This week Zero Punctuation reviews Ubisoft's latest addition to the Prince of Persia series.
The Prince of Persia series, as it stands, can best be equated to a man who owns a goose that once, when the conditions were exactly right and after being fed a particular kind of food, laid a golden egg. He then spent the next few years experimenting with the goose's bedding and vitamin intake, hoping to recreate the ideal conditions, and after nothing more than a couple of bronze and silver eggs plopped out, he went the scientific route of chopping it into fritters looking for the secret. And after that didn't work, he hastily stitched it back together, dressed it up in glittery fabric, and attached some googly eyes. And that's the new Prince of Persia: an appealingly gaudy appearance that fails to disguise the fact that the old bird is dead inside.
First let me say that the best part of Prince of Persia games - the triple-headed gameplay of runny, jumpy, climby - is still intact. Hosts of linear parkour paths spread across an open-world playground like the Saturday night vomit piles on the pavement outside a noodle shop. And navigating them with a smoothly rattled off sequence of acrobatics feels as rewarding as ever, compounded by the gorgeous panoramic views the Assassin's Creed engine so efficiently assaults us with - it's like having your temples gently massaged by a swarthy concubine while her twin sister stands some distance away doing aerobic stretches in a leotard three sizes too small. The new moves incorporating the prince's Freddy Krueger glove for the most part work well, but they often lack the grace and speed of his somersaulting predecessor's movements, especially when grinding slowly down a wall like an obnoxious pussycat descending the living room curtains.
But as much as I love the Sands of Time trilogy, I understand when a series has to end (ideally, it should have been around the time Warrior Within began development, but oh well) and have nothing against starting a whole new story, as long as it's sufficiently epic and fantastical and features breasts as some point.
Our new hero is a mysterious stranger who wanders out of the desert to find himself embroiled in the troubles of some mystical lady with no shoes, the enigma of his identity undermined somewhat by it being given away in the fucking title. He dresses like he just ran at full speed through a circus clown's washing line, and he looks like he draws on his abdominal muscles with a felt-tip pen.
But it seems mean to complain about that when I'd rather complain about how the two leads both talk like smart-arse American twentysomethings exchanging clichéd witticisms over frappachinos in some toothless, New York based sitcom that goes out at one in the afternoon. I know publishers have this idea that American audiences can't relate to anything but other Americans, but as weird as these words sound coming out of my mouth, perhaps we could at least try giving them credit. I imagined all the prince's lines being delivered in a thick Indian accent, and it became much more appealing (although it did feel like the game was taking place in a 7-11).
Honestly, though, his cheerfully carefree attitude and occasionally funny line eventually caused me to warm to him, although that could just be because he was standing next to his sidekick, Elika, a character alongside whom even a dead goose with googly eyes would seem charismatic and appealing. The writer couldn't decide precisely which generic female character personality to give her, so she flits schizophrenically between fragile flower, sardonic tease, and humourless austerity. Her role in cutscenes is mainly to reiterate plot points you grasped ages ago and to almost faint every time she exerts herself so the Prince gets to feel her up. In gameplay, she's just there to save you from death drops and occasionally do a trick at your command, so her role could easily have been filled by a magical labrador in a low-cut top.
Her other job is to help out in combat, which is a thankless task, because the combat is beyond help. Once again, Prince of Persia continues the proud tradition of taking one step forward, then two steps back. Actually, in this case, more like one step to the side and one step back into a ditch full of used surgical equipment. Gone is the old Prince's acrobatic fighting style that merged seamlessly with the parkour moves, in which you could run up a wall, somersault behind a pursuer, and thinly slice his buttocks before he knows what the fuck. Now you just get to shuffle back and forth waving your sword like you were taught how to fight by an air traffic controller, occasionally weathering button-mashing quick-time events that call upon you to channel the spirit of Woody Woodpecker.
If you manage to block an attack (and you probably will, because the game helpfully slows down and highlights the block button to cater to the "clueless dipshit" demographic), then the enemy will just wail on you over and over, not giving you any chance to counterattack, until you might as well have just let them hit you and take your chances with the quick-time event. The other option is to fling Elika at them, but she's really snooty about how close you have to be before she'll attack, the lazy bitch.
Combat basically consists of the same sticky, frustrating fight repeated about eight hundred times and in that respect goes quite well with the level progression. Despite a few little changes in scenery, the levels are all cut from the same carpet: jump around a place that's covered in black slime - like a busload of smokers just rolled through coughing on everything - fling the local bad guy off a cliff, then plonk Elika on a magic floor and finger the Y button until she explosively cums grass seeds. It works fine on its own, but when you have to go through the exact same process over and over again, my nipples explode in a desperate attempt to add variety (although, on reflection, it might have been for some other reason). Letting the player choose what order to do the levels in sounds good on paper, but it means that they all have to be very similar or the difficulty curve gets fucked up. To utterly misquote Benjamin Franklin, "he who trades pacing for gimmicky open-world freedom deserves neither."
Frankly, though, the core platforming and lovely scenery do a lot to make up for the flaws. Almost suspiciously so. Every time I feel myself getting worked up about the characters or the combat, a nice, relaxing parkour sequence mellows me out. Those cunning Ubisoft twat-rackets.
So I guess Prince of Persia gets an extremely tentative recommendation. I've heard people complain that it's too easy, which seems odd to me, because I died more times than the Nameless One in a smoothie maker. Sure, you recover instantly, but in this kind of game it works. Instant death recovery didn't work in Prey because it defanged any possible threats. But a freerunning game has to be all about the flow, which, as Mirror's Edge demonstrated, can't survive constant, unavoidable bucket kicking. Prince of Persia is definitely worth a look, at least, but don't look too hard or you'll see the stitches.
Dead to the world: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I also like how the game let me choose for myself who much exposition I wanted to hear from my lady friend (none)
And at least a labrador will make out with you if you train it properly