When it was released in 2003, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a critical darling, praised for it’s intriguing story, ideas and fluid gameplay.  Following weak sales, however, publisher Ubisoft took the series into the mainstream with ill-conceived ideas that upped the focus on combat, “toughened up” the once lovable Prince, and added in a soundtrack by hard rock band, Godsmack.  Needless to say, much of what was praised by critics was lost, and the series continued to have trouble finding an audience.

Three years after The Two Thrones, Ubisoft has wiped the slate clean and begun from scratch with a new Prince, new ideas, and a new partner.  Early in the game, Elika, a girl with magical abilities that compliment the Prince’s acrobatics well, reveals to the Prince that her lands are being covered in an oily substance known as corruption, and that they must cleanse the world in order to stop a dark god from breaking free of his prison.  Elika also serves as a checkpoint system, similar to the Vita-chambers in Bioshock, in that both are a story-oriented explanation for a quick-load button.  Some feared that this would make the game too easy, but in practice, it merely cuts down on needless frustration.

Aside from clearing the lands of corruption by defeating the bosses of each area, the only other goal in the game is to collect light seeds.  Unfortunately, the majority of these seeds can be found on the main paths of the game, which seems like a wasted opportunity to inspire exploration.  Once collected, light seeds are then used to buy power-ups, of which there are four, which can be used on power plates strewn throughout the levels.  These power-ups are similarly misused – two of them are merely glorified warp abilities, for example – but they serve to break up the gameplay, which is altogether too similar from level to level.

The combat is revised from earlier games in the series – rather than an acrobatic fight with multiple foes, you’ll only find one-on-one battles in this game, which lends significant weight and difficulty to every enemy encounter.  The combo system is satisfyingly deep, and one often feels evenly matched with their opponents.

The world is presented in a cel-shaded style with realistic proportions, giving the game the sense of a storybook world brought to life, not unlike Capcom’s sumi-e styled game, Okami.  The game is richly detailed and vibrant, both in areas tainted with corruption and the areas the Prince has already cleared.  In fact, when Elika and the Prince do manage to clear an area, the changes in the world are so beautiful and dramatic that they serve as a great motivator to keep playing.

The sarcastic new Prince is a great addition to the game, and his growth as a character is believably told.  Likewise, the dialogue between the Prince and Elika is interesting and well-written, and is entirely optional, for those so inclined, as conversations are mainly triggered by a player’s button press. However, while Elika is a great component of the gameplay, her character comes across as a bit schizophrenic.  From scene to scene she jumps from playful, to brooding, to irritated and her progression doesn’t flow quite so well when compared to the rest of the story.

While the game is open-world in that it allows the player to choose which order to tackle the areas in, the gameplay is very structured and linear.  The levels are connected but are still very segmented, leaving the desire for a more natural and interweaving design akin to Metroid or Castlevania.  This choice does not fit in well with many other aspects of the game.  The plot and characters, for the most part, become very static between the beginning and end sections of the game, as do the player’s abilities and the difficulty of the worlds.  

The level designs are very linear as well.  There is a set path through each area, with no room for player discovery or exploration.  Rather than discovering their own way to their destination, players must follow the lines set by the developers, which are often so blatant as to show you where to climb or run along walls.  While traveling quickly along these routes is an entertaining sight, the game would likely be more rewarding if players felt they had some say in their paths of travel.  Oftentimes, it seems as if the Prince’s acrobatic stunts are nothing more than a quick-time event with little-to-no player interaction.  The game is too controlling and too easy.  A little more player involvement in the game would have made things  much more engrossing.

In the end, it seems that Prince of Persia takes two steps forward and one step back.  While the game returns to a fantastical setting and places an emphasis on story and characters, the addition of an open-world format severely limits the game’s potential.  The appearance of freedom just serves to contrast with the more linear aspects of the game.  While entertaining, the Prince of Persia would be a lot more fun if only the developers would let you play it.