So I recently played Prince of Persia (2008 one, I know I am a bit late). It is a series which needs no introduction. We all remember playing the PoP games for hours and hours, losing ourselves in the gripping storyline, dodging and killing countless enemies and most memorable- running from Dhaka. As I was feeling nostalgic one lazy afternoon, I decided to play their 2008 reboot of the series and it sure left a mark.
PoP (2008) was quite an interesting game. I adore the Sands of Time trilogy, and this played nothing like it, but man, re-playing it now really made me wish for a sequel to the game.
The world in 2008 reboot is open. There is a central HUB which branches out into many interconnected sub-hubs. It is possible to travel between far ends of the sub-hubs without ever stopping or hitting a load screen. Even the areas which are not accessible early on without special abilities have a way around them so they don’t become a dead end. The art style too isn’t just for the look but also reinforces the core idea of fluidity around which the whole game was designed, by using watercolor painting art style.
The game is all about fluidity. Comparing the pacing of PoP 2008 with any of the older game from the franchise, the flow is much smoother in the 2008 game. In the older games, you had to stop frequently to scan the environment to figure out where to go next. The platforming sections in those games were more of a puzzle, which was designed in such a way, that the player had to think before moving ahead. Don’t get me wrong as this pacing was an essential part of its success. But this broke the flow of the game. In the 2008 prince of Persia, motions flowed into one another into long unbroken chains, like when jumping onto a pillar from a wall run, unlike earlier games where you had to move around the pillar once you got onto it, here the prince will automatically face the direction he is supposed to jump next which although seems small, looks really effective when in-game. They also removed the puzzle element from navigation by keeping your end destination clearly in sight at almost all times. They even dedicated a face button, to bring up a guide if you ever got lost. The SoT game’s environment was full of red herrings and decorative assets. These elements although looked interactive, they won’t lead to the critical path, but in the 2008 game, these elements were always placed to lead somewhere and often placed in a straight line. Although this removed the navigation puzzle solving element by making players plot out their path (which was a prominent element in SoT series), they also helped players to keep up momentum. It is almost always very clear about where to go next. The timing of when a player can jump off a wall run is also very forgiving, giving players a full second or more to input the next command to keep the player from breaking their momentum. The game is also very forgiving to mistime presses and wrong input thanks to Elika. Every time players make a mistake, Elika would jump into action to save the player and either place him on the place he jumped from or, if it's too late, she would put the prince on the last flat surface he was on without any loading screen or fade to black screen. This just adds to the flow which the game is trying to create. All these elements were criticized by many players because they made the game easier. But these elements, I consider, were added to complement the fluidity of the game.
Combat was designed around this concept of flow as well. There's a fairly deep combo tree in the 2008 game, that can branch off from any of the four buttons (sword, gauntlet, Elika and acrobatics). Every button can lead to a fully new attack pattern which allows you to string together a dozen hits for an amazing attack sequence. And the way the camera moves during these sequences just adds more to the cinematic experience. Fighting only 1 enemy at a time is balanced by an adaptive AI. Attack too much, the enemy will block more frequently and will start punishing you with attacks of its own. The only problem when facing such harder enemies is their eagerness to engage a player in quick-time-event attacks. The QTEs trigger after every 4-5 successful attacks. But these QTEs break the combat momentum, especially when you consider how much fluid other mechanics of the game are. These events start coming far too often. The fluidity of control and animation, combined with the generous input windows, made it almost feel like a sort of rhythm/puzzle game where the good play was rewarded with smooth continuous traversal.
All of this comes together to create a trance-like state of simple but satisfying traversal that, according to my knowledge, only a few games have achieved. I’m not saying that the element of fluidity makes the game perfect either. The game gets repetitive quite quickly. And the occasional variations you do get, feels like they are designed very half-heartedly. What makes me sad is the lukewarm reception of the game by the masses. Although the game had many strengths, the weaknesses could have been worked on in a sequel, but the sad reception of the game made Ubisoft drop the design direction altogether. Instead what we got was Forgotten Sands which, honestly I think, was necessary as it shows the original SoT series was complete in itself and it was time to move on.
The momentum generated by the fluidity of the motions and set paths that developers clearly wanted you to take created a sense of urgency. That sense of urgency was needed for storyline purposes: Ahriman, the god of destruction, was struggling to get out of the Tree of Life, and Elika and the main character were trying to stop the Corruption from spreading as quickly as possible. Also, the momentum generated combined with Elika's seemingly all-powerful magic and the immersive scenery which the game had to offer, all merged to create a fairy tale. I like to think that PoP 2008 is another form of a visual novel game, except it has gorgeous graphics, beautiful soundtrack and lots of button mashing to create beautiful parkour effects, something that not many visual novel games do. As a result, admittedly there is not much room to experiment and there is a LOT of hand-holding by the developers. But if you take it from an angle of a visual novel game, it is a masterpiece - you just sit back, relax with the gorgeous scenery and let the story play out accordingly. I really enjoyed the story and I appreciate it just as much as the classic Sands of Time, if not a little bit more because I love the whole world of PoP 2008.
I mean let’s be honest here, you are either going to love it or just not get it at all. If you can embrace the idea that this is more about an experience than about the traditional "beating the game" mentality, then you are in for something special.