First, a list of things I like:
- The platforming and combat look very fluid
- Though the "Elika catch" mechanic is really just death with a slightly different animation, I like that it gets me back into the game as quickly as possible without having to sit through a continue screen
- It's visually gorgeous, and has great music
- Some of the Prince's dialogue is kind of cute
- No HUD, most of the time
- Elika's magic pathfinding light is useful and visually pleasing
- It's cool that you can prevent fights simply by being quick enough to attack enemies before they spawn
And some other small things. But that's not why you clicked the link to this article.
A lot of reviews have pointed out that, though the game "only" lasts about twelve hours, it never manages to get old in that time. Perhaps it's my fault for playing the game in two sittings, but I don't really see where this compliment is coming from.
From the time until you boot up the game until its completion, you'll only be doing a few things: platforming, fighting, and participating in Magical Plate Minigames. Now, there's nothing remotely wrong with devoting an entire game to only a few mechanics, but Prince of Persia never changes those mechanics up in any significant or interesting ways and the game begins to feel redundant before it's even reached its halfway point.
There are something like twenty different levels in the game, and every single one is completed the exact same way: head to the level, cut scene, platform your way to the boss, cut scene, kill the boss, cut scene, leave, collect a shit-ton of light orb thingies. Just like Assassin's Creed, the game falls into an immediately recognizable routine far too quickly, and suffers badly for it. When I know exactly what is coming and what I'm going to be doing for at least 90% of the game, that's a problem.
Now, some might say: "Hey, screw you. Shadow of the Colossus has the exact same structure as PoP and Assassin's Creed, and you love that game." While it's true that SotC has the same bare-bones structure, every colossus fight feels completely different and unique because every one of them is defeated in a completely different way, often requiring completely different skills from the player. When playing SotC, the player never knows what's coming next, or how they're going to deal with it. In Prince of Persia, the player never feels this uneasiness because of the repetitive structure, and the even more repetitive combat.
Apart from one really clever "which Elika is the real one?" action-puzzle, there's almost no variation whatsoever to the combat. Every single fight throughout the entire game is almost identical; apart from the fact that some enemies can only be killed from environmental objects and some can only be harmed by certain attacks at certain times, neither the enemy's nor the player's strategy will alter in the slightest: the enemy will always attack the Prince if he gets too close or misses a hit, and the player will always try to initiate a drawn-out air combo that will do an asston of damage.
The platforming sections of the game leading to and from every duel were thankfully interesting enough that I didn't stop playing altogether, but the utter sameness of every single swordfight still gave the game an agonizingly repetitive structure. And that's a shame.
For the love of God, game designers -- please do not force me to collect pointless crap just to pad the length of your game. Please.
In a sense, I can understand why the Prince of Persia designers thought they were justified in forcing players to run around the environments collecting Magical White Orb Thingies after defeating a boss. It allows the player to drink in the colorful, evil-free environment as a sort of reward for defeating the boss, and forces the player to explore their surroundings in a way they hadn't before.
It's still goddamn annoying, though.
Running around, irritatedly trying to collect 500 meaningless white orbs is not my idea of fun. Mandated exploration is not fun; to draw another Shadow of the Colossus parallel, it was fun to aimlessly run around the Forbidden Lands searching for stuff because it was my decision, and in no way necessary to the plot. It's completely unforgivable to ask the player to arbitrarily run around collecting items that are (A) no fun to achieve, and (B) are valueless in and of themselves -- it's simply a waste of my time.
Prince of Persia obviously isn't the only game to do this, but it still irritates the hell out of me.
Prince of Persia's platforming is, by far, the most interesting part of the game. On the one hand, it looks beautifully fluid and seems to function as the polar opposite of Mirror's Edge. Where that game gave the player total freedom but suffered from horrendous level design, Prince of Persia minimalizes player control but includes very direct, very pleasing levels. On the other hand, before Prince of Persia I'd never played a game that so strongly resented my presence.
Everytime you press a button, the game wants you to think that you just did something -- that you are jumping, you are wallrunning. Initially, this seems to be the case: by pressing a few buttons, the Prince seamlessly leaps from wall to wall with a fluidity heretofore unmatched in 3rd-person platformers.
This falls apart, however, once you actually stop to look at what you're actually doing.
Pressing A once will make you jump, wallrun, climb, and pretty much everything else under the sun. The B and Y buttons do basically the same things when you reach particular architectural structures (the gauntlet rings and magical launch pads are so intrinsically worthless that it almost makes me wonder if they weren't included solely so players would occasionally have to press something other than A). This isn't bad in and of itself (Mirror's Edge only had two movement buttons, and it controlled beautifully), but nearly every jump, wallrun, or dismount is autoaimed or otherwise helped by the computer in some way.
If you want to jump on a beam, you just have to point the analog stick in the beam's general and press A when...well, pretty much whenever. Timing doesn't actually matter, nor your momentum, nor your ability to successfully aim a jump, for the most part. The platforming looks good and feels good for a little while, but it's almost completely automated. Even the Prince's wallrun and walljump movement occurs at a completely fixed speed after you make your first jump, so you're basically just watching a string of short cut scenes initiated by single, barely timing-reliant button presses. In a way, platforming really just becomes a very forgiving QTE without onscreen button commands.
Mirror's Edge may have had some horrendous design choices, but at least when I did something cool it felt like I was the one who did it. It almost feels like Prince of Persia's platforming is actively irritated at the player's presence, only begrudgingly giving out small, placatory bits of control while handling the real heavy lifting on its own.
Until the game's halfway point, the characters knew more about what the hell they were doing than I did. Elika kept making reference to something called Ormazd and the temple and fertile grounds, and the temple was giving her power but it wasn't just the temple it was also the temple's God, and her dad had cut down a tree and that was bad but it wasn't as bad as breaking the lock that held back this demon which I guess we didn't see, and the weird mystical place we were running around in was actually an existing city and not some magical realm, and a bunch of other crap that had nothing to do with the Prince or I.
Rather than sharing my confusion, the Prince was somehow interested in all this meaningless backstory. Whenever I engaged in an optional conversation with Elika, it was always about the irrelevant story of bad guys succumbing to corruption and Ahriman's reign, and almost nothing about the two characters I was spending twelve goddamn hours with.
No, sorry, that's not true: once, Elika asked the Prince about his family, to which he responded that they'd all been killed in a war. Elika, saddened and surprised, expressed her legitimate condolences. Fifteen minutes later, after defeating a boss, Elika made a joke about what the Prince's mother would think of him. Since both the optional discussion and the boss fight could happen at any time thanks to the game's quasi-nonlinear design, I suppose the revelation about the Prince's family was meant to come after the snappy “yo mama” joke. That's just clumsy writing, plain and simple.
Elika as an excuse for bad level design
Though I do like the fact that Elika will save you from a “Game Over” screen everytime you get close to death, the level designers often use the rapid respawn as a crutch for downright unfair platforming sections.
For example, one section asks the player to wallrun to a gauntlet ring, then wallrun around a corner, then wallrun to some vines. One evil, Black Slime Death Thingy moves up and down in front of the first gauntlet ring. Since the speed for movement is totally fixed and linear while you're moving on a wall, it's extremely possible to run past the first Black Slime Death Thingy with no problem, then turn the corner and -- through no fault of your own, since you couldn't see the second Black Slime Death Thingy from the beginning and time your run accordingly, and you can't change your movement speed after you've made your first jump -- get killed by the second Black Slime Death Thingy. After getting killed by the second enemy that you could neither predict nor avoid, you're forced to redo the section, this time attempting to time your jump account for the existence of a second enemy that you can't actually see or avoid until it is too late.
I get the feeling that I explained that very poorly, but my main point is this: just because you can respawn only a few inches away from where you die isn't an excuse to make unfair platforming sections that require multiple playthroughs to perfect.
The magical plates
About a fourth of the way into the game, the designers begin to replace actual platforming with magical plates that launch Elika and the Prince* from place to place. Though some of these plates initiate diverting, if somewhat irrelevant obstacle-dodging minigames, a hefty amount of them simply launch the player from one place to another, with no further input needed beyond a single press of the Y button.
This doesn't really become a problem until the designers decide that plate-hopping should replace actual platforming. Entire levels will consist of nothing more than a single, extended plate launch: you'll run up to one plate and hit Y, then the plate will launch you to another plate and you'll hit Y, and so on and so on until you get to the end of the level.
What? Why? What the hell is the point of making an entire level that only requires me to press one button, and only when I'm told to do so? If the regular platforming feels like a gussied-up QTE, these even less interactive plate-hopping sequences feel like pausing, then unpausing a movie for three minutes straight. There's simply no reason for these sequences to exist, other than the fact that they look sort of pretty.
They also become nothing short of goddamn infuriating once, for no reason whatsoever, the game decides that the Prince's launch momentum should end just a few feet short of the next checkpoint platform. After hitting the Y button over and over for two minutes, you'll suddenly plummet out of the sky completely without warning, forced to use the Elika double-jump in the split second before you fall to your doom. If you happen to hesitate for even an instant, tough titty: now you have to repeat all the pointless, monotonous plate-hopping that led to the moment of your death.
Elika is a goddamn inventory item
Of all the positive things I've read about Prince of Persia, none has been so ubiquitous or downright ludicrous as the assertions that Elika is one of the most empathetic, emotionally satisfying AI companions in videogame history. I've read review after review state that, thanks to how she integrates with the gameplay and her relationship with the Prince, Elika is a better companion than the dog in Fable II and rivals Alyx Vance for sheer emotional attachment.
This is complete bullshit.
I played through the entire game trying to understand this point of view, but it's just plain goddamn ridiculous. The Fable II dog and Alyx Vance are empathetic companions because they are autonomous beings who directly interact with the gameplay and help the player along. Elika interacts with the gameplay, but she takes it way too far; rather than being an autonomous character in and of herself, she becomes so ubiquitous that she's merely another tool the player uses to progress through the game.
We care about Alyx Vance because she seems to have her own behavior that, while helpful to us, we can't actively control. Elika, on the other hand, is merely an extension of the player's control. By pressing Y, Elika will save the player from death, help the player double-jump, or do a magical attack during combat. Nearly everything she does is dictated by the player, to the point where she appears to have no more free will than a grappling hook, or a magic wand. She intersects with the gameplay so frequently that her involvement seems like less of a cute, helpful boon (as is the case with Fable II's dog) and more of a necessity for game progression, like collecting keys or pulling levers. Elika isn't a character -- she's an object, a tool summoned for the player's use with the press of a single, context-sensitive button. Though many reviewers may disagree with me, I personally can't empathize with a gussied-up inventory item, no matter how well she's animated.
If Prince of Persia could have left the Prince/Elika relationship as it was at the beginning of the game, I wouldn't have had a huge problem with it. Though the game mistakenly attempts to get you to love Elika through her involvement in everything from combat to double-jumping, the story never rams it down your throat: the Prince and Elika have some fleeting moments of legitimate connection, but the story never tries to force you to feel anything you don't actually feel.
That is, until the ending.
When Elika relinquishes the last of her light energy to refill the tree of life (or whatever), I didn't feel anything. But that was, at least initially, okay – I could take that emotion and do what I wanted with it, without the game trying to force anything down my throat.
After placing Elika on the altar, however (once again, echoes of SotC), I was given a Hobson's choice: either feel the way the Prince feels about her, or stop playing the game. I either had to care so much about Elika that I would literally undo everything I had just spent twelve hours doing in order to bring her back against her wishes, or I could turn off the game and leave the story unfinished. There was no option to simply walk away, leaving Elika's sacrifice intact, the world saved.
And so, with no other option, I did what the game wanted me to. I cut down the trees of life, I corrupted the land once more, and I gave life back to a woman who didn't want it.
This could not have made less emotional sense if the designers had intended it.
Though it's kind of cute that this ending shows how stupid the Prince is as a human being, that isn't really the designer's intent: you, as the player, are supposed to care about Elika so much that you would bring her back to life without hesitation. But considering Elika isn't really that easy to empathize with, and that I'd be undoing everything Elika and I had done in the game by bringing her back to life, the “choice” to cut down the tree of life just felt ridiculous. The entire ending hinges on the fact that I'm willing to sacrifice my own senses of logic and heroism just because I care about Elika so much. Since I didn't, the entire ending fell apart and felt patently moronic and aggravating.
What kills me, though, is that the ending could have worked, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if Elika had been a more fully-formed character, or if the story had been more well-written. What if this were Half-Life? Would I have cut down the tree of life for Alyx? Absolutely. I can say without a doubt in my mind that, without hesitation, I'd screw over the entire game world and undo all my hard work just to keep Alyx from dying. I'd do it in a second. I'd feel guilty, but I just plain wouldn't be able to help myself because Valve made me care about Alyx in a way that Ubi Soft was essentially incapable of doing with Elika. The ending to Prince of Persia is infuriating not because the actual idea is bad, but because it so presumptuously and infuriatingly assumes something ridiculous -- that I would give up everything to save, of all things, a sentient inventory item.
Anyway, that's about it. I don't hate the game, but I definitely don't like it. I can understand why people would enjoy certain aspects of it, and it's got some interesting things to offer. At the very least, it's one of the most thought-provoking games I've played this month -- though maybe not in a good, or intentional way.
*Tuesdays, on NBC