a review of Prince Of Persia
a videogame developed by ubisoft montreal
and published by ubisoft
for Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by action button dot net
Legend has it that the super-producer hive-mind at Ubisoft Montreal first got the idea for this new, shiny, rebooted Prince of Persia game for Xbox 360 and/or PlayStation 3 during one of their daily tea parties, during which all members of the game development team stand in a circle in a gymnasium simultaneously reading a particular selection of literature aloud. The book that day was Leo “Frankie” Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and the inspiring quote was the very last line: “Death is finished; there will be no more of death.”
Nope! We just made that up! Really had you going for a minute there, didn’t we?
Now that the fun part is out of the way, it’s time to talk business: the new Prince of Persia is the death of death. On top of this, it’s a decent action-adventure-themed interactive computer program with delicious art design and a couple of quite frankly ridiculous shortcomings. Despite its somehow doing nearly everything wrong, we got to the end of Prince of Persia in three tea-sipping sittings, miraculously hating ourselves less than when we started (the measurement is scientific: we got a computer programmer whiz to modify our blood-sugar-measuring finger-pricker), so it clearly must be one of the best games of 2008.
We’re not throwing those words around lightly: Prince of Persia is a case of a million thoughts counting, and since we’re literally standing on the precipice of turning thirty god damned years old in a few months, we feel qualified (and a little sanctimoniously vindicated) to say that, as an “adult” in the eyes of the law, thoughts counting is more than enough to qualify something as great stuff. Like, when we were a kid, if our mom would have bought us thirty pairs of tube socks and thirty pairs of boxers for Christmas, we would have taken it as a slap in the face. We wanted Secret of Mana! Now, we can buy Secret of Mana on the Virtual Console for like eight dollars in the middle of the night; when our girlfriend brings over a large bag of brand-new tube socks and boxers she found on the side of the road, we’re like, dude, that means no laundry for a month. Prince of Persia is that kind of gesture. If it had sold more copies than it probably sold (again: checking Wikipedia is for the weak), like, if the entire internet had been screaming about its greatness and Kotaku had been lit aflame with news stories about Prince of Persia passing the million mark, the two million mark, the three million mark, and the three million and one mark (that’s a Kotaku Joke), then the thought would either count more, or less, depending on your perspective. Like, if the game had set the entire world on fire, there’s a higher probability that the entire production staff at Ubisoft, being that they all no doubt wear suits even on the toilet, would have attributed the game’s success to everything it did wrong rather than everything it did right. Like, the New York Times would report that five million kids the world over simultaneously shit their pants on Christmas morning after pressing the Start Button on Prince of Persia, and the suits would go, “It must have been because the bosses had life meters! Fire every motherfucker who had nothing to do with the boss’s life meters!”
What’s even more hilarious than the stinging joke in the preceding sentence is the look on your face when you think we’re joking. We’re not! The corporate assholes in charge of video-game “production” really are that stupid, and it’s increasingly less and less funny with every passing day.
Anyway, Prince of Persia is, more than just a videogame, the result of a large group of (figuratively) very fat people spending several metric tons of money-brick. Someone — some man with a name — had grand visions for a game that would sit somewhere between “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Mummy Returns” in terms of entertainment value, with art direction to rival actual surrealist paintings. The Game Design Document must have been alight with parenthetical declarations of love for Every Great Game of the past decade. We know this because one of the producer guys was confident enough in his admiration of games past, present, and future to talk up his team’s game’s inspirations at length in an interview on some website or another (again, openly refusing to Google search for precise details is the new fact-checking): the new Prince of Persia would have an artistic conscience on par with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with puzzles on par with Zelda and a fighting engine to rival Soul Calibur. His list of inspirations curiously seemed to lack Prince of Persia, though maybe that was a given.
The game that ensued is pretty decent. You play the part of a wise-cracking guy who is actually not a Prince in a fictional land that is probably not Persia. A dark and murderous shadow has fallen over the land. Your mission, should you choose to keep the game console turned on, is to trudge back and forth between a hub world and many depressing, dark, soulless, unpopulated outlying lands, in which you will run, jump, wall-jump, climb, hang, swing, and shimmy your way to a vaguely defined landmark, at which point you will fight a boss who looks a lot like the boss you fought fifteen minutes ago. One of those X-ray machines at the security checkpoint in the airport would take about ten minutes, even at the hands of a skilled technician, to tell you what’s different design-wise about any two bosses in this game. Beat the boss, and you then get to “play” a “mini-game” in which you hammer the triangle button at as slow or fast a pace as you wish in the name of a girl “restoring” the life to the “pure land”. Maybe they’re not called “pure land”; maybe it’s something else. It’s been a while since we finished the game and threw it away (technically, we loaned it to a certain friend, which is pretty much the same thing as throwing it away, because if it ever comes back it will no doubt be wet with coffee grinds and smell like old milk).
You might notice that, in the last relevant sentence, we mention a girl. Yes, this game has a girl. A girl follows you everywhere you go. If you fall off a ledge, she saves you with her psychic telekinetic magic ability. A lot of people who don’t realize they can use their noses to inhale took a staunch offensive position to this last detail. They cried, in unison, “A game without death is like Chee-tohs without orange fingers”. Fuck those people! They wouldn’t know their assholes from a hole in the wall, and worse, they wouldn’t know a hole in the wall from a hole in the ground.
This is no joke: it is weird that we “die” in videogames. It is very weird. It’s not right. It works in “Looney Tunes”. It works for Wile E. Coyote getting an Acme anvil dumped on his head and dropping his knife and fork. Similarly, it works in Burnout, though for entirely different reasons. Wile E. Coyote, like a car careening off a highway and into a rock wall in Burnout, requires only enough emotional investment on the part of the experiencer to laugh at him when he meets a grisly fate. Characters in games — if said games are going to be taken seriously as “entertainment” — are more precious than cartoon coyotes. We need to want the character not to die, and the game needs to convincingly tell us we messed up without, you know, actually showing the character get ripped limb-from-limb or cut in half by a buzz-saw. Maybe Prince of Persia doesn’t do a 100% perfect good job of communicating with us — the “you got rescued” animation starts to get old maybe ten “deaths” in. Still, the thought counts for something huge.
How could we perfect this thing in the future? Taking a cue from Braid: Maybe we could explain that the girl has the power to turn back time; that way, every time you die, the in-game camera pulls back to show the girl raising her hand; time freezes, and then pulls into reverse. Maybe that’d work nicely — this way we could see the Prince, say, be impaled by spikes for an instant, satisfying the blood-thirsty jerks in the audience, even. Really, though, we’re already satisfied by the way it is in this game — just give the princess a couple more emasculating things to say, or make the Prince a little funnier when he thanks her, or whatever, and you can deepen the “emotional connection” between the player and the game.
We honestly can’t sympathize with the people who don’t like the “no death” mechanic in Prince of Persia. They are not intelligent people. They really are just bloodthirsty jerks. This is the only explanation that exists, because the “no death” mechanic in this game is effectively the same thing as death in any FPS. When you “die”, the game warps you back to a moment before the beginning of the last challenge. Particularly long jumping segments actually succeed in feeling taxing despite the hero’s inability to “die”. There’s at least as much pressure on the player to “perform” as there is in a game like, say, Gears of War 2. What we need to be analyzing here, however, is what it actually means to “perform” in Prince of Persia.
In short, “performance” in Prince of Persia is not as involved as it would be in a game like Gears of War 2. This is neither good nor bad, neither here nor there. It is what it is. We played through the first three play cycles (find dungeon –> enter dungeon –> get to landmark (run, jump, climb, swing, shimmy) –> fight boss (slash, stab) –> seek out “light seeds” in the purified land (free running, jumping, climbing, swinging, shimmying) –> head back to hub, seek next dungeon (or cash in “light seeds” to buy new ability)) and were capable of forming a rock-solid opinion of the game as a whole (“There it is”); that opinion did not change even with further play.
The key to understanding the game design on display in Prince of Persia lies in a brief analysis of the segments of play that occur after you kill a boss. Up until the boss fight, you’d been trudging through a dark, depressing, decadent ruin with ghostly black shit all over the walls. Purify the place, and it’s like God fired the art designer and hired a new one: the place is now shiny, blue-skied, lush, with calmer ambient background music. “Light seeds” — the game’s sole Meaningless Collectible Item — then appear all over. If you’re willing to invest a little time before moving on to the next corrupted wasteland, you can retrace your steps — or trace new steps around previously unreachable parts of the level — by running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and shimmying through the environment at your own pace. Despite the now-peaceful atmosphere, you can still fall to your pseudo-death — 90% of the in-game dangers are, indeed, still elevation-related — meaning that the element of “risk” and “reward” still (loosely) wraps the whole experience. Sometimes falling feels more like a case of the level designers not wanting you to go a certain way than a case of you not being skilled enough on the button-pressing, which is a little frustrating, though when you step back and realize what this says about the game design, it’s easy to forgive. Well, maybe “forgive” is too strong a word.
You see, Prince of Persia isn’t actually an action game. It isn’t even a platform game. It’s an adventure / role-playing game. Whoa! Did we just blow your minds? Hopefully, or this next paragraph is going to be pretty boring!
Take a moment to consider that Prince of Persia has more in common with point-and-click adventures than with Halo. The game’s plot is seldom more than a vehicle for illuminating the finer aspects of a developing relationship between two characters in the context of a tenuously pointed quest. The short-term goals suit the long-term goal. Every time you slip and almost die, the girl (character #2) is going to say something emasculating to the boy (character #1), further “developing” their “relationship”. Even repetitive “death”, in this game, is “part of the story”. The primary elegance on display in Prince of Persia‘s game design is visible when you “purify” a region and are free to climb around collecting light seeds: rather than block-pushing, torch-lighting, mustache-constructing “puzzles” a la Zelda or Gabriel Knight, the only challenge is “How do I get up there?”
“How do I get up there?” is much more elegant a question to make the player ask, aloud, in his boxers, at three in the morning on Sunday, than “What the hell am I supposed to do?” “Who the hell am I supposed to talk to?” “When am I going to be able to open this door?” “Where the hell am I supposed to go?” or “Why the Christ do I have to go there?”
“How” is the best question for game design to impose on a player. The player should know the What, the When, the Where, the Who, and the Why at all times. Prince of Persia keeps the player abreast of its every development at all times. Thanks to the convenient device of the Light Seeds — lovely, white, pulsating MacGuffin Bubbles — we know the “What”, and are tenuously aware of the “Why” and the “Who”, leaving only half of the “How”. (The half of the “How” that we already know is “By jumping, climbing, swinging, etc”; the half we don’t know involves Where and Why to jump, climb, or swing on.)
All this would be absolutely fantastic if the nature of the running and jumping and climbing was a little bit more reined-in. As-is, Prince of Persia plays like a bigass Quick-Time Event with some analog stick support. When swinging on an inexplicable brass ring fixed to a ceiling, all you need to do is press The Action Button to activate the swinging sequence, and the Prince does the rest himself. The game was probably constructed this way as the result of a well-researched conclusion that “the general public” represents a larger population sample than “hardcore gamers”. Ultimately, though, we’d like to remind the Game Development Community that many members of the “general public” played Super Mario Bros. and even Super Mario 64 prior to becoming “hardcore gamers”, and those games were packed to the chimney-tops with little feather-like delicate nuances. What we mean to say is that maybe giving us a little bit more control over the game would lead to a deeper, more rewarding experience. Remember the way you felt when your friend told you you could jump on top of the castle in Super Mario 64 without getting all 120 stars, and you called him a liar, put a gun to his head, and said you’d pull the trigger if he didn’t PROVE IT within the next five minutes? Remember the mixture of awe and disappointment when he actually proved you could get to the top of the castle? Let’s see some of that, multiplied against maybe 100. That would make for some HELL OF Xbox achievements (alternate equal opportunity word pairing: PlayStation Trophies) for the kids to scour.
What Prince of Persia does, eventually, is present us with a Super Mario 64 where you never go inside the castle. This is hardly a bad thing, because, at its best, the game doesn’t not let you enter the castle so much as it freezes you eternally in that mindset where running and jumping outside the castle was so much more fun than, say, staring at a wall that it was all you could conceive yourself ever needing to do for the rest of your life. If only there were more nuance, more “emotional pull” to either the environments or the controls, we’d be onto something huge. If the controls were just a bit closer to Super Mario 64, we could ideally have a game as good and as raw as the super-hard “special” stages in Super Mario Sunshine. That’d be pretty hot! And if the stages themselves had a bit more personality — you know, if they were actual locations with recognizable landmarks instead of shattered-by-evil ruins consisting of ledges and chains and pits of undulating black ink seemingly arranged by a genocidal computer program with no sense of humor (then again, those seem to be popular) — then we’d be onto something else. It’s a tiny bit puzzling that the makers of this game went so far to established a visual language of Hooks and Brass Rings and color-coordinated ledges that correspond to button presses, only to attach them to obtuse, opaque, bizarre conglomerations of incomprehensible concrete. Were they afraid that if the Structure Being Climbed at any given moment Actually Looked Like Something then the Casual Gamers in the audience would be so busy admiring the scenery that they’d forget what button they were supposed to press when confronted with a big round ring thing?
There’s a chance — it occurs to us just now — that this game was a proof of concept for boring things like its developers’ “asset pipeline” — in other words, that they were just trying to make a game that had a few of their big ideas of it, with the emphasis being placed majorly on crafting a product that didn’t look or feel too amazingly different from what the players expected of it. The problem is that players — sometimes called “critics” or “reviewers” — are generally not very intelligent, and most often confuse symptoms for the disease. Remember the incident where IGN.com posted a video review of Grand Theft Auto IV in which the player character beats a prostitute to death. Many conservatives squealed on cue; Rockstar’s official stance was that clubbing hookers — or anyone, really — is Something You Can Do in the game, though it is never something the game precisely tells you to do. Players often confuse Things You Can Do in a game with “Features” of said game. Imagine many gamers’ surprise when Prince of Persia arrived, called itself a “sandbox” adventure, and then presented a stubby little list of “Things You Can Do”.
There’s a chance that Prince of Persia just wanted to put the most minimalist suggestion possible on the table. At its best, it is a minimalist Grand Theft Auto; it is a Cubist’s Zelda. It is a Japanese RPG where you don’t fight any random battles, where the movement of the player character — the friction of his feet and the ground — is the constant conflict. It’s a Mostly Nonviolent Game, where evil is seldom more than a suggestion or an explanation for the wallpaper; the very idea of this intrigues us to no end. The open-ended lazy jaunts through the “purified” areas recall hours spent jumping up and out of the water needlessly in stage one of Ecco the Dolphin, or dueling the castle guards in the village in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The crew at Ubi has managed to make a full-length electronic entertainment experience out of the boyish games-within-games we played when we were weaker. However, in order to truly make this work, the game world needs to offer us a couple more rocks to nudge, at least one more NPC to jump on top of from a considerable height, and at least one building that looks like, say, a clock tower, or something.
At present, all the game has to keep us absorbed is a personable main character, a mysterious-enough female lead, and a couple of minutes’ worth of “interesting” dialogue. For example, when Prince and Princess fall down a Sloping Piece of Concrete and land at the feet of an Obviously Evil Towering Humanoid Being, the Prince quips: “I think we just found another way to get killed.” Chances are good that the writers didn’t know Jack White’s theme song for the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” was going to be titled “Another Way to Die” at the time they wrote this line, so we can say without (too much) hesitation that it’s “kind of clever”. More “clever” than “not clever at all”, at least.
Once you’ve penetrated the game a fair deal, there isn’t too much to keep you involved if, say, you’ve ever played something like Landstalker (while we’re on the subject of adventure-RPGs with stiff platforming challenges starring a wise-cracking wanderer and his female companion). It’s very rinse-repeat-y stuff, ultimately. It’s samey. And the fighting sucks.
The producer dude said Soul Calibur was an inspiration, and the Kotaku commenters had a field day: “Keep Soul Calibur out of Prince of Persia!” they cried. We say, why not put Soul Calibur into Prince of Persia? Soul Calibur‘s fighting engine is more than good enough to enslave a dozen frat boys per hour in the Great United States of America; you could do far worse. We’ve said before that the combat in a game should, if nothing else, always work on a 1:1 level, so why the hell not try to fashion your single-player action-adventure game’s combat after a fighting game? We’ve also said, in numerous places, that a game’s combat system should be structured so that the main player character’s move set should conceivably be just deep enough that the mere act of thinking about what it would be like to face a human opponent in control of a carbon-copy of the main character should be at the very least more fun than actually playing Tekken. Prince of Persia doesn’t pass this test. The combat is ropey. If Soul Calibur is a sketch pad, Prince of Persia is a coloring book. We like the way the girl saves you when you are about to die, thought we kind of wish every fight was thought through and designed from the ground up so that it would not be intensely frustrating if the boss’s “health” regenerated every time you “died”. As-is, the battles are all set on this little tenuously floating platforms, and any conflict can be completed by pushing the enemy off to his death; most bosses rely on ultra-stripped-down 3D Zelda-like gimmicks — in one battle, your opponent is invincible, so you need to parry him back into a cage and then flip a switch to trap him. Either of these things feel like doing something, though the everpresence of screen-spanning eyesore life meters points a big fat finger at the possibility that the game designers might not have known what they were doing. If the only way to kill the boss is to push him into a cage, if your attacks do no damage, why do we need to see a life meter? To use the RPG analogue, this is Prince of Persia‘s equivalent of striking the Invincible Boss with a physical attack and seeing a “0” pop up as the damage number. (A “0”, not a “1” — a “1” implies we are doing something wrong, for we do not know his total HP; a “0” implies were are doing nothing at all.) However, consider this: Prince of Persia is not that kind of RPG. By making the act of moving through the dungeon deep enough, it has nearly eliminated the need for random battles as punctuation for tedium. In doing this, it only opens up a parking space for “interesting, meaningful battles”. If the Prince’s most common cause of near-death is “falling”, given that every stage is set amidst teetering rocky platforms and precarious ledges, why not run with the “ring out” concept? Why not make it so that the only way to beat any enemy is to push him off the ledge? Give the Prince a specific knock-back attack; make it so slow that the player knows he can only succeed with it if the enemy gives him an opening. Make said “opening” characteristic and visible — maybe the enemy falls to his knees, panting. Seriously, if you’re doing away with Death, do away with Life Meters, too. Movies don’t have life meters, for God’s sake.
Furthermore, it may or may not be the game designers’ responsibility to, at this point, think of a reason why we are fighting these enemies. They’re not agile. They don’t seem capable of jumping. We jump onto their little platform and they jump out of the ink-hole and attack us, and we have to fight them if we want to go on. Why can’t we just keep going, and leave them on their little platform all alone? “Purification” eliminates all of the “Corruption” in an area, and we don’t get any “experience points” from killing the enemies, nor do we get any money, because there’s no shop in Prince of Persia, much less a town to house a shop.
There’s just the temple, where we cash in our “Light Seeds” to buy abilities. Abilities are always activated by pressing the Triangle button (Y button on Xbox 360) at a special Ability Seal on the walls of the stages. The abilities are, scientifically speaking, lame as fuck. Every “ability” in the game is nearly impossible to explain in words without causing a Rabbi somewhere to have a boredom-related heart attack. They’re all just fancy ways to jump, with the girl emanating green or blue or red light and chanting fake Farsi while twirling in an imperceptibly different type of corkscrew. It’s quite insultingly obvious that the “abilities” are just keys to open locks. We can imagine it written on the whiteboard: “No keys! No locks! Keys and locks are trite!” A Castlevania game gives you the ability to double jump just seconds before it presents you with a wall that cannot be passed with a normal jump. Then it lets you use the double jump over and over again, to your heart’s content, even (especially) when not necessary. You will never single jump again. Prince of Persia must think it “gets” something about Castlevania that Castlevania doesn’t get, and maybe it does, because you can only use these lock-key abilities when they are needed. Though ultimately, if the goal of the game is to purify all of the “corrupted” lands and then return to the temple in the hub — if we are going to have to come back to the hub — what the hell does it matter what order we purify the lands in? In short, it’s blatantly obvious that the game designers wanted to incorporate “abilities” because they wanted the player to need to revisit the temple in the Hub World in between jaunts in the Danger Zone for the dumbfounding reason that forcing the player to revisit the hub makes the game feel more “complex” or “sophisticated”. We’re not arguing with this — it really does make the game feel more sophisticated. It’s just so transparent and phony. Did you guys play The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? For all the shit we give Zelda games around here, that one had a pretty brilliant concept of revisiting. Prince of Persia‘s is limp as hell.
Maybe, if there was a story we really cared about, and there were people in the hub who told us what we should be doing, and if the things we should be doing involved buildings or structures of discernible shapes or purposes, or maybe if the “hub” was a “town” that had an “item shop” which was the only place we could buy things like “arrows” for our “bow”, the game would work seamlessly. In other words, the hub needs to be Always Necessary, or it needs to not be there at all. In its current state, the logistics of this game are screwy. This is a game where, when you pause it and a menu pops up, the headline above the menu literally says the words “PAUSE MENU”. This is a game where, the first time you open the map, a tutorial window pops up; the title line of the first window says “TUTORIAL”, and the text of the first window is “Welcome To The Map Tutorial”. Maybe this just means that the guys who wrote the tutorial windows weren’t the guys who drafted the game design.
We’re being hard on this game because we realize it would have been one of our favorite games of all-time with just a bit more (ultimately very, very, very soul-crushingly tedious) work. It’s evident right now that just as much time was spent on the “production” aspect as was spent on the lavish art design. We read on Kotaku about how the PR guys and the production guys had a big pow-wow about how to get the game out to a wider audience, how they decided a reboot was in order, how they cooked up the Great Idea that the main character should be a hip wisecracker like the guy in that Uncharted game, because, we don’t know, some people kind of liked that guy. Then they went ahead and just hired the exact same voice actor. Like, these people are kind of dense, and we say this with objectivity. Hey, more work for Uncharted guy, so more power to him, though seriously. We’re pretty sure that with its gorgeous visuals — the art design alone qualifies Prince of Persia for the title of one of the best games of 2008 — would have sold the game as effectively as any PR up-puffing. It’s widely known that reviewers of games typically only ever mention things that the PR guys were cool enough to mention to them in between complimentary Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, whether said things be lies or half-truths or three-quarter-truths, or what — this is how every review on the internet ended up proclaiming that Street Fighter IV is a “fighting game that embraces casual gamers”, when, once you drop one piranha into the pool, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What we’re saying is that any game can get a good review if you have enough Milano cookies to influence the right guy to say the right thing. All it takes is one review to convince every other reviewer that they either think the same thing or they’re not right, and then you end up with a big enough Metacritic score to appease your publisher. What we’re saying is, really, you can put whatever you want into the damn game. We have played your game, Prince of Persia team, and we know exactly what you like, and we know exactly what you want to make. We’re not going to attempt to spell it out to you for fear of pedantry (hint for the readers: implement sequences where the player is being chased). We’re just going to say: go ahead and fuckin’ do it, man. You have Action Button Dot Net’s blessing — and that’s worth a lot more than we’re willing to reveal (winking smiley face). If you want to make a game that’s like Out of This World come home to find Halo sleeping on its bearskin rug, you can probably think of a lot sharper bullet points for the back of the box than “Earn New Abilities to Access New Areas”. Keep it raw and real, the way you, um, kept about seventy-five percent of this game raw and real. We know you’re capable of going on all the way. We hereby put you on academic probation, give your game two stars, and proclaim it one of the best games of 2008. Please don’t let us down with the sequel.
Maybe you should just hire Eric “Out of this World” Chahi as a designer or (at least) consultant for the sequel. You know, that’d be a great idea. Man, we should get paid for these ideas.
In closing: the final line of the “TIPS” section of the manual is “Have Fun!” That just about says everything, good and bad.
(perhaps tangentially) related games:
portal (game of the year 2007)
gears of war 2 (game of the year 2008, second place)
out of this world (the best game of all-time)
bioshock (an example of a game that needs to learn)
call of duty to the fourth power: modern warface (an example of a game that nearly gets everything)
Dissidia: Final Fantasy (another game in which the stages are invariably meaningless incomprehensible structures fragmented by an evil god)