Prince of Persia (2008) is an action-adventure game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in 2008. It features a new continuity where the titular Prince (who doesn't seem to be a prince) gets lost in a desert chasing after his donkey loaded with gold. This leads him to an ancient city of the Ahura, followers of the god of light Ormazd, where the Ahuran princess Elika is on the run from some soldiers.
The Prince assists her in her escape, but neither of them manages to stop Elika's father, the king, from unleashing the god of darkness, Ahriman, from his prison within the city. Determined to stop Ahriman's resurrection, the Prince and Elika join forces to heal the now corrupted city.
The setup for PoP 2008 should sound pretty familiar to people who have played Sands of Time, but there are some key differences. The first being the titular Prince, whom the game spends a lot of effort to keep as mysterious as possible. The original one was never named, but this one barely has a backstory and is simply a chivalrous tomb raider, now voiced by Nolan North instead of Yuri Lowenthal.
And with that recasting comes a change in personality. Instead of a princely brat who becomes a dashing hero, this prince is almost a carbon copy of Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Same smarmy attitude, same panicked disposition when falling into pits, same static character, same "Oh crap!" catchphrase, same actor. It's not bad, but one can't help but think it's Nathan Drake displaced in time beneath that scarf.
Elika as a counterpart to Farah in the other timeline is less antagonistic towards the Prince, but doesn't really have much else going on to replace that beyond a healthy helping of exposition and her magic powers. It's kinda difficult to discern what the writer wanted to achieve with her and the story as a whole. The game is not a love story and while it rubs up against the theme of temptation multiple times, I don't think it nails that either. They got pretty close, but the ending needed better direction and a few more drafts.
The (console-exclusive) epilogue gives a hint towards an arc for Elika and offers up a reason as to why the Prince needs to be static. In that DLC, Elika has lost a lot of confidence in herself and the Prince spends a lot of time trying to get her to realize that she's more capable than she admits to herself. That angle would have been amazing had it been the focus of the main game. Of course, I'm a sucker for a good "doormat to ass-kicker" character arc.
Still, what's here is quite enjoyable. The game has an optional conversation system that allows you to choose if you want the two to comment on the current situation. While there are a lot of samey lines that would have been better off cut, there are also some really good character interactions. They talk about everything under the sun and get in some good gags even.
Of course, due to the game's non-linear nature, the writer couldn't mandate what would be heard in what order (beyond some obvious extensions to scenes once you fulfill certain conditions). That's probably why Elika feels like such a confused character in the main game, while the linear epilogue suddenly gives her an angle for an arc. This all tells me the game should have been more linear and cut some fat from the script. Not to mention not end with a cliffhanger. Twice!
Building on the gameplay interactions with Farah in Sands of Time, 2008 goes further by having Elika and the Prince be together for the whole game. While you control the Prince, Elika is always close behind and can even be controlled to a small degree. I love the little animations they have together while traversing the game's environments. Really makes it feel like they're in this together. She makes for a good companion, aside from how slow she is with helping you turn cranks during the game's few puzzles.
The series' famous platforming system has been streamlined ever so slightly by putting wall-running on the same button as jump/climb and by replacing the time-rewind with an automatic rescue system through Elika's magic. As such, retrying is slightly less fiddly, but you no longer have control of your own checkpointing. Elika will simply dump you back on the last solid piece of ground, meaning that the series' focus on sequences of perfectly timed platforming inputs remains intact, but in a different form.
Each of the three main platforming buttons is associated with a certain class of action. Jumping, wallrunning and climbing poles is all done with one button, for example. The Prince's gauntlet is used with another in order to chain wall-runs and ceiling-climbs together and the last one is used to call on Elika for a double-jump or a special context-sensitive action. When the game gets rolling, all it asks of you is to parse which button to use next and chain actions until your next solid piece of ground, which feels great, especially in the harder epilogue. Hell, thanks to the double-jump, you can even skip through the intended path slightly or save yourself in ways that would have been assured death in the rigid originals. It isn't free-form parkour, but it felt nice to have a little more freedom after playing the other games.
While the slope-sliding, ceiling-climbing and wall-sliding are fine additions to the formula, Elika's powers feel a bit tacked on. They are obviously there first and foremost as progression gates, as most of them serve very similar purposes. 3 of the 4 (5 with the epilogue) have the same mechanical purpose of getting you from one power plate to another by flying through the air. Be it by swinging, bouncing or flying, the end result is basically the same. I wish more work was put in to make these abilities feel different, like the wall-run plate, which allows for lengthy gravity-defying runs across walls.
Unlike the platforming system, the combat system has little in common with the original style of combat. Gone is the multi-directional approach full of more enemies than you care to fight. Instead, we get a dueling system with slightly simpler combos where you never have to fight more than a single enemy at a time.
I appreciate not having as many mook fights eating up platforming time and not being able to die (Elika rescues you in a pinch and lets the enemy recover some health) for the sake of pacing. But whereas my issue with Sands of Time was how many enemies there were and how hard it is to learn, here, I actually have a problem with the fighting itself.
First of all, the Prince moves very slowly unless you're blocking, which feels backwards to me. This wouldn't be so bad if the game wasn't built to punish whiffs, which are really easy to accidentally do due to the almost comically short range of the Prince's basic attacks. I swear my brain refused to acknowledge the unnaturally slow movement speed and then had me time my strikes as if it was closer to Sands of Time.
The resulting whiff-punish is often as annoying, as most bosses are animated so poorly that it's really hard to read if they're going for their extended combo or not. This of course makes them harder to parry than they should be, which led to me getting slapped around a lot during certain fights (bosses love blocking constantly if you use the sword too often), at which point I usually went for the most boring combo available just to get somewhere. I know I shouldn't expect frame-perfect combat from a western action-game, but damn if I wasn't missing the excellent back-and-forth attack/parry/counter dance from Sekiro while playing.
Still, even with that annoyance in mind, there are some interesting things at play here. Since it's always a duel with a single enemy, positioning is quite important during battle. Regular enemies can be insta-killed by getting them pinned against a wall or cliff. Bosses are more resilient, but most reward you for getting the boss to the edge of the arena.
Consequently, getting yourself trapped at the edge of the arena will get you into a QTE that can result in them recovering health, but clearing the QTE puts you in the perfect position to push them off instead! It's not always the answer though, as some bosses teleport when pushed to the edge, meaning you have to abstain from using combos with high push-back. But a few of them can be insta-killed through gravity!
The longer you play, the more "shields" enemies get access to, which limit what attack (slash, launcher, Elika) you're allowed to start a combo with. It's an ok way of getting the player more comfortable with more combos, but it quickly proves not to matter much. Especially in the epilogue, which provides you with an excellent gapcloser attack, which is so good that it eliminates all my problems with the combat system and let me stomp on anything that came my way.
Since it's a gapcloser, you can simply activate it (only at full health) and get right up in an enemy's face without needing to worry about whiffing. Then, if you clear the simple QTE, you'll break through whatever shield they have up AND get a free start of a combo without a chance of the enemy parrying you. Once I got the hang of it, I cut my average battle time down by like 70%, it was nuts!
While I'll concede that the gapcloser is so strong that it breaks the combat system, it does tell me how quick and empowering the combat was meant to feel. A shame a more rudimentary version of that idea wasn't implemented to start with. As-is, the combat is fun whenever you manage to wrestle with an enemy in spite of all they do to try and lock you into chains of QTEs.
Unlike most of its brethren, PoP 2008 fancies itself some non-linear world design. The result is an interconnected set of linear platforming challenges that can be tackled in almost any order. While that's a cool idea, the end result feel incredibly manufactured (which shouldn't surprise me, since it's a Ubisoft game). The game has 4 main bosses (Ahriman's followers, the Corrupted), who each govern a section of the city. There's always an intro area, 4 main areas sealed behind 2 of Elika's powers as well as their boss arena, which houses the section's final platforming challenge centered around one power.
The game's structure asks you to clear about 2 intro areas, pick a power and then go to the designated areas in which that power is used in, unlock another power and then go beat a boss. Alternatively, you could post-pone beating the boss to run around in another section to unlock more powers, but since you can't get any form of combat upgrades, the progression choices you make end up mattering very little, beyond letting you pick your favourite areas first on a replay.
It would be more interesting if unlocking a traversal power gave you a slight edge against a certain boss, or defeating one boss in their section enough times (bosses are refought multiple times under different conditions) gave you MegaMan-style elements to use on the others. Alas, there's nothing of the sort and the game's difficulty curve feels very even and doesn't really go up properly outside of the epilogue.
But how do you unlock powers anyway? By collecting Light Seeds, of course! Once you have traversed the "connective" platforming challenges enough, you'll get to a central location in the area that's barred off by one of Elika's plate powers (the intro areas for each boss are an exception). If you clear the platforming challenge and boss encounter there, you'll reach a Fertile Ground that Elika can revitalize. Doing so drives away Ahriman's corruption and spawns Light Seeds everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, even in the platforming section you just cleared.
They frankly feel like needless padding, as you only need to collect a bit over half of them to clear the game, with the rest only guarding an extra pair of costumes should you somehow find the strength to collect all 1000. Platformers with collectibles usually intend for you to collect much more than half, but here they seem engineered to be mostly ignorable, which doesn't speak well for the level design.
It's so weird, because the game has its fair share of small secret areas and I can't think of a good reason as to why there aren't only seeds placed in the secret areas and why they can't be collected before you restore a Fertile Ground. It just stinks that the most efficient way to collect them is to re-run back to the Fertile Ground, take the path towards the next area, teleport back once you pass into a corrupted zone and then take the path going in the other direction, hoping you don't have to backtrack too much (which I feel like I did due to sub-optimal path planning sometimes).
I suppose they want you to relax and enjoy the fruit of your labour by checking out how much the area has changed with Ahriman gone. But that's mostly aesthetic (beyond certain traps going away), when they could have at least unlocked new parts of the area once the corruption was gone. The game is just so formulaic, no matter how much the scenario designer tried to spice certain areas up.