The Prince of Perisa has so many looks these days you wonder if there isn't some Gok Wan button to go with the Elika button that served the 'next-gen' versions of Ubisoft Montreal's 'illustrative' re-imagination of the critically acclaimed acrobatic platformer so well. In that game he's wearing a stunning cel-shaded oil painting number. In The Fallen King, the DS version of the game, he's sporting a more cartooney, Saturday morning TV get-up.
It's inevitable, of course, that our Prince wouldn't be wearing the same quality of outfit in the DS game as he does for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC versions. Ubisoft's Casablanca studio, which has to be the most exotically-named developer in the world, hasn't got the kind of graphical horsepower to play with that Ubisoft Montreal enjoyed. But that hasn't prevented it from stamping its own impression on the much-loved series.
It's somewhat ironic that, for a series that has stirred such emotion for reinventing itself, The Fallen King feels like a return to The Prince of Persia's roots. It's a 2D platformer with an emphasis on well-timed wall jumps, pixel perfect leaps and a dash of sword slashing, and rekindles memories of Jordan Mechner's 1989 original. Here's another irony: It would probably have been twice as good if it hadn't forced gamers to use the stylus to control the Prince instead of the d-pad and buttons.
The Fallen King's trouble is this: It can be immensely frustrating because using the stylus to guide the Prince around the various levels isn't an accurate science. By touching the screen ahead of him he'll run, touch close to him and he'll walk. A double tap will make him roll forward. Tap on a wall and he'll jump onto it, then tap just above him to climb a bit higher and then tap on another wall to wall jump. Simple.
When all the game requires of you is this, it works well, and can feel incredibly liberating. But when things start to get complicated, when there are spinning wheels of doom moving about, spike-filled chasms to leap over and sword-wielding Corrupted monsters waiting to slice your belly open, the stylus controls fail to deliver the kind of precision you need. You find yourself rolling when you want to jump, hanging off of a ledge when you want to leap to another one and doing a time-consuming heavy sword attack (triggered by tracing a line on the enemy) when you simply want to run. This is what makes The Fallen King, not all the time but usually when it matters, more of a frustrating game of trial and error than fun platformer.
Like the Prince falling into a spike-filled trap following a botched jump, Ubisoft Casablanca has fallen into the trap of forcing stylus controls on a game when there was no need for it. We can't think of any good reason why traditional d-pad and button controls haven't at the very least been offered to the player as an alternative control scheme.
It's a shame, because with good controls The Fallen King could have been a great compliment to the wonderful but divisive 'next-gen' version. It looks great for a DS game, with lovely backgrounds infusing each area with a unique dash of Persian spice. And The Prince himself is brilliantly animated, giving his acrobatic actions a lovely, fluid feel. Unfortunately this good graphical work is somewhat undone by annoyingly regular slowdown that crops up when more than one enemy appears on screen. Usually in these bits the frame rate doesn't affect gameplay too much, because the combat is so easy (repeated taps on an enemy is usually enough to dispatch them, with the occasional touching and holding on the Prince to block thrown in for good measure). In the rare occasions that the game slows during platforming, though, it can affect your timing considerably.
Gameplay and puzzle solving variety is added by Zal the Magus, a moody magician whose command of magic is the only thing preventing him from succumbing to the evil Corruption that has wreaked havoc on the kingdom the game is set in. After you rescue him from a beastie, about 20 minutes in, Zal will follow the Prince around automatically, much like Elika in the big brother versions. By pressing and holding any button Zal can use special abilities. At first he's only got access to a magic blast attack, but eventually he's able to twist and turn the Corruption to his own ends so much so that he can actually manipulate it and open up previously blocked areas. The type of Corruption will determine what he can do with it. You can move light Corrupted objects with the stylus, attack enemies with elastic Corruption and create new platforms with solid Corruption. In this way, The Fallen King requires a bit more thought than you might initially reckon it takes to seek out its best treasures.
The story, one that "closely coincides with the action of the console and PC editions of the game" sees many characters players of the 'next-gen' version will know well. The God of Chaos, Ahriman, has unleashed the Corruption across the land and it's up to the bewildered Prince, buoyed by some encouraging words from the stalking safety net that is Elika, to save the day. He ends up in a deserted kingdom, rumoured to offer safe haven from the evil, bumps into the grumpy Zal before heading off to free the Fallen King who's been completely overwhelmed by the Corruption. It's all told through still images and text, rather than proper cut-scenes, which makes the plot more uninteresting than it might have been. Unless you're particularly enamoured with all things Prince of Persia, the story won't justify the patience you'll need to soldier through the 50 plus levels.
We'd like to recommend The Fallen King, but because of the stylus control scheme and the unforgivable lack of an alternative, we can't. Using the stylus to control movement in a relatively hardcore 2D platformer simply doesn't cut it, and the disappointing slowdown and uninspired story only add to the feeling that this is a game only avid fans of the Prince will get any enjoyment from. The Prince might think he's looking good on the DS, but we doubt Gok would approve.