Normally, a shortage of player control is a debilitating flaw in an interactive medium, but when the experience is as drop-dead gorgeous and consistently exhilarating as Ubisoft’s revamp of the 20-year-old “Prince of Persia” franchise, it’s easy to overlook. One of the most visually stunning videogames ever made, it melds a hand-painted look with spare sound design and haunting music to create an aesthetically consistent work that’s meditative but rarely boring and should enjoy solid sales, particularly as buzz starts to build for Disney’s 2010 film.
The original “Prince of Persia” made its mark with devilishly difficult acrobatic leaps and swings of the sort players had never seen before. The industry’s growth over the past two decades has made it difficult to impress with mere summersaults and ledge grabs, while fewer players now have the patience to die over and over in hopes of pulling off those moves perfectly. Ubisoft’s Montreal studio has adapted by toning down the difficulty and focusing on the aesthetics, so that watching the titular prince and his new companion never fails to amaze.
“Prince of Persia” isn’t the first game to use a technique known as “cel shading” to achieve visuals akin to a watercolor painting. But none before have married the look with realistic and detailed designs, as well as top notch hi-def renderings, to create characters and settings that stand out so dramatically from the typical attempts at CGI realism. Practically perfect camera work helps players to appreciate the view as the prince swings around corners, leaps over ledges and soars through the air to reveal stunning vistas. Particularly breathtaking are a battle against a flame-engulfed monster who provides the only light in the room, as well as a final boss fight shot with an ultra-wide lens in black-and-white.
Game’s sound adds dramatically to the meditative feel, as virtual silence is punctuated only by the prince’s footsteps, grunts and the scraping of his metal glove when he slides down steep ledges. A minimalist score, appropriately amped up at only the most dramatic moments, is perfectly matched as well.
Rather than forcing players to execute every jump and wall-run perfectly, “Prince of Persia” merely requires them to start the prince going and then push buttons at the right time to keep him going until he finds the next landing spot. It’s not as immersive as it could be, but because the level design is rarely repetitive, players who aren’t looking for the most intense experience will still find the game engaging. Combat, which also relies more on timed button presses, is somewhat less satisfying since it’s more repetitive and disappointingly lacking in strategy.
“Prince of Persia” further shakes up the franchise’s formula by giving the prince a partner, a princess named Elika with magic powers whose land he’s trying to save from an evil god. Rather than letting the prince “die” in the traditional videogame sense, “Persia” uses Elika to save him, whether she’s pushing away an emmy who’s about to kill him or saving him from a tragic fall. It’s an innovative way to avoid distrurbing the narrative with the typical unexplained restarts, but also introduces some bizarre inconsistencies: If Elika can fly, why does the prince need to bother running and jumping at all? And if she’s so powerful, why does she even need him around in the first place?
Designers try to give the Prince and Elika something of a Hepburn and Tracy relationship, as romantic tension builds and the two trade quips. But their hacky, modern-sounding dialogue — particularly the prince’s awful jokes like, “If I get out of this, I’m changing my career!” — makes them come off more like Heidi and Spencer on MTV’s “The Hills.”
Even though it’s unearned by the generic storyline, the game ends on a surprisingly moving note, tying together the narrative, aesthetics and gameplay in an epilogue that gives the completed experience a new level of meaning.