively, these are the Four "C"s: controls, checkpoints, camera and cartography. By cartography, what I really mean is level design, but Three "C"s And An "L" is not quite so memorable.

The controls are sharp and forgiving. Press a button to jump, and the Prince immediately jumps. When you hit a wall, you cling to it. You can press a button from that position, or more usually as you're approaching the wall, to turn the cling into a horizontal run along the wall or a vertical climb upwards. Wallruns and climbs can be extended at places denoted by a special brass ring; again, you need only press a button as you approach the ring. Timing windows are extremely generous; in my entire journey through the game, I never failed any obstacle by missing the timing.

This is part of a new game philosophy - that the fun is not to be had from overcoming punishingly hard jumps, but merely from experiencing them. The player is encouraged to explore their world rather than fight against it. This is not, inherently, a better or worse way of producing fun than other methods, but it's certainly a much more accessible one. And that ties into the checkpoints, which are plentiful; the game effectively remembers the last time that you had your feet on level ground, and if you fall that's where you'll be taken back to, with no further punishment. That's normally only one or two jumps backwards, although towards the end of the game there are a couple of annoyingly long sections without checks.

The camera is not so excellent. There are two styles of gameplay in Prince of Persia, and only one features a useful camera. Each level is initially linear, asking you to travel a fixed path towards a boss fight. The camera is excellent at presenting this action in a dramatic and understandable manner. Afterwards, though, you need to explore the level to find "light seeds", which are usually tucked away in the level's most remote corners. There's no free-look mode for the camera, so really you can only see the seeds if you're right on top of them, or if you happen to get a lucky glance from a distance. For a lot of the game, you'll have your face pressed right up against a wall or pillar, so spying out these concealed objectives is frustratingly difficult.

Luckily, the level design compensates. The layouts are beautiful, and it's almost always clear which jumps you can achieve. This allows for frequently thrilling action sequences where you're calculating your next move on the fly. Traversing these environments is always entertaining, and it doesn't hurt that they're nice to look at, too.

The only complaint is that the levels are supposed to be representative of a genuine city that people lived in, but the designs don't bear this idea out. Your companion Elika describes how it was all once a bustling metropolis; however, the actual levels are highly abstracted and nothing about them is remotely evocative of real architecture or daily life.

Elika herself is one of the most important elements of Prince of Persia's success. She's an interesting ally; she often has things to say whether you want to hear them or not, but to supplement that you can press a button to start a conversation with her, even in mid-jump. These conversations reveal additional information about the area, about your enemies, and, most importantly, about Elika's relationship with the Prince.

She's worked into the gameplay, too, and her magic provides the explanation for the Prince's ability to double jump and to survive fatal falls. When you miss a jump, Elika, imbued with unreliable and life-draining magic, dives after you and flies you back to safety. There's a great deal of hand-waving as to exactly why she doesn't just fly you to your destination, but the game isn't so much concerned with power and magic as it is with relationships and sacrifice, so these mechanical conveniences prop up the game's tone rather than undermine it.

Each of the 24 levels culminates in a boss fight; with a few exceptions, these are the only real combat situations in the game. The same four bosses are repeated across all the levels, although with different twists, and the game relies on the strength of its fighting system to keep you entertained rather than a variety of opponents. The fighting system is strong, although not THAT strong, but the side benefit of this design decision is that it builds these four bosses as villains who you develop a relationship with through repeated conflict.

The thing I love most about Prince of Persia is that it knows that every good story is about its protagonists. Almost every level, every challenge, and every character in the game is a reflection of that philosophy. When you're solving puzzles in The Windmills, you're not just turning cranks, you're exploring the Prince and Elika's different approach to relationships. When you're fighting The Warrior, you're not just slogging it out with an invincible behemoth, you're looking at Elika's feelings towards her father. This is an example of using game mechanics to tell stories rather than telling stories that happen in between the game mechanics.

By contrast, the worst element of the game is clearly the coloured plates. In order to gate content and attempt to keep the gameplay fresh, the game lets you start making use of magical coloured plates once you've collected certain totals of light seeds. The developers probably saw this as necessary, given that the Prince unlocks his full range of athletic abilities before finishing the first level, but it was still, with hindsight, a horrible mistake.

These plates come in four colours, and you can unlock them in any order. The red and blue plates are fairly unobjectionable, merely flinging you through the air to a new destination. The green plates warp gravity to make you run headlong up vertical walls, and these are mostly fun, although not as much fun as not using them.

The yellow plates, though, send you on a kind of magic carpet ride along a fixed-rail sequence where you have swerve to avoid obstacles. A sparkly camera effect during these segments makes it almost impossible to see what you're doing, and the gameplay's fundamentally misconceived in any case - you'll constantly swerve left to avoid a pillar only to have the fixed-movement drag you right into the very obstacle you were trying to dodge. The yellow plates are so bad that they almost ruin the entire game. It's not hard to imagine someone who accidentally unlocked the yellows before the other colours giving up in disgust, thinking that the rest of the game was going to be just as stupid.

Thankfully, though, the plates stand alone; the rest of the game comes together to produce a genuinely engaging and memorable story. It's capped by an ending which not only brings the game to a satisfying conclusion, but sets up a story worth telling for the second and third games in this inevitable trilogy.

There's little genuine innovation in Prince of Persia; we've seen all this done before, in Sands of Time, in Shadow of the Colossus, in Ico and in Okami. But Prince of Persia brings it all together into a solid, accessible package which anyone can enjoy without requiring legacy skills or being shut out by uneven difficulty. It's not a niche market, it's not an acquired taste, it's just a resoundingly good game.


Carlos said...

Nice write up. I feel exactly like you about the game. But another downside along the poor conceived yellow plates is the fact that the game is essentially a prolonged QTE. There are no button prompts displayed but rings, scratches on walls and vine greenery serve the same purpose. I didn't mind it that much for it is always breathtakingly animated and the souroundings are just as gorgeous but I people who see this as an issue have my understanding. That said, I think it has great story telling and remarkably likable and tangible characters which go a long way in redeeming this game from any nitpickery flaws it has and the ending placed it right up there in my all-time favourites list. A great game and I'm genuinely excited to see what the DLC by the end of this month will add to it.

Anonymous said...

I unlocked the yellows first, and I gave up thinking the rest of the game was going to be just as stupid.
I'll give it another chance.

Greg Tannahill said...

Talsidor: definitely give it another chance. If you get to another plate colour and find things aren't significantly better it's possible it's not for you.

Carlos: I don't think the problem is with it being an "extended QTE"; rhythmic button pressing as a method of movement is no more inherently broken than holding X to accelerate in a driving game. I think the problem is rather that the game offers no opportunity to excel; you never get to prove that you can do something more impressive than what you're required to do by the basic gameplay. It also doesn't help that you get all your abiliities up front, giving you very little sense of skill progression as you progress. You should have had to unlock the ability to use rings, and unlock the ability to use vines, et cetera, to make it feel like you were expanding your horizons and to give you reasons to keep re-visiting areas.