Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thirty Seven - Prince of Persia (2008)

In a rare case of timing, I conquer game #37 almost exactly twelve hours after #36. Sure, my day off and PS3 binging has a lot to do with that, but let me have this one, okay? Prince of Persia. The 2008 one, that is.

I've always liked Prince of Persia. No joke - one of my very first video games, ever, was a demo of the 1989 original, which came on floppy disc with my family's first computer, a Macintosh LC II. I also ate up PoP: The Sands of Time for the PS2 (love it), but never got around to its two sequels. I admit, I saw the 2010 Jake Gyllenhaal movie adaptation of Sands of Time in theaters. I even liked it.

So, even if I'm not a fanboy and have only technically beaten one game in the entire series (two, now), I like me some Prince of Persia. A solid PoP title can guarantee you stunning visuals, breathtaking runs and jumps, and some swordplay (not necessarily *good* swordplay). Prince of Persia '08 delivers on those fronts, but is a far cry from the impact of the original or the magic of Sands of Time. So what went wrong?

In this case, it's the whole not being the sum of its parts. Let me give you some background: Prince of Persia is about a desert wanderer searching for his missing donkey (presumably in a fictional version of modern day Iran) who encounters a runaway princess. The princess somehow manages to embroil the wanderer (is he a prince? Is he even Persian? No idea) into a mighty struggle against the forces of Ahriman, an evil god (of Zoroastrianism, to be specific). You like parentheses? I sure do.

To contain Ahriman's influence, the Prince (I'll just call him that because it's easier) and Princess have to travel to areas called Fertile Ground, restoring health to the surrounding region and staving off Ahriman's minions. Reaching each Fertile Ground entails climbing, jumping, shimmying, solving puzzles, and using the princess's magic to fly around a bit through a chamber that is never straightforward. Each Fertile Ground is guarded by a boss, and between each pair of nearby Fertile Grounds is a miniboss.

Sounds like a reasonable formula, right? And here's weakness #1; all of the minibosses are identical, and you fight the same four bosses six times each. Yup. Sure, for some of the bosses the arena shakes up the nature of the fight or they learn a few new tricks between fights, but for the most part it's the same, and that's unforgivable. An apologist might say something like "but they did that in Devil May Cry and everyone loved that game! And this lets you give the boss characters more character development!" Devil May Cry had its bosses repeat only three times, made each subsequent fight dramatically more different than Prince of Persia does, and required you to change strategy for each boss fight, unlike Prince of Persia. Also, Devil May Cry is over a decade old now. Cut it some slack.

I was almost inclined to defend PoP's bosses with that defense mentioned earlier, but realized just how silly it really is. But why that inclination? They really do a fair job of developing the boss characters through dialog between the prince and princess (each boss gave his or her soul to Ahriman for a selfish reason). There is a LOT of (usually optional) one on one dialogue between the sarcastic prince and righteous princess; this does a lot to get us attached to both of those characters, as the writing is actually pretty good. The prince's character isn't terribly similar to what he was in the previous trilogy, but I liked him well enough.

Let's get negative again, with my big gripe #2: combat. First of all, it always takes place in a circular arena (very infrequently more complicated than that) and always one on one. That's a little lame, but worst of all is that it's a 4-button combat system that is nothing but stringing four attacks together with no variations in technique created by directional or shoulder buttons. Basically, it's a game of rock-paper-scissors to get in, and then a combo once you do. Combos themselves flow nicely, but it's extremely difficult to tell what does and what doesn't work and the best I could string was about 8 or 9 hits. I'll close with saying that it's overly simplistic and too reliant on quick-time events. Seriously, if your name is not God of War, take your QTEs somewhere else.

Combat's weak, but that's... also true of most games in the series. It was the noticeable weak point of Sands of Time, as well. The major highlight of PoP is the running and jumping so how is that? Well... pretty good, actually! The wall-running and pole-swinging is exactly what fans have come to expect from the series, and if it gets a little samey at times, well, it's kind of the point of the game.

The action has two major weaknesses (gripes #3 and #4 on the game, for those who have been keeping score), both of which are also reflected in the combat, detailed earlier. First, you do too much with too little. All of the platforming and action is performed with a five-button interface, which should be elegant but ends up being problematic. When your climb button and jump button are the same, sometimes you jump off a wall when you should have a climbed, and that's undesirable. Secondly, camera. This is a recurring problem in many an action game, but this time it can get seriously bad, reversing control direction at inopportune times and worse, making it extremely difficult to gauge distance on a leap. This isn't the worst control scheme or camera I've ever encountered, not by a long shot, but they definitely count as gripes. Especially since the L1 and R1 buttons go unused, because I'm sure they could have been implemented in some control- or camera-helpful way.

One more gripe (#5): magic. The game has you track down and learn four magic techniques that help you reach the more advanced areas of the game. Sounds good, right? Wrong. The four magic spells are just color-coded panels that make you fly from one area to the other. Sure, one makes you jump, one makes you spin, one makes you fly, and one makes you run up walls, but really they just do the same thing. And the worst part is that you have to collect widgets called Life Seeds in order to unlock all the powers, which means in the mid-game you'll need to rack up at least 540 of the buggers. This game gets demerits for both shoehorned, boring skills AND becoming a collection-fest that this series never has been, or wanted to be. Lame.

So what's wrong with this game? It has stunning visuals and environments - which I alluded to earlier, but I suppose didn't mention outright - entertaining platforming with occasionally wonky camera and controls, a lot of magical glowy shit to collect, and combat that's more disappointing than fun. Is that all? No. The biggest most prevalent issue that everyone has with this game is gripe #6: difficulty. Or lack thereof.

...I just mislead you a little bit. Parts of this game are difficult and might require multiple tries to get right. The final boss encounter, for instance. But the game never gives you a feeling of risk or urgency. If you fall to your death, the princess uses magic to save you and brings you back to the last point at which you were safely standing. If a boss "kills" you, the princess uses magic again and your only penalty is the enemy regaining some lost health. This game, with a less forgiving mechanism in place, would have a below-average challengeor at least a reasonable difficulty curve. But with the lack of punishment for failure makes it come accross as extremely easy. Really, your only penalty for dying ALL THE TIME is not getting the "die fewer than 100 times in the game" trophy.

So what's Prince of Persia? A beautiful game with a lot of flaws and mishaps that drag it down. It's not as good as the previous-generation Pee-oh-Pees, and at 10-12 hours, probably a decent rental and nothing more.

Games Beaten: 2011 Edition

1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
5. Flower
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II
31. Jade Empire
32. Cthulhu's Angels
33. DeathSpank: Orphans of Justice
34. Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
35. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
36. Trine
27. Prince of Persia '08


Next up is either going to be a random Steam game (maybe Secret of Monkey Island?) or a random PS3 game (maybe Darksiders?). Couldn't tell you.

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