Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Review Date: 4/22/10
The heartfelt story of a man and his donkey... Wait a minute, who is this guy? After the "Sands Of Time" trilogy, the "Prince Of Persia" series was retooled again with a new protagonist and much more forgiving and accessible gameplay. The main character isn't a prince at all - he's a thief and a rogue. In a cute nod to the original "Sands Of Time," our rogue ends up losing his gold-laden donkey named Farah in a sandstorm. He eventually runs into a beautiful young woman named Elika and makes the fatal mistake of following her, which gets him caught up in the middle of a celestial war between the gods of lightness and darkness. Ahriman, the god of darkness, is about to break out of his 1000 year imprisonment, and only Elika has the power to heal the land and keep Ahriman at bay. Our "prince" tags along for the ride and together he and Elika manage to bring light and life back to the world. He also falls in love with her, leading to a horribly downbeat ending. "What is one grain of sand in the desert?" A moral conundrum indeed. The rogue is faced with a terrible choice, but the player isn't allowed to make it, which leaves the final minutes of the game unsatisfying and difficult to play. However, if you want a happier and more open-ended conclusion, you can spend an extra $10 for a downloadable "epilogue" adventure that reunites the cast for another showdown.
After the trauma that "Sands Of Time" caused me, it took a lot for me to consider playing another game in the series. Fortunately, the reviews were highly favorable and the innovative "can't lose" mechanic sounded appealing. It's really nothing more than a standard checkpoint system, but psychologically it makes a profound difference. There's no health bar and Elika is always there to bail you out of trouble. If you fall off a cliff, Elika will grab you and place you back on solid ground. If you fail to fend off an enemy attack, Elika will heal you and allow you to keep fighting (at the expense of increasing the enemy's vitality as well). This basically makes it a game of endurance. You still have to perform feats of skill, but the punishment for failure isn't crippling. In most cases it just means that you'll have to fight an enemy longer than if you hadn't messed up. The difficulty has also been cranked way down from previous entries, and the controls are extremely forgiving. Only gross miscalculations in timing and positioning result in failure, which allows you to perform the rogue's impressive parkour skills with ease.
The gameplay is broken into two major components: healing the land, and collecting light seeds. In order to cleanse the land of corruption and decay, you have to travel to various locations in a ridiculously immense castle in search of fertile ground. (As a side note, they use the British pronunciation of "fertile," which sounds awkward and is a constant irritation throughout the entire game.) The fertile ground is guarded by the corrupted souls of Ahriman, which you must fight and defeat. After healing the fertile ground, the surrounding area blooms with light and life, similar to "Okami" (2006). This leads to the second gameplay component, which is a scavenger hunt for glowing orbs called "light seeds." Collecting light seeds allows you to unlock deeper areas of the castle, and gives you an excellent opportunity to explore the fantastic level design and figure out how to get to seemingly impossible to reach areas. I found the exploration, collecting, and puzzle solving to be lots of fun, which the sole exception of an unusually cruel and sadistic garden pool puzzle that can't be reset. It's like a Rubik's cube in that the longer you mess with it, the worse it gets, forcing you to backtrack to a previous saved game and consult a game guide. The combat doesn't fare so well, and while it's not particularly difficult, the controls are sluggish and confusing. It's never clear what's going on and how or when a certain strike can be performed. You also move at a snail's pace, which is extremely aggravating. Enough practice and experimentation can yield predictable results, but it's not satisfying.
The production values of the game are superb and the stirring music score is outstanding. The game looks beautiful, the art direction is splendid, and the various locations have a grandiose fantasy appeal to them. The level design is solid and very smart, giving you plenty of things to jump to, climb on, hang from, and run across. I only noticed one glitch with an environmental puzzle that I put in a no-win configuration, which magically corrected itself and allowed me to continue. Like "Sands Of Time," you have a female companion and romance develops through hardship. However, unlike Farah, Elika is actually helpful instead of being a hindrance. The character animations are delightful and some of the interactions are as tender and touching as the beloved "Ico" (2001). Unfortunately, both the rogue and princess have distasteful personalities, and their romance is of the popular "cocky arrogant asshole and uptight snobby bitch" flavor. In fact, you can see a lot of Han Solo and Princess Leia in their characterizations. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game is the incredible amount of voiceover work. The characters are EXTREMELY talkative if you choose them to be, which fleshes out the world as well as the characters' back stories and personalities. There's very little repetition of the generic character quips, and ten hours into the game I was still hearing new things coming from the rogue's mouth. While it's a seemingly minor detail, I must commend the dialog management system in the game for keeping everything fresh and entertaining. The voice acting is excellent, with veterans Nolan North as the rogue and Khari Wahlgreen as Elika. The writing, on the other hand, isn't so great, and the tone is more like bar room chit-chat than an epic fantasy adventure. However, as adolescent as the writing is, I will admit that they pull off some clever lines and nice deliveries (and I never got tired of Elika calling the rogue an idiot).
Overall, I enjoyed the game quite a bit. The difficulty level was challenging, but not infuriating, and I liked being able to play at a relaxed pace. The combat isn't particularly enjoyable, but there are only a handful of fights in the entire game. While the rogue is annoying, his surfer boy charm is eventually, but begrudgingly, endearing. It doesn't pack much in terms of emotional investment, and you never get the feeling of a deep connection between the characters. It may not be as deep or epic as other games in the genre, but it doesn't need to be. Think of it as a summer blockbuster movie - it's content with just being fun, attractive, and exciting.