Prince of Persian 2008 is my favorite Prince of Persia game.
And that statement makes me feel ashamed.
I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that I, and many others like me, play video games for the enjoyment. Yes, there are occasions when I’m in a masochistic mood and want a Bloodborne or Battletoads (Bloodtoads?) to offer a seemingly insurmountable challenge, but, by and large, I play video games to unwind. We all have stressful enough lives, why spend your free time ice-skating uphill when there are entire libraries of games that don’t require three thumbs and 700 hours of dedication? We’re well past the time when there were a total of three decent games available in the universe, and playing leftover copies of Deadly Towers was the only way to experience something “new”. Want to know why there are less “NES hard” games nowadays? It’s because babies are now born packaged with free copies of Angry Birds.
But the balancing act here is that, while I don’t want to bang my speederbike against a wall for hours, I also want some minor semblance of a challenge to feel like I’m accomplishing something. This is seemingly completely unique to the medium, as, unless you’re attempting to learn a new language through entertainment consumption, it is almost impossible for there to be a “challenge” in reading a book or watching a movie. Yes, a book may be “challenging”, but if you don’t understand a term or find a passage trying, you’re not stuck hitting the retry button repeatedly until you’re finally allowed past page 30. And I can’t immediately a recall a movie made in my lifetime that encouraged pausing and digesting information; it’s all about barreling forward to an explosive (or contemplative?) climax. Video games aren’t like that. Nine times out of ten, if you’re having trouble with an area, if a challenge is too challenging, you’re not taking another step forward, and you will solve this puzzle, or you won’t see a new room again. The downside is getting stuck, but the upside is that previously mentioned sense of empowerment, and that feeling has become integral to the gaming experience.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time had pretty rote “puzzle platforming” with one key difference: the eponymous Sands of Time. The downside of any game where your hero wants to be realistic but can miss a jump and fall four stories is that, one way or another, there’s going to be a lot of broken knees and shattered spines. Running along walls, vaulting up flagpoles, and then leaping across rooftops is exhilarating and fun, but there’s nothing there if it’s all on auto-pilot and you’re invincible all the while. Conversely, if everything is too difficult, you’re trapped watching the creation of a gnarled pile of bones over and over again, which then leads to replaying the same stupid challenges over and over again. Exhilarating and fun becomes trite and boring after doing the exact same thing three times or so, and, well, Mario is right over there, doing exciting stuff and never complaining about his ankles being driven through his hat. But The Sands of Time’s brilliant change to the formula was that Prince can rewind time, and thus walk back any fatal missteps. As long as you’ve got some time sand in your dagger, you can outrun death, and avoid monotonous gameplay repetition.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was lauded from every direction for its brilliant gaming innovation. The “time” mechanic became a staple of the trilogy, and, forgiving some random grimdark infusions along the line, the series was pretty much exactly as fun as you’d expect playing as a Persian Batman with mastery over space and time would be. I still feel like the combat never quite “got there”, and weird missteps like how the mechanics of your sand “refilling” could accidentally “trap” the Prince without his main rewind ability were pretty lame, but overall it was a fun experience all around.
Then, separate from the Sands of Time Trilogy, came Prince of Persia, the 2008 game that decided to forgo subtitles in favor of a fresh new beginning. Prince of Persia had pretty much the same gameplay and concept as the previous PoP games (debonair Prince runs around the place with no regard for gravity and eventually defeats whatever qualifies as an unstoppable evil this week), but it offered one key difference. Elika, a priestess/princess of light who has magical powers, is along for the entire game, and she will save Prince from death as many times at it takes. Prince doesn’t have to carefully ration sand like Mega Man hoards e-tanks; he’s practically immune to environmental death, because there’s always going to be a helping hand to lift him back into life.
And… it makes me feel like I’m being babied.
It… should be entirely in my head. The Sands of Time Trilogy featured almost the exact same gameplay, just you had to press a button to “un-die”. Who actually wanted to watch Prince die? Nobody, because that’s a game over, and a complete loss of progress. So Prince of Persia 2008 simply removed the middle man. “I know you want to get back to playing this cool game, so here’s a hand… there you go, you’re right back in a safe space. Ready to try again?” The designers noticed a superfluous step in Sands of Time, eliminated it, and released a game that moves faster and involves less stress. I should be loving that!
And, really, from an objective perspective, I do. As I mentioned before, this is unquestionably my favorite Prince of Persia game. The graphics are amazing, the play control is “tight” but finally feels like there’s enough give in Prince that I’m not just “press forward to jump” jumping like a random Hylian, and the general tone of Prince’s quest (and his interactions with Elika) are a delight. It really feels like someone sat down with the Sands of Time trilogy, distilled what really worked, and decided to build an entire game around that. This is the Shovel Knight to Prince of Persia’s Mega Man: years of hindsight leading to something that can only be built on that foundation of experience. It’s a great game!
But it still feels like I’m being babied.
It’s funny, because I want to ignore that feeling, but I do genuinely believe in the whole “games as art” thing (wouldn’t dedicate a blog to gaming without it!), and feelings are important in art… but it seems like video games only get emotions ascribed to them when that’s the point of the game. Gone Home, Papers, Please, or even Bioshock Infinite are all games that focus on feelings, good and bad, and people react to those accordingly. But if a game doesn’t ship with a big glowing sign that says “emote now”, all we’re expected to judge about a video game are its controls, graphics, and maybe whether or not it has completely borked multiplayer. How does Prince of Persia make you feel? Who the hell cares?! Check out that evil hunter dude!
Maybe feeling coddled is… okay? Prince of Persia is fun to play, there’s no debating that, so maybe I should just go with the flow. Not all art makes the audience feel good, after all. Why should all video games make the player feel empowered? Maybe a little less empowerment would be good for a medium that seems to be fueled by a constant stream of Mtn Dew and testosterone. Yes, you can be the big, bad prince that saves the kingdom… but you’d be nothing without this woman that helps you, and you better believe you need that help.
So, yes, it feels like I’m playing on easy mode, or that the entire game is training for a harder game that never comes. And that’s okay. Not every video game has to feel the same. Prince of Persia is different, and that’s a good thing.
There’s nothing shameful about that.
FGC #104 Prince of Persia (2008)
- System: Playstation 3, Xbox 360. Xbox 360 was used for this review, incidentally, because that’s the version that randomly dropped to $20 and caught my eye at Target. Computer versions, as ever, don’t count.
- Number of players: 1. Ain’t no analog stick gonna control Elika!
- Speaking of Elika: Oh, it’s just “Erika” with a letter changed. Elika Caltman.
- Misrepresentation: There are four “generals” on the bad guy side. One is a mighty hunter. Another is a brilliant alchemist. The third is an unstoppable warrior. And the last is an illusionist who slept to the top. Three guesses on which one is the lone woman of the group.
- End of an Era: Prince of Persia 2008 effectively killed the franchise, too. Despite still preceding the marvelous adventures of Jake Gyllenhaal, this game was the end of the Prince of Persia gravy train that seemed to pump out a sequel every year or so. I want to say it was this game’s poor reception compared to its forefathers that brought the franchise low, but it’s more likely that the “brand” just transitioned into the even more popular Assassin’s Creed franchise… which now produces a new title every seventeen minutes. “Historic Persia” is apparently not capable of supporting 1,001 tales.
- What’s in a name: Every time I type “Prince of Persia (2008)” I think of “Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)”… and I grow a little more depressed.
- Digital Content: This might be my favorite Prince of Persia game, but I’m not paying ten bucks to know how it ends. There is just no situation where I purchase that and don’t feel ripped off, if only on principle. At least while Youtube is still a thing.
- Did you know? Prince, the star of this game, is not actually a prince. It’s just a nickname! This entire game is a lie!
- Would I play again: Maybe? If I’m going to play any Prince of Persia game, it’s going to be this one. Unfortunately, there are 28 Assassin’s Creed games sitting in my backlog, and I feel like I should finish those first. Oh, wait, it’s 29 now…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… MTV Remote Control for the NES! The hell? Was that some kind of primitive remote app for the NES? So you could easily flip through all twelve of your channels? Guess I’ll find out. Please look forward to it!