Prince of Persia Review: No One Here Gets Out Dead
By Matt Peckham
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.
At first the not-dying seems like a gift to more casual players, and it is — but then you start mistiming jumps and grip-slipping off golden rungs, and you realize the live-forever shtick hasn’t altered the need to still play skillfully. Getting around isn’t any easier, there’s just more space to cover and less to inhibit you exploring it. Ascending from the bottom of a pit to the highest spire in the land while gathering precariously situated light seeds to unlock new lands or fill optional bonus quotas takes serious time, because the game’s simply quintupled its tour-able area.
Superbly executed animations help to sustain the notion that you’re the world’s most gymnastic dude. The prince stabilizes his wall runs by scratching rocks with a sparking metal glove, the same glove that impedes slides down surfaces like some hep form of gravitational surfing. He can roof-run, scrabbling along the undersides of surfaces and grabbing rings to add inertia to his lunges, and you’ll eventually rail-slide, ring-leap, ledge-surf, and ceiling-skitter, as tendrils of corruption curl out like lethal tongues to dislodge you. Vermillion petals flutter from vine-scribbled walls buttressing baroquely exotic architecture, lending environments an Arabian fairy-tale pastiche, and instead of clipping past Elika while perching on narrow beams, the Prince cross-links arms with her and pirouettes in place. It’s dazzling to watch, a seamless synthesis of kinetic grace and fantasy beauty.
Solving puzzles in an area depends on stringing moves together that have an organic grammar, allowing you to develop more sophisticated acrobatic sentences. There’s an elegantly mechanistic quality to the way the prince moves, accompanied by a satisfying clockworks sound, as the prince skids and skates from grab point to grab point like a piston sliding into place. Entire sequences can be played by tapping a single button, lending the gameplay a subtle rhythmic vibe that’s no less exacting than positional angling. Even the boss fights iterate intuitively, building on what you’ve learned on the go. There’s one against a shambling pile of cerulean-colored rock that takes a while to puzzle out, then offers a solution that gratifyingly trounces the three-hit dispatch cliche.
If you’re ever disoriented, a button-tap induces Elika to mutter something appropriately exotic and discharge a twirling, sparking beacon that dances ahead to light the way like a bouncing karaoke ball. It matches the game’s 360 degrees of possibility perfectly, and you’ll never feel prohibitively astray here.
You’ll eventually experience moments where knowing you can’t die seems faint and irrelevant. Like standing tiptoes on a high ladder reaching up into the shadowed corners of a vaulted ceiling dozens of feet from the ground to whack a wasp’s nest, or even brush a paint line at the angle between a wall and ceiling. Moments where your face is so near the upper limits of a structure that it’s like facing inches toward a floor…and that much more stomach-churning because you’re all-to-aware by how staggeringly much you’re not.
There’s a price for all this fluidity, and it manifests as a nominal delay between a button press and each move’s on-screen execution. That leads to occasional misfires as you overcompensate, especially when perched on poles, where you’ll hit the jump button to fire off at the proper vector, but the game’s queued up an additional rotation, so you’ll swivel an extra turn and plunge into empty space. You’re also treated to a few on-rails throwback Space Harrier-style flying sequences, where concentric circles of light hamper your peripheral vision and add gimmicky difficulty to a spasmodic exercise in jerking the camera around and twitching evasively to reactively avoid obstacles thrown up in your passage. Flying in a platformer hasn’t been done properly since Mario’s cape antics in Super Mario World, and it’s at best a tediously superfluous tack-on here.
But like DICE’s remarkable Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia is at its best when you’re simply exploring its astonishing expanses — pausing, considering, testing, and when you’re perched at some towering, insanely askew angle with the world spread out below, resting to digest the heart-stopping panoramic. Ubisoft Montreal had the intrepidness to lose a fundamental design crutch here, and the aptitude to triumphantly craft an experience in which — to quote Christopher Eccleston in “The Empty Child” — everybody lives.