Prince of Persia (2008) – “Thief of Persia”
The story of “Prince of Persia” would now seem to be as old as the medium itself. Born out of the brilliant mind of Jordan Mechner, the original masterpiece ended up serving as the proud pillar for a whole genre, probably even for an entire current of videogames. Since then, the “Prince of Persia” name has become associated with the best and worst the interactive craft can offer. When it was announced that an entirely new Prince would appear, instead of an attempt at fixing the broken “Sands of Time” formula, there was hope it could reinvent the genre as its notorious forebears did. Sadly, like its main character, the new “Prince of Persia” is not of royal descent, but a mere pauper.
In an attempt at recapturing the elegance of Mechner’s original masterpiece, while simultaneously framing it in the light of modern design philosophies, the new Prince’s gameplay presents itself as an exercise of eloquent simplicity. Flying above the abyss, running through walls, sword fighting with enemies – what was once a task of deft skill and trying patience (which matched the on-screen action) is now a matter of simple chaining of rhythmic actions. For each action to ensue, a button must be pressed as the associated visual cue demands it: see a cliff, jump button; see a flashing light, double jump button; a monster attacks with magic, counterattack with magic attack button, and so on. Level progress becomes a succession of automated movements, that without the need for much reflection or observation, lead the Prince from one point to the next. Because of that, complex, three dimensional scenarios are rendered into spatially twisted, yet linearly explorable corridors, and fights are molded into simple mini-games of action-reaction. The end experience is that of a slow stream of steps to which you must mindlessly oblige, in QTE style, as the prince shows off his flurry of incredibly animated acrobatic movements and attacks. And because the game does not let you die in any way (you simply restart from a very near checkpoint), your actions are seldom interrupted from that particular flow. In the rare instances that “Prince of Persia” presents challenge, it does it in the most disastrous of ways (like “Assassin’s Creed”), by introducing a pseudo-non linear game structure that forces you to traverse levels several times, and an obligatory fetch quest that mandates you to squander levels in search of hundreds of flashy orbs (hardly original).
The shun of challenge oriented gameplay, and the simplification of the gameplay dimension, don’t stand as ill-choices by themselves. However, having gameplay reduced to that of a series of mind numbing actions should invite to a greater, more dense aesthetic experience, that could fill in the void left by the extreme simplicity of the interactive counterpart; many games have shown ways on how this type of experience can be pulled off with extraordinary results (“flOw”, for instance). But for that to be achieved, the game must have a strong artistic identity, one that translates some sort of emotional experience that transcends gameplay – something which the new Prince unfortunately lacks. Dazzled by the daunting beauty of aesthetic masterpieces such as “ICO”, “Shadow of the Colossus” or “Ôkami“, the new “Prince of Persia” creates a world that borrows many of these games’ elements: the use of a white-laden princess as companion; the dreamy landscape; the healing of the land, bringing color and nature to darkness and corruption, etc. I have already discussed how these exercises of malformed inspiration can bring about poor results (the recent “Dead Space“, for example), and the Prince represents another bad example of this practice. Firstly, because it ends up creating a world, that despite gorgeous, bares no concrete relationship either with the series’ background (Persia), or with its many sources of inspiration – it’s just a mishmash of aesthetic details molded into soulless pretty images. Secondly, because the game’s authors did not translate any of the artistic potential of their sources into the game itself – most of the gameplay sections develop in dull-colored corridors and walls that do not show off the intrinsic graphical detail of the art design. There are some stunning vistas (which the screen-shots obviously focus on), but these aren’t contemplated by the player’s eye during a significant majority of the game.
The narrative, instead of adding some compensatory value to the game, further mars the experience. Not only are its characters simplistic and cartoon-y, as their dialogues are filled with cheesy jokes that seem straight out of some romantic comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey, as opposed to a mystic tale about Persia (the game is called “Prince of Persia”, is it not?). When the game does opt for drama it does so by completely ripping-off “Shadow of the Colossus”, and not in a good way. And because game progress is pseudo non-linear, there’s an absurd amount of filler that doesn’t go anywhere with the plot until the very end of the game. In fact, for all intents and purposes, there are only two plot points: beginning and end (someone clearly missed the writing class when they got to the “middle” part).
The narrative falling flat and the aesthetic being mostly derivative (even if filled with eye-candy), only invites more criticism to the subtle nature of the gameplay dimension. Because it does not serve as a background for some sort of emotional journey, the gameplay reduces the experience to an agonizing series of numbing actions, throughout numerous and repetitive levels, occasionally interrupted by a childish cutscene or a lush scenery for you to gaze upon. Though there is some commending to be done to the guys at Ubisoft, for at least trying to devise a new game based on a decade old franchise, the fact is that in the end, they produced a completely hollow and forgettable videogame. More so, one that bares the same name as one of the most important games ever designed… which should get people thinking that maybe a game named “Prince of Persia” should at least try to live up to the royal lineage of Mechner’s absolute masterpiece. But it doesn’t, and instead of a Prince we got a thief disguised in noble garments.