Prince of Persia Review: No One Here Gets Out Dead

Living's hard, but dying's harder in Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia. Or should we call it "Prince of Persia Begins"? Either way, death is no longer in vogue. Fable II recently gave it the boot, and now Prince of Persia gives it a pair of hands. Jump off anything, anywhere, at any time in this acrobatic action platformer and two sets of five exquisitely manicured fingers will pluck you from the air and blink you back to safety. Fall to the blows of an enemy or oozing tendrils of muck and those hands meet to pray you back to life. You're like Michael Myers with better hair, because you keep coming back, and suicide's not only painless, it's occasionally even a strategy. To spin the Robert Zemeckis flick: Life becomes you.

By losing the oldest fail state in the book (and adding a companion named Elika who follows — and saves — you anywhere) Prince of Persia gains something extraordinary: real and uncompromising freedom. Freedom for its designer to craft vast, contiguous, visually peerless worlds without compensating for concerns about difficulty by compartmentalizing challenges and restricting each area's breadth. Freedom for players to test acrobatic hypotheses with impunity, to explore an area's dizziest nooks and craziest crannies without fear of being whisked away to a distant checkpoint per every slip or mistimed tumble.

Most games punish failure by reseating you at an arbitrary save point. Lose all your lives in Pac-Man on level 255 (the second to last) and pow, you're back to level one. Take a head shot in the Call of Duty series and it's lights out, last checkpoint express. Botch Tetris on level 18 and your only option is to start again from the plodding, stuttering beginning.

Toss your cookies off a wall slide or fumble a double jump in Prince of Persia? You're simply flown a couple dozen feet back to the last platform you stood on. No loading, no hitching, and all of a second or two reorienting yourself before trying again. Challenges are still trotted out one at a time, they're just broken into thousands of permutations instead of the usual level-locked obstacle-course dozen.

Sound gimmicky? It's not. In fact it's precisely the opposite. Liberated from the granddaddy of fail states, Ubisoft Montreal's series reboot works miracles. Instead of restricting where you can go or what you can do, you're encouraged to try anything once. Or thrice. Or indefinitely, if you're determined enough and the vertiginous spot you're after holds sufficient allure. You can fail here, but failure is fleeting, and while you can go anywhere, the going rewards tactical forethought and dexterous tenacity.

As you test acrobatic hypotheses, you'll slip and tumble, over-leap and under-guess, and the prince will nonchalantly declaim "that was close." Except it never will be, which sounds almost like a desultory get out of jail free card when it's actually just the game's way of quashing pointless repetition. Unshackled by convention, Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia can thus finally go where no prince has gone before.

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