Friday, November 14, 2008
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince
Prince of Persia is my most beloved franchise from last gen. The three prior Ubisoft games were true milestones of game design featuring grand storytelling, inspired art and engine design, and a great musical score (Yes, even the emo-inspried sequel to the original Sand's of Time continued the tradition). As the player, you deftly guided the nimble Prince past a series of twisting puzzles and dark foes trying desperately to save his homeland from the darkness affecting his world. And lets not forget the principle gameplay mechanic of the series, the actual Sands of Time - a system designed to reverse ill platforming and combat decisions to give players a second chance, a do-over to set poor choices right.
As amazing as those games were times have changed. It was only a matter of time before Ubisoft revived the Prince franchise for this console generation. Of course, few expected a complete series reboot, but it's happened. Thankfully, this new Prince is still quite nimble. He just isn't surrounded by the same old sand. Those powers are gone, replaced by this game's biggest addition - Elika, your adventure/ platforming/ combat partner in crime.
Elika's chief goal is to help the Prince. Think of her as sort of like Yorda, that silent girl from the Ico series, minus the tedious babysitting. The Prince can't advance without here. She's playable, in a sense - her attack moves are mapped to your controller, but that doesn't stop her from competently keeping up with the vaulting prowess of the Prince - in fact, she helps him double jump. Elika's focused attacks weaken enemies, putting the Prince in a prime attack position to defeat powerful creatures. As much as Elika's design makes her more of an assist character, she also shares an agenda with the Prince - her main purpose is to harness spirit orbs that unlock her powers to rejuvenate the corrupted land.
The inclusion of an assist character in the new Prince of Persia game represents a major shift in the series' design. The focus seems to be on making the game accessible and remove the punitive measures commonly associated with the adventure/ platforming genre. It affects this game in slightly unusual ways; there aren't many ways to die in this adventure. Miss a jump, and Elika extends a hand, saving you from a terrible demise (and putting you back on the platform you jumped from). Elika will also come to your rescue in combat, saving you from a potentially lethal blow.
As much as this makes her the opposite of a damsel in distress, the results left an uneasy feeling for me.
As impressive as this design goal might be - less frustrating platforming, seamless in-game checkpoints whenever you misstep -, but how will removing death for the player affect the final game? See, taking away penalties is fine to an extent, but the unfortunate side affect is that it makes this game feel way too easy. Yes, dying/ losing in games is an artificial consequence, but it's still a consequence or more importantly, an outcome. The penalty forces players to learn what killed them, or what not to do. It contributes to a game and adds a certain amount of risk. Miss that jump, die, and go back to the beginning. As boring as loading screens can be, this formula is something that we're used to, and removing it (while helpful) is quite jarring.
It can also be argued that using the Sands of Time removed any sort of punitive consequence, but I'd argue that while it did in some respect, the mechanic is slightly different because you controlled that system directly. If a certain amount of time passed, you'd be unable to rewind time and die. If you ran out of sand - the fuel that makes time manipulation possible -, you'd die. Maybe my whole remove-death and-game-is-easy-mode argument is invalid, but it's still worth considering.
The new Prince of Persia game really has the potential to be many things. It's again a visual graphic benchmark and the platforming mechanics are quite solid; sporting fluid animation and some great new tricks. If it can mimic the strong presentation of the last trilogy, then Ubisoft has another chart-whopping hit on their hands. But it'll be interesting to see what the fans think of the new game. After all, what happens when a game takes away the ability to lose?