Prince of Persia 2008 – Final Review

Prince of Persia is abounding in charm, manifest both in the principal characters and the world proper. Regarding the former, there exists the enigmatic, unnamed Prince, who precariously teeters on the edge, vacillating between the irritating and the endearing. Given the compelling voice acting, in the end his endearing attributes prevail; an emotive, telling face, expressing scowls of anger and smiles of mirth, furthers his sense of likability, as does his unique character design, donning a dazzling blue and orange scarf, vibrant aesthetically, a gleaming scabbard resting at his waist, a bladed gauntlet protecting one hand. Beyond appearances proper, his personality is expressed in more direct ways, a certain profoundness and depth emerging; while abounding in the juvenile and the light-hearted superficially, internally he shows himself as complex. Embracing the comical is a defense mechanism, used to defray the fears accompanying a particularly harrowing experience or hostile opposition. And so it is here, the Prince making repeated remarks, all characterized by that juvenility, even as the world is disintegrating all around him, swiftly becoming embroiled in a war of great import, the fate of the world in question. Whenever probed by the secondary character, Elika, he deflects her questions in a guarded manner, relying upon a barrier of humor to avoid elaborating directly upon his past, showing a subtle sensitivity in his hesitancy. Elika, that mentioned companion, is also well-designed, and profound even on the surface; instantly likable, she undergoes a considerable character arc as the narrative progresses, alternately despising the Prince for his whimsicality, then embracing his carefree nature as the plot nears its conclusion.    

Regarding the overall narrative, its greatest strength is the bantering between these two primary protagonists; their exchanges are engaging and human, playful tonally where appropriate, terribly bleak and grim as the situation dictates; light and dark are balanced, imparting in the game a unique tone, far from distressing but conveying the immense importance of the work of both Elika and the Prince. She is philosophical and introspective – he is kind-hearted yet defensive, their relationship thusly becoming a symbiotic one, even on the basic level of gameplay. Elika needs the Prince’s brute strength and acrobatic agility to achieve resolution, while he becomes increasingly dependent upon her magical capabilities, becoming a literal savior, preserving the Prince, preventing harm or death. Even if they clash intellectually, they are forced into this unity if hostility is to be overcome. The amount of dialogue existing between them is immense, though an interesting design decision is here present; at any instant, the Prince can engage Elika in conversation, discussing matters trivial, or matters of great import. Their conversations help to develop the world, revealing also the internals of their character. And then there is the oddness of design – while well-scripted and well-voiced, the vast majority of their discourse is completely skippable, the Prince not required to engage with Elika in any significant manner; exposition can be kept to a minimum if that is the desire. But considering the compelling nature attached to them, this avoiding of exposition seems illogical. Still, certain of the audience are disinterested in narrative, more intrigued and engaged solely by gameplay. Given this fact, the choice of player freedom evident here is understandable.

Beyond these charming characters, there is present also charming world design. Split across four areas – with one location, the Temple, situated firmly in the center – each world is decidedly different from the last, even as they are linked thematically and atmospherically. Great technical prowess allows the creativity to thrive; draw distances are massive, distant mountains and other structures crowding all around the player, while crisp lighting draws out vividness of color – mountainous areas are a striking shade of orangish-brown, while grasses and dales are lush, fantastically green in coloration. Similarly, the azure skies are dotted with shining stars, a large crescent moon present overhead in many areas; simply, it is arresting, and the environmental diversity conveys a sense of largeness to the world. One area, the Vale, is all green verdancy, beautiful foliage dotting the landscape, while massive balloons loom overhead. In stark contrast to this greenery, an abundance of fantastical architecture is also explored, found when navigating the City proper, or in ascending some sprawling tower, beautiful minarets visible in the distance. The imaginative wonderfully overtakes all, reality totally departed with. 

This whimsical nature contributes to the game’s charm and uniqueness, and this beauty actively drives player action; before these vistas are viewable, before the moon shines high in the sky, everything is darkness, the color palette solely comprised of grays and very muted blues, while black oozes and tentacles dangerously decorate many surfaces. In certain areas, pits of lava mark the only break from this oppressive dearth of color, bubbling orange boiling below. From a narrative perspective, on the fundamental level the objective is to liberate these lands, to replace lava with pools of serene waters – that beauty must be fought for and won; Elika and the Prince must act. This first act of cleansing is a remarkable moment, Elika positioning herself in a central location, the Fertile Grounds, where she taps into her growing stock of magical energy, a ring of light emanating from her person, dispelling the blues and grays for the arresting, colorful, and fantastical. This cleansing process is repeated countless times throughout the narrative, and its compelling, empowering nature is never lost, despite that blatant repetition. The world seems constantly evolving, the pair directly affecting their surroundings, propelling that constant sense of change and progression; without their efforts and endeavors, lava should persist always, greyness should remain dominant, black oozes should bloom in size and danger. Exploring the world, then, is a marvelous experience, each individual location arresting in a distinct manner, each demanding player agency. The tranquility, the change after cleansing, is observable and rewarding even on a smaller level, as birds return, permitted to sing their sweet songs, while frogs croak loudly and distant waters lap on the shoreline – everything is peace, the wonderful majesty of the world – its history – made evident through the actions of two dogged individuals.   

Actually exploring these environments is paradoxically rewarding and straightforward. The Prince exists as a very lithe figure, able to scale walls and other structures with ease. A wall-run is present, which can be extended by rings deliberately fashioned into the walls; dashing and leaping from wall to wall, a pit gaping below, is a consistently exhilarating experience. Those same rings also permit further ascension, allowing the Prince to gain rapidly elevation. The animation quality is impeccable, a real sense of speed accompanying the Prince’s movements. Elika, meanwhile, actively features in exploration, extending the Prince’s jump distance, made intuitive by clever design, the screen briefly flashing white, indicating when precisely Elika’s assistance is needed. Despite this apparent complexity, on a fundamental level the locomotion is lacking in depth, cinematic though requiring relatively little player input – motion is not skill-based, and the brief instances which posed considerable challenge were thus appreciated, breaking up the pace by slowing it down some, encouraging a more cautious, cerebral approach; these engagements, though, are rare, and furthering the game’s immense accessibility, the game shows itself as excessively forgiving, Elika exerting her powers to preserve the Prince’s life, clutching at his hand, pulling him upwards and away from devastation and death. This lack of challenge actually manifests itself in a more positive way, though – the game adopts a relaxing tone, this most evident after cleansing a Fertile Ground. In the act of cleansing, light seeds are produced, dispersing themselves throughout the renewed area. These orbs are central to Elika’s growth, permitting the acquisition of new magical abilities, purchaseable at the Temple; once a certain predetermined threshold has been met, a voyage to that central location is required, permitting exploration of further lands. The relaxing component shows itself when actively hunting for these orbs. Roughly 45 or so light seeds are scattered in each area – the act of their scavenging is a tranquil, engaging experience, even as a scant few are carefully hidden, tucked away from easy sight; most can be acquired merely by moving forward in a linear fashion. A sort of mindlessness here emerges, considering the dearth of player input, but the epic, sweeping music contributes to the catharsis. Quantitatively, relatively few of these orbs are needed for progression; managing to collect all of the orbs is an indirect challenge, rewarding a pair of skins for Elika and the Prince, a rather trivial reward, though deliberately seeking out the more elusive light seeds is its own reward.  

A secondary strength is the game’s world building. Going off of Elika’s discourse, her kingdom has supposedly existed for many centuries, directly caught in a feud between the god of darkness, Ahriman, and the god of light, Ormazd, long engaged in a perpetual struggle. At the beginning of the narrative, Ahriman, dormant, restrained, and suppressed by the light, is reawakened, Elika’s father deliberately unleashing this monstrous beast to revive a deceased Elika, object of greatest affection. It marks a firm foundation for the narrative, gives a sense of purpose from the first – resuppress Ahriman, reclaim the light. Beyond the collection of the light seeds, a second obstacle is related to Ahriman’s lieutenants, each with a distinct backstory – the Alchemist desires immortality, the Hunter desirous solely of hunting man, the most dangerous game; they are given subtle depth and motives, and Elika’s elaboration upon their plight in life makes certain of them seem like sympathetic characters, possessive of human flaws and ambitions. In terms of character design, they are all creatively crafted, not unlike the environments explored. The mentioned Hunter has a bladed contraption fashioned onto one arm, while his body is concealed by a heavy cloak. The Warrior is a hulking monstrosity, so large and powerful that he cannot be defeated in traditional ways. Present also is a Concubine and illusionist, deliberately preying upon the Prince’s desires, while a maniacal scientist, the Alchemist, finishes the ranks of opposition. Compelling to the last, their presence furthers the world-building in significant ways, conveying Ahriman’s great reach and seductive powers. Beyond these villains, though, Elika communicates much about her own past, showing a transparency and vulnerability absent within the Prince; she discusses her childhood, her experiences in the manifold towers and palace courtyards; it is a very human inclusion.  

Exploration, narrative, and world building all greatly excel. And yet, the developers sought to insert another component to the gameplay – the combat. While never failing out right, it never manages to achieve any real resonance or lasting enjoyment. The controls are intuitive, great flexibility on offer; the Prince can wield his gauntlet, launching opposition upwards, while acrobatic maneuvers are also employable. Mainly, though, the sword will be relied upon, complemented by Elika’s magical prowess, also wieldable. Stringing together massive combos can be quite satisfying, the damage output escalating accordingly. In this manner, once the controls have been grasped, combat becomes a relatively easy, uninspired affair, graceful and cinematic like the platforming, though failing to evoke any sense of awe or wonderment, even with dazzling animation. When great cleverness is employed, these engagements can be over in mere seconds, the Prince sending some rushing foe sprawling off a precarious edge, or violently plunging his blade through their internals. While basic, combat still alters the pace of the game, which is appreciated.

Serving a similar function in varying pace, dispersed sparsely throughout the campaign are a series of puzzles. Fairly elaborate in scope yet logical in design, they mark a great departure from the bombastic combat and exploration. Seeing the manipulation of various levers, cranked in a certain fashion so as to make accessible certain power plates, beacons for Elika, or even the redirecting of a liquid, nothing here is exactly novel in construction, though still the sequences excel, precisely because of their relative scarcity; that lacking of abundance makes their eventual appearance quite exciting – they somehow seem organic rather than forced, and were thus always appreciated. But connecting back to combat, an excessive number of engagements are fought between the Prince and the four lieutenants – here is a marked dearth of diversity, each of these bosses combatted a full six time before total victory is achieved, while little variance from engagement to engagement is present, the first encounter not dissimilar from the last, save for a few minute, subtle changes. The overreliance upon these enemy types makes their appearance less impactful; if their frequency of emergence were reined in, appearing only to menace the Prince and Elika rather than engaging them outright, tension would be present, the final confrontation becoming triumphant and exhilarating. But these enemies have a very visible, direct presence from the first, and in another flaw they all require roughly the same tactics to defeat, save for the mentioned Warrior, a towering construction who must be bested with environmental manipulation. These engagements understandably pose a far greater challenge than that possessed by the Ahriman’s soldiers, but that increase in difficulty does not instantly equate to an increase in enjoyment.   

Regarding length, the title is on the shorter side, though this is to its benefit – a certain succinctness and singularity of idea present, which heightens the strength of the narrative, imparts focus. Designed uniquely, the game affords some liberty – it is highly linear on the micro level, while rather free on the macro level. This slight openness prevents the tedious or repetitive from setting in – rather than playing one area totally completion, inevitable variety will emerge, keeping the game refreshing. In terms of gameplay, great division is present, one aspect evoking great, consistent joy, a second evoking a disappointed groan. That first emotion is attributable to the platforming, while that groan stems directly from the combat – flexible, cinematic, and unique, it still remains basic to the last, while these engagements are tarnished further by the frequent recycling of enemy designs. Platforming, bolstered by magnificent animation quality, ultimately stands out as the defining feature of the title, though the bantering and camaraderie existing between the Prince and Elika is heartfelt and believable, the ending action and decision reflecting the extent of their mutual growth – individually and as a pair. Highly bleak, this conclusion was bold and daring, the narrative ending on an intriguing climax, inspiring philosophical musings about the nature of love and responsibility, an unexpected emergence when considering the gaiety of tone which permeates throughout much of the narrative. A sole major complaint is related to the automated nature of the gameplay, with very little player interaction, a dearth of challenge naturally accompanying this lack of input. It is divisive, greatly holding the player’s hand, while simultaneously destroying any possible frustration. It is a brief, relaxing experience, populated by a pair of compelling characters, engaged in a terrible struggle, which prompts a journey inwards and outwards, posing difficult questions – this ponderous nature elevates the game into something totally unique and poignant, building upon a firm foundation of various gameplay systems and world design.

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