Refreshed Prince (of Persia)

Over the past three weeks I’ve been reliving some of my gaming history. I finally made time to replay the games in the Sands of Time console reboot of Prince of Persia – games which were among the first I played on my PS2, and games I thought were great. I wondered before I began playing just how they’d stack up to my memories.

(There are more than likely to be spoilers in here, so just be warned. I don’t know about spoiling games that’re now over a decade old, but you know. The internet.)

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Easy… easy…

The original Prince of Persia was one of the first games I remember having on my PC (at a time when what I really wanted was an Amiga) and it stood out because of how real it felt. There was a sense of weight, of physical presence to the little dude, and it was unforgiving and brutal: you fucked up and you were dead, usually impaled. I never finished it, as I recall: it was a timed affair and it ran on the idea of never stopping – antithetical to a cautious kid such as me, raised mostly on the “use x on y” experimentalism of adventure games. But everything about it was intriguing to me, and I loved it.

(You can give it a go yourself over here. Bet you won’t be able to play for only a couple of minutes. This article discusses the ensuring appeal of the original, too.)

When I finally bought a games console for myself in 2002/3, I picked up a PlayStation 2. Around that time I’d heard about a reboot of the game – but in 3D! – so I picked it up and spent many frustrating hours with it. It was the good kind of frustration though: along with the general avoid-traps, leap-crazily gameplay of the original, Ubisoft had added in some time manipulation mechanics.

(You know that when they give that voiceover guy a video game trailer to narrate that they mean business.)

Two sequels followed (of variable quality) and I played them too. And now I’ve played them again. I felt a bit of trepidation coming back to the games after so long, as I thought my enjoyment couldn’t be the same, could it? Let’s see.

(First, some technical stuff: these are not the best remasters in the world. They’ve tarted up the characters and some of the settings, but the cutscenes are all still original and are slightly akin to watching something on YouTube at 240p. So not great.)

Of the three in this remastered collection, the first game most clearly knows what it is. It’s appealing from the outset: douchey prince armed with a dagger he doesn’t understand unwittingly releases catastrophe in an Orientalist wonderland of spires.

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Ooh, fancy.

You’re paired up with Farah, a buddy-by-circumstance who points out your douchiness at every possible juncture, which results in a little bit of growth from our flop-haired royal protagonist. Together, you’re trying to unfuck the results of the Prince’s actions, and, in Farah’s case, get her magical silverware back. And how do you do this? Magic, parkour and whuppin’ monster arse.

(Oh, and some frustrating physics-based puzzling involving enormous machines. Of course.)

Curiously, I don’t want to spoil the story of this one too much, because of the three games it’s the one which still feels gleeful to play. The story is pretty simple, and the mechanics are too – you’re introduced to your powers in a very straightforward way that fits into the story rather than feeling liked tacked-on tutorial. The fluidity of movement and the sense of achievement from pulling off a multi-part manoeuver is extreme: I don’t know that I’ve felt happier with my avatar’s on-screen problem solving abilities than I have in Prince of Persia games.

Of course, this is leavened with frustration. You will die. You will die A LOT because sawblades tend to pop up fractionally earlier than you thought they would or, more than likely, because the wonkiness of the camera sees you leaping into death-filled space rather than the ledge that’s just there you fucking dickbag.

Still, the ending made me smile again, as it’s so predictable yet so perfect. It was a lot of fun, and this is bearing in mind I’ve played it three or four times before. A good result, I feel.

(Fun fact I learned today: the music for this was written by a member of The Tea Party. Makes sense, really.)

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is a bit of a different beast. Series creator Jordan Mechner wasn’t on board for the title, and it’s all a bit grim and dark and emo. The Prince is being pursued by a steroidal minotaur-alike, the Dahaka – a mash-up of a couple of Zoroastrian figures – which aims to fix the timeline by knocking off our favourite wall-running goth in astonishingly irritating timed-run sequences. All this takes place on the mysterious Island of Time where the Sands of Time were made, full of busted towers and incredibly stupid enemies.

The vibe is heavy-handed, the female characters woefully one-dimensional. Sure, Farah was hardly a deep character, but she at least had drive and some level of disdain for the guy attempting to be all ME HERO in her abode. In this one we’re left with goth chicks dressed a la Cher in her “Turn Back Time” days – seatbelts and boobs – and weirdly sexual when they’re having the absolute shit beaten out of them. Add the drop-D nu-metal soundtrack and you’ve a pretty big misreading of why the initial reboot was popular. It’s all dark and emo and get a fucking haircut, man, which is odd to experience so hard on the heels of the colour and light (for the most part) of the first game.

The architecture is still great in this one, though. In fact, it’s better. The Dark Souls series owes it a pretty big debt, I’d say, in terms of the whole enormous, rotting castles with fluttering standards of doom kind of feel.

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They really don’t like charity muggers, Prince.

It’s remarkable. Other areas are even better, fantasies of Piranesi’s Carceri or of gardens just gone to seed. There’s crumbling bridges and enormous vistas, but these are stymied by the game’s camera, jankier than that of the first game, which often refuses to let you see this wondrous locale. These places benefit from a game tweak specific to this entry – you can visit past or present versions of the same places. Blocks will be destroyed or restored, plants overgrown or kept in check, and paths available or unavailable by virtue of the time you visit.

In contrast to the amount of thought given the location, there’s not a lot given to other things. Enemies seem a lot more spammy, a lot stupider, and defeating them turns the game into a button-masher. The combat is different – you can use two weapons, there’s a lot more combos to explore and some of it feels very satisfying to execute – but there’s a lot of times where things don’t work, and where enemies flip around the screen looking for a suitable place to enact their next frame of animation. The sensing of walls is a bit weird here, too – the first example of something which continues to dog Assassin’s Creed – as you’ll often discover that instead of launching at an enemy with daggers of death, you’re shot into insta-kill space, or will just run up the wall repeatedly, like some kind of frustrated climber.

There’s also the introduction of larger enemies, requiring a series of timed QTEs to finish them, much as as appears in the God of War series. Ehhhhh.

It’s a shame the darker notes and Poor Me dialogue outweighed the story, as the ideas inside it are pretty good. There’s a period in the game where the Prince dons a special mask and becomes a sand monster, which adds a sort of urgency to the proceedings which is lacking elsewhere. The tale of the Prince attempting to cheat his fate (and how his changes affect other characters) is interesting, but the relentless darkness means the story is a secondary.

There’s two endings you can have – both of which lead into the next game – but the “Water Sword” ending features some shipbound CGI rooting that undid a lot of goodwill I had by the game’s end. Ugh. C’mon dudes.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones serves as a conclusion to this trilogy, and while there were parts of it which I really, really liked, I felt there were gameplay changes which seemed to add nothing but frustration or artificial length to playtime. Having escaped the Island of Time with his seatbelt-wearing lover, the Prince – no longer an emo kid – sails home to discover that Shit’s Fucked. The evil Vizier (the all-but-moustache-twirling baddie of the first game) never died at the Prince’s hand because of that whole dicking-with-the-timeline thing in the second game. So, he’s come along and enslaved your citizens, basically. And who’s gonna save them?

Well, you, I guess. Oh, and Farah, from the first game. Because she’s back and is now American, for some reason.

As ever, the architecture of the world is the star. We’re in Babylon, and the tower looms large pretty much wherever you are. It provides an obvious landmark as the quest to Kill That Bad Guy continues. This game is very, very close to Assassin’s Creed in feeling, especially given that a lot of the action takes place on rooftops. The architecture feels real, and some of the finicky puzzles of the previous game have been eliminated, though there’s plenty of annoyances to counteract this. There’s a lot more weight placed on doing the right thing at the right time, which gives the game a more unforgiving air than some of the predecessors. This is fine for the most part, though there’s a number of late-game leaps that require a pinpoint timing which doesn’t necessarily work.

The AC links continue with the introduction of the stealth kill – a way that uses QTEs to take down enemies, provided you get them right. If not, a lengthy battle ensues. This is useful, as there’s a lot of enemies floating about, and some of them seem overpowered in comparison to you. Carrying them out correctly feels just like an assassination in the AC universe, but requiring these finishers in boss battles often seems a bit cheap. The boss battles as a whole in this game are a bit annoying – they’re multistage and losing on a final stage means you have to complete the whole thing again, which is a failing in a game which otherwise provides save points every couple of steps.

Another frustration? Chariot racing. Just take my word for it when I say fuck the chariot racing in this game.

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I told you: I fucking hate chariots.

For me, a highlight of the game is the presence of an interior voice, the Dark Prince. It’s a character you occasionally become, too, who is only shrugged off by walking into conveniently placed bodies of water, generally located at the end of a level’s difficulties. He’s amusing in that he whinges at you if you pause in one place for too long, and transformation offers some great abilities which make previously impossible moves a doddle.

There’s a nice section at the end of the game where the Prince has to defeat the Dark Prince – all in a setting that looks suspiciously like what’d become the Animus for AC – who reminds him of his failings, and essentially mocks the series protagonist’s poor-me nature. It’s a transforming part of the game, where the Prince is finally forced to acknowledge his previous shittiness, and to become a new person. There’s a great sequence during this continued badgering where locations from the precious games turn up, as in a fever dream. And at the end, the story links, Ouroboros-like, to the first game. I suppose it speaks to the quality of the narrative that even after a terrible boss fight, this ending made me grin with enjoyment.

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It’s helpful to know that the Assassin’s Creed series was originally based in the development of the Prince of Persia series. (It’s not for nothing, I guess, that the final PS trophy in the last game is titled “Assassin”.) There’s a lot of great information in this article about how Patrice Désilets, creative director of the Sands of Time game, came to birth Assassin’s Creed from Prince ideas and experiences. But the hallmarks of the assassination-based series are all in these three games: the role of stealth kills, the importance of architecture (and realistic architecture, even if it’s occasionally fantastic) and even down to design ideas that’d be riffed on for future presentations of virtual reality as displayed in AC‘s Animus sections. It’s all there.

It’s no wonder I inhaled the Assassin’s Creed series, I suppose.

I was glad to revisit these games. They were delightful and frustrating, sometimes a collection of busywork or unfortunate design shortfalls. But their desire to tell a big story, fluidly, in an engaging way was the key driver, and allowed me to overlook badly placed checkpoints or overly finicky boss battles. The development in graphics haven’t been kind to the games – they’re chunky as hell in a lot of places, and the remasters suffer occasional glitching which enables a character’s ponytail to come out of their chest, Alien style – but the gameplay is pretty pure, and enjoyable as hell. If you’ve a PS3 or a PC, pick them up on the cheap. I guarantee you’ll be hooked as soon as you first figure out how to run along walls.

(For more, check out this video by Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw: it pretty accurately describes why the series works, and details its flaws. Maybe I should’ve put that up front, eh? Oh well.)

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