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Ubisoft Montreal takes Prince of Persia back to the drawing board...
It's been a swift three years since the last Prince signed off with the release of Two Thrones on the previous generation of consoles. Considering the lapse between Jordan Mechner's 1989 original and 2003's Sands of Time, Ubisoft evidently believes it's enough time to deliver another fashionable reboot as the new Prince marks his debut on the current generation of consoles.
To mark the occasion this is a very different Prince from the Sands of Time trilogy. Light, easy and armed with plenty of annoying one-liners, the Brandon Fraser wannabe quickly bumps into Elika as she attempts to escape from her captors, whilst trying to seal the dangers that Ahriman the God of darkness poses after being unleashed by her father.
Shying away from the traditional cut-scene, details on the two main characters are deliberately kept slim to begin with and the option to delve further into the developing relationship between Prince and the Princess is left entirely up to the player, triggering dialogue and cut-scenes with the use of the left shoulder button as and when you desire. Although we're not entirely convinced by the swashbuckling tones of the new Prince, he's undoubtedly more endearing than the dark prince that manifested in the Sands of Time trilogy. Equally it also sets up an ironic dynamic where it's the princess coming to the prince's rescue more often than not, but we're getting slightly ahead of ourselves.
The idea of having two characters is at least suggestive of a change in design from Ubisoft Montreal. Likely drawing ideas from the unquestionably brilliant pairing of protagonist and accompanist in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the Prince and Elika's pairing may not touch upon the genius achieved in Team Ico's masterpieces but it does set up an interesting dynamic as you unravel details about both characters. If even more proof was needed of the influence, than you only need to look at the themes of isolation that intersperse Prince of Persia in a similar manner to the previously mentioned Team Ico classics.
The pairing also allows Ubisoft Montreal to step away from the Sands of Time mechanic, whereby a mistimed jump could be amended by rewinding time. Whenever the Prince misses a jump or loses a fight, Elika comes to his rescue, defying all laws of gravity and plucking the Prince from his impending doom. Whilst we can understand Ubisoft Montreal's decision to ease the frustrations and improve the flow of the game, we can't help but feel that they've got the balance entirely wrong. Because there's no such thing as death, Prince of Persia lacks any sense of challenge or reward and left us pining for the limited use of the sands of time. Even worse it promotes a slapdash approach to the game, whereby the lack of any suitable penalty for the lack of skill means you're never too bothered about making a jump or winning the bout - it's a thoroughly flat and pedestrian affair for the most part.
In terms of gameplay, Prince of Persia follows a similar approach to the Sands of Time trilogy, although we're a little disappointed that the platforming action fails to really develop beyond what came before. When Sands of Time first appeared it revolutionised the third-person genre with an agile protagonist that defied the rigid movements favoured by other action/adventure protagonists of the time. 2008's Prince of Persia reboot fails to offer anything nearly as noteworthy, relying on the same format of death-defying leaps, wall-runs, and pillar grabs, whilst arguably making the process a lot more straightforward and far less taxing than the environmental puzzles of before.
Wisely Ubisoft Montreal has focussed on the combat with the new Prince of Persia, and in an attempt to distance itself from the routine button-bashing that characterised previous titles, has managed to come up with something quite profound. Although conflicts are kept few and far between, the nature of combat between the two protagonists is one that promotes a slow, rhythmic, exchange of combos instead of how quickly you can mash the buttons. The Prince and Elika rain down on their opponents with an elegant array of attacks, all of which correspond to a satisfying pyramid of escalating intensity. It's almost a shame that the game promotes you to kill the Ahriman's creatures before they emerge from the depths of wherever they come from, ergo removing the most enjoyable element of the game.
The design of the game and the way in which you progress is initially a source of further frustration and bemusement. Employing a completely free-roam design, the game takes place in the vast fallen temple that was formerly governed by Elika's family. Beginning from a central hub the way in which you explore the four separate paths to chase after and defeat the four guardians is entirely up to you. Completing each stage allows the Prince and Elika to cleanse each stage of the corruption caused by Ahriman's presence. Once successfully completed orbs appear in each area which must be collected to unlock each of the four power-up's that facilitate further progress through the game. Unfortunately with the increasingly steep orb requirements needed for each successive power this challenge feels little more than padding, although the need to utilise Elika's four different powers to progress further at least sets up a rewarding sense of exploration. It's not the worst example we've seen, but the resulting feeling is that you have to suffer through this before you can get on with the actual game, particularly by the third and fourth power. Alternatively just make sure to collect those orbs as and when they appear instead of leaving it until you actually need them.