Despite Prince of Persia's ancient setting, there's something very modern about the game design that could well be used as a template for many games to come. In Ubisoft's latest you can't die. Jump off a cliff, get stabbed by a dark demon or fall into a pool of dark corruption all you like, because you'll get saved and returned to safety. It might sound like a gimmick destined to make for an entirely forgettable, unrewarding experience, but it's not. Prince of Persia does away with one of the most fundamental game design rules and is all the better for it.
The Prince is a cocky guy, no doubt aware of his rippling muscles and rugged good looks, so when an attractive young lady appears in the middle of the desert it's no surprise that he takes an interest. Elika, clearly a girl from the rich side of town, appears to be running from her father, and she's important enough to have guards trying to stop her escape. All isn't quite as it seems, with Elika's father being the King and some kind of deal being made between himself and Ahriman, the evil dark lord. After a fight inside an ancient shrine, corruption (a kind of dark matter) is spread throughout the land, and the once beautiful kingdom is thrust into darkness.
Being the good guy he is, the Prince takes it upon himself to go with Elika on her quest to rid the world of this corruption, revitalising one area at a time. Inside each of these 20 zones is a patch of fertile ground on which a magical tree sits. Elika is able to use her own magical energy to restore life to the area, ridding the corruption and releasing 45 light seeds into the surrounding area. These are used to unlock new magical powers which are needed to reach certain parts of the game world.
This wouldn't be too tricky if it wasn't for the way the city has crumbled (with platforms often being held up by narrow pillars and broken away from each other) and the evil corrupted beings that now live there. The game world is essentially split into four, with each zone ruled by one of Ahriman's slaves - enemies so corrupted that they now possess an incredible amount of power - with your goal being to make it to each boss' 'lair' before dispatching them for good.
Although Prince of Persia is most definitely an action game, combat is only ever against single enemies. As you make your way through the open, albeit fairly linear landscape, attempting to find each of the fertile patches of land, you'll come across plenty of standard corrupted enemies. These are pretty easy to kill, with the Prince able to perform some rather spectacular combos in conjunction with Elika - you can even kill them before they've been spawned properly. Each of the four face buttons perform a different attack (sword, gauntlet, Elika and air), and these can be chained together in many different ways.
Finding an opening is more or less about timing a block (which results in a flash of white light) in order to then counter with a string of devastating blows. It's not quite as simple as it sounds though, with the state of an enemy determining what attack type you need to start off with. For example, when an enemy is completely transformed due to corruption you need to start an attack with Elika, with all other forms of attack proving completely useless. You can't die, of course, but if Elika needs to save you from the jaws of death (usually if you press the wrong button during one of the enemies' QTE attacks) your foe will regain some, if not all of its health.
Boss encounters, which crop up before you are able to cure each area, are far more impressive, often requiring you use the environment as well as your primary attack options. The final encounters are even better - they require more thought than just what attack type to use and take place across numerous locations. The beginning of one boss fight, which confuses you with a number of fake Elikas, stands out as a real highlight, and, while the solution is very simple, requires an understanding of game's core mechanic.
Fighting actually takes up a fairly small part of the game, with acrobatic exploration, platforming and puzzle solving being the core of the experience. You might think that the inability to die would lessen the thrill of leaping about high above the ground, but it doesn't. Instead it liberates you, making you feel free enough to do whatever you want, safe in the knowledge that Elika will grab you and return you to a sure-footed position if it doesn't work out. Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to make moving about as fun as possible, giving you the illusion of control and skill while often doing things for you.
You have three basic moves: jump, interact and use magic. Jumping is pretty self explanatory, allowing the prince to leap onto ledges, wall and ceiling run and flip off poles. Interacting is more or less limited to using large gold rings as holding points during long wall and ceiling runs, with a tap of the button being all it takes. Magic can only be used when you reach one of the many plates in each area, with god Ormazd giving Elika power to reach new areas. The Prince is also able to slide down walls using his gauntlet, allowing him to reach seemingly inaccessible areas. Your final tool during platforming is essentially a double jump with the aid of Elika. By tapping the Elika button while in mid air, she'll grab you and propel you forwards onto whatever platform had been just out of reach. This looks brilliant and simply never gets old.
At times during the platforming sections it feels like you're in a glorified Quick Time Event but without the pop-up button commands. The prince almost always positions himself so you can move from one platform/ledge/pole to another without doing anything but press jump, and things like wall and ceiling running effectively only need you to press a single button. Somehow this actually works, injecting pace into the platforming - a gameplay mechanic that is usually quite laboured and slow. It's hand holding in the extreme, especially when tied to the generous Elika checkpoint system, but it's great fun and never a chore. The Prince even moves across ledges while hanging from his hands at a faster pace than most game characters walk.
To make use of the superb platforming engine Ubisoft has developed there's a considerable amount of collecting to do in Prince of Persia. Each magic power requires a certain number of light seeds to unlock, with more and more needed as you progress. With 45 released after each area is cleansed (plus a bunch for each main boss defeated) and with our end total being bang on 650, you get an idea about the time you're going to need to spend leaping about trying to reach remote locations. Although compulsory to an extent (you don't need to collect all the light seeds), this never became a chore, with the enemy-free locations being a joy to navigate. It seems Ubisoft learnt a lot from the rather pointless flags you had to collect in last year's Assassin's Creed.
Breaking up the action and platforming are puzzles, usually built around the idea that the game world is in fact a working city with various cogs, levers and switches being part of the inner workings, not just objects placed there for the sake of the game. These also represent the only part of the game in which you could conceivably get stuck, as Elika doesn't give you anything more than a few slight hints. Considering she'll save your life repeatedly, point you in the right direction if you're lost and generally be on hand to offer info, this comes as quite a shock, but some careful thought should see you through.
If there's one area of the platforming that lets the side down it's two of the magic abilities you gain. Of the four, two of these essentially send the Prince and Elika along a set path, either to another magical plate or to a platform with very little interaction required on your part. The other two try to do something a bit different by being far more interactive and at the same time often extremely annoying. One sees you climbing up walls and the other sees the Prince fly like Harry Potter on his broomstick, except without the broomstick, and on rails. The problem with both is that they are about avoiding obstacles, with one bad move resulting in a return to the last checkpoint. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that there are some quite lengthy sections that combine all the magical plates, without a mid-way checkpoint, and the camera angle is often so bad that you can't see obstacles until it's too late. While these sections look quite dazzling, they fit rather uneasily into the game as a whole and we'd have quite happily traded them for more traditional platforming sections.
And that brings us to the second main sticking point: the relationship between the Prince and Elika. Elika is extremely likeable, voiced well and with a character that's easy to care for. The Prince isn't. To be fair, he grew on us, with his jock-like dialogue slowly fading as he became more aware of the situation and his relationship with Elika blossomed, but by the end he was still just a guy who we cared very little for. Part of this is down to the choice of voice actor, which happens to be the very same guy who played Nathan Drake in Uncharted on PS3.
In Uncharted he pulled off the cocky modern day Indiana Jones very well, and he does a good job here too. It's just that for the relationship to work here he needed to be a more rounded character. At the end of the game there are a few scenes that would have gone down in video game history had that relationship worked, but they fell slightly flat. It's by no means a complete failure, with much of the dialogue from the Prince, Elika, and the supporting cast of enemies being exceptionally good, but what is a great game could have been elevated to classic status had this key relationship been perfected.
If the relationship had been told entirely through the actions of the characters rather than their spoken words (perhaps in a way similar to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus) there'd be no question that Ubisoft had done a good job. The way to the two leads interact with one another is quite magnificent, from a physical point of view, with the Prince catching Elika as she leaps onto ledges, carrying her on his back as he moves across vines and switching places with a hand-held spin if they cross paths on a tight beam or ledge. The interaction during combat is equally spectacular, with the combos you're able to pull off being real visual highlights.
It's the environments and boss characters that stand out the most though, with the sights on offer here rivalling the best we've ever seen in a video game. The painting-like visual style gives the game a unique appearance perhaps only comparable to Okami, but it's so much more impressive here. The environments are truly epic in scale - so much so that you'll want to spend time simply taking it all in, especially once the area has been healed and returned to its beautiful natural state. Best of all, the frame rate (Xbox 360 version tested) is flawless for the most part. We experienced the odd moment of tearing and some very minor frame rate drops, but they were rare occurrences.
Ever since Ubisoft revealed its reboot of the Prince of Persia franchise there have been whispers of "game of the year", and it's to Ubisoft's credit that it has delivered a game that absolutely delivers on its promise, trumping Assassin's Creed in every way. Game of the year is perhaps a stretch too far, but Ubisoft Montreal has come tantalisingly close to creating a real masterpiece. There's no doubt that a sequel is coming; we only hope that the Prince and Elika have some time to work on their relationship in the time being.