100% pure platforming

When I was first introduced to the original Prince of Persia, the game was already old. I thought it looked keen, but I couldn’t manage to not fall on spikes. I got sick of it and never played another PoP game again, until Saturday. All the reviews I read gushed and gushed about the new game. While my wife looked around Victoria’s Secret, Sands of Time became a fifty dollar impulse purchase.

The game looks fantastic. The characters, settings, camera movements, menus, and FMV all look right together, much more than almost any other game I’ve seen. I don’t know how to describe it, but the pieces all just fit together and produce a product that is really whole. There is no “menu” and no “game” and no “movie.” It’s all one. (Except for one awkward transition from live-polygon to pre-rendered cut scene near the end, which I forgive.)

During gameplay, there is very little in the way of heads-up display. When needed, a few gauges appear at the top of the screen; for the most part, though, there’s nothing on the screen but the Prince and his surroundings. It’s all rendered in amazing detail, and it has a look reminiscent of Ico. In fact, this game reminds me of Ico all over: in a castle high above the clouds, you lead a girl through perils; while you can climb and swing and jump, she’s not so acrobatic. The character’s motion has the same fluid realism, and the scenery has the same strange surrealism. Once or twice I found myself looking for a sofa.

The big difference is that I felt really compelled to keep going in Prince of Persia, while I haven’t gotten around to finishing Ico in the year since I bought it. I think it’s because the story is more… well, because it has a clear story. Also, the Prince’s acrobatics are just way cooler to watch than the Kid With Horn’s walking around. When I saw the wall-running in a TV ad, I thought it looked sort of neat. When I made the Prince run along a wall, I thought it was pretty cool. When I ran along a wall, sprang from the wall to a pole, swung from the pole to a rope and then to a ledge–that’s when it really, really sank in. The platforming elements are all here, save for (thankfully) the double-jump. They all work together seamlessly, and the controls all feel /right/ in my hands. When it feel like pressing X should do something specific, it does. When I fail to perform a complicated string of jumps and runs, I know it is my fault, and not the controller’s.

As in Ico, the long strings of puzzles and obstacles are broken up by combat, much of which centers around protecting the girl. I’m really divided on the PoP combat system. On one hand, it is extremely elegant. I feel like I have a lot of control over what I’m doing, but the screen isn’t going crazy trying to show me who I’m targetting and who else is where in the battlefield. The controls remain very intuitive. The actual moves available are great, too; I’m all for any game in which I can very simply make myself look totally bad-assed. Running up a wall, vaulting over opponants, and stabbing them in the back? /Too cool./ The problems come in two flavors, both incredibly annoying.

The first is the camera. In normal play, the camera is great. It can be set to a few different modes, and each has its uses. In combat, the camera has one set mode, which does a lot of good stuff. It switches to dramatic angles for dramatic moves, it swings around to make sure you can see your targets, and it lets you nudge it around manually. The problem is that it absolutely loves to put itself on the other side of a wall. When engaged in a one-against-four swordfight, fighting blind is not a welcome handicap. Sure, it can be nudged out of the way, but that’s a real distraction when I’m trying to use my thumbs to, you know, fight.

The other problem with PoP’s combat is the time-altering powers. Now, don’t get me wrong: the Sands of Time stuff is absolutely awesome. In case you’re living in a cave, here’s a brief explanation: the Prince can rewind time a few seconds, as long as he has some magic sand in his magic dagger. If you miss a jump and plummet to your doom, you rewind time and fly back up onto the ledge. If you accidentally ran over a spike trap, you rewind time and get back on the safe side of the hall. If you let a guard stab you in the gut, you rewind time and remember to block. It’s that final use that becomes a problem. It’s totally sweet to be able to use the sands’ powers in combat, and it adds a whole new element to the basic swordfighting. The problem is that sometimes the game just didn’t seem to understand my commands; in fact, just as much as the controls usually felt /just right/, the time commands in combat sometimes felt /just wrong/. I’d hold the rewind button and it would rewind for a half second and then release, even with my finger on the trigger. This rewind would preclude any further rewinding, so I’d be screwed. Sometimes I’d rewind just right, but then the Prince would be out of my control when I released, and I’d need to rewind more, using up precious sand, just to get around the bug. Also, I’m told there’s a “mega-freeze” power that I can use to freeze everyone around me and go on an ass-kicking spree. I never got it to work once. After making it through a dozen enemies, dying because of a bug or camera foible is not relaxing. I’m surprised no controllers died during my run through the game.

All that said, I think everything else in Prince of Persia might just be /perfect/. It’s really made me want to go back and play Ico, but I know that I’ll end up disappointed. The Kid With Horns isn’t the Prince, and I’ll miss wall-running and pole-swinging. I suppose that a game as simple as Prince of Persia–and it is, really, a simple game–can’t go on forever, but ten hours wasn’t enough.

The only deep criticism I can offer stems from the game’s shortness. I don’t think it’s a problem that it’s short, but I think it was short partially to hide a bigger problem: it’s easy. It’s pretty hard to miss any of the jumps or swings once you identify them, and even identifying them isn’t very hard. It’s fun simply because it’s amazing to /watch/ the Prince do his thing, and more amazing to know that he’s doing it /because you’re telling him to./ If the game had gone on longer, I think it would’ve begun to become a bore: “Oh, look, another huge atrium to climb by vaulting and wall-jumping. Yawn!”

This game will have a sequel. The alternative is unthinkable. In that sequel, I’m not too concerned about the camera; it was workable. I’m not even /that/ concerned about the controls, which were sometimes frustrating but usually great. What I am concerned about is the introduction of more difficulty to the platforming. The platforming is pure, now make it difficult. Make some things move. Require more timing. Make the path to victory less clear–offer more red herrings.

In the meantime, PoP was totally awesome, even for just ten hours of play. I just wish I could get the original game unlocked.

Written on November 24, 2003
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