Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time holds an immensely special place in my videogaming heart. It was an absolute tour de force, an imperfect masterpiece that represented a lot of what's good in modern gaming. Beautiful, thought provoking and fluent beyond belief, playing through the game became an intensely personal experience that I will remember for a long time. For me it was the type of game that makes you draw the curtains, neglect friends and avoid calls, everything a good single player game should be.
The follow ups had nowhere near the same effect on me so it was with some trepidation that I handed over my hard-earned cash for the next-gen reboot of the series.
Firstly I'll get the obvious out of the way. The game is gorgeous. It may not be technically the most graphically proficient game of the console generation so far (surely GOW2 takes that gong) but in my opinion it's the most stunning. The art direction for this title is simply breathtaking and deserves to be commended to the highest degree. Standing on a perch towards the top of a fully healed level and looking out across the landscape is one of the best thrills in gaming out there at the moment. People have waxed lyrical, calling the game a living painting and that's not far from the truth. The only game that can possibly make a stronger claim to be labelled as such is Valkyrie Chronicles, But there's not much between the two.
The next major point to be addressed is the gameplay decision that has dominated a lot of the pre-release coverage of the game, namely the fact that you cannot die. At all. Ever. This has proved a bone of contention amongst the 'hardcore' who have been suggesting that this somehow makes Prince of Persia less of a 'game' and more of an 'experience'.
Complete and utter bollocks.
This was a brave and ultimately fantastic decision by Ubisoft Montreal, and one that will have a seismic effect within the development community. Like it or not, you WILL be seeing this in a lot more games over the next few years. For me this is a good thing because, as much as I love videogames, due to work and a social life I simply don't get that much time to finish them these days. I can't think of anything worse than going through a game only to find that a poorly placed checkpoint or an unbalanced boss ruins the experience for me. I remember one point in Final Fantasy X where there was a check point placed just before an UNFUCKINGSKIPPABLE cut-scene that lasted 10 minutes plus (or at least it seemed like that) which went straight into a boss battle that I was having trouble with. After three or four attempts I couldn't be bothered anymore and didn't touch the game again for months. I eventually went back to the game, got past the boss (first time as well, why does that always seem to happen?) and enjoyed the experience, but was so close to missing a great game due to bad design that from that point onwards I have always resented the theory that we should be punished for death in videogames (for the record I don't mind dying in videogames. I just don't like having to retread sections that I've already done).
To be honest you can die, there's just frequent checkpoints and a snazzy animation when you do. The important point to take on board is that you're not removed from the experience. This really is a masterstroke in design because you never feel the need to turn the console off in frustration.
The story in Prince of Persia is a fairly hokum affair involving a magical land that has been corrupted by the attempted escape of a dark god. The 'prince' of the title is in fact a wandering tomb raider and general rascal who encounters his in-game companion Elika whist searching for his donkey 'Farah' (obscure POP:SOT references ftw!). Elika turns out to be the princess of said magical land and ropes the prince into assisting her in preventing her kingdom from being overrun by the above-mentioned dark god. The story is presented in a fairly non-linear, take or leave it kind of fashion from this point onwards. The game employs a system wherein you can simply press a button to enter conversation with Elika and find out more about the area or situation that you are in. This again allows you to remain immersed in the game as you are rarely forced to sit through cut-scenes in order to further the story. In fact, if you wished, you could pretty much avoid the story altogether, but to be honest I did utilise the 'talk' button to delve deeper into the game's lore.
The frivolous story is, in truth, a vessel to allow you to explore the true emotional investment that is evident in Prince of Persia, that being the relationship between the Prince and Elika. There are very few characters in videogames that really, truthfully provoke any kind of emotional response from the player (Aeris in FFVII, and Alyx in Half Life 2 are the ones that spring to mind) and women in videogames are usually portrayed as docile, subservient shells that serve only to be rescued by the male protagonist. Elika, for the most part, breaks this trend. She is integral to your progress and a more than worthy companion throughout your quest. I've never really understood the whole 'hot videogame beeatches' thing before but Elika definitely got a response from me. I actually felt that I wanted to help her achieve her goal, rather than just complete the game and for that I am truly impressed with the developers.
The gameplay in Prince of Persia comprises mainly of platforming with a dash of combat thrown in for good measure. The platforming is a fairly 'on rails' affair with a path usually quite clearly set out in front of you. The first part of each level entails you trying to reach a 'fertile ground' (most of the level is closed of by 'corruption', a black deadly substance which reaching the fertile ground will clear) by wall running, swinging and climbing to your destination. The platforming takes on a parkour style and is fairly simple. Once you have made your initial jump onto a series of obstacles you will have to make button presses at certain points along with minor directional adjustments in order to continue your progress. It's simple and fairly undemanding, but ultimately satisfying and fluid and gives a great feeling of player empowerment. You will use the Y button at various points which will cause Elika to come and help you perform a double jump in order to get to hard to reach platforms, and also if you miss a jump or touch any corruption then Elika will save you from your fate and place you back on the last safe platform you were on.
Once you have cleansed the corrupted areas by reaching the fertile ground then the level opens up and the game takes on a different shape. The area becomes filled with colour and will become populated with collectible light seeds. These seeds are used to unlock special powers which allow access to new levels and are essential to your progress. To get them you simply plot a path to get to them and then use your platforming abilities to reach them. This for me is where Prince of Persia really shines due to the more slow paced, cerebral nature of the game in these sections. Even when I had more than enough light seeds to continue I found myself compelled to keep on collecting them as it was just so therapeutic and enjoyable.
The other primary element of the gameplay is the combat. This, for me, is without doubt the weakest element of the game. The prince's movement is slow and you're only able to shuffle back and forth which can be highly frustrating, especially when compared to the old Prince of Persia games. Also fights are too reliant on quick time events which take away from the stronger combo elements, which should have been expanded and utilised more. The combat also lacks any real tension as the punishment for being saved by Elika (dying, essentially) in this case is not severe enough with only the smallest amount of energy being returned to the enemy. For me the opponent's energy bar should be completely refilled when you lose as this would cause you to act more carefully in battle. It all looks very impressive but is definitely the weak link in an otherwise great game.
So in summary Prince of Persia is a fantastic game that deserves to be played by anyone who likes there games injected with a with a sense of wonder. There are undoubtedly flaws - the combat is poor, the game is a little easy and it just manages to avoid being repetitive due to the fact that it's not very long, but these sour points are far outweighed by the positives on show. The superb platforming, beautiful graphics, well-rounded characters and without doubt one of the most memorable endings in video game history all add up to make Prince of Persia one of the best videogames released in the last 12 months.