Once upon a time, I tried this game, and, tried really is all I did. I put a bit of time into the game, found enough reasons to stop playing, then set the whole thing aside. It was thanks to the devilish machinations of the Gateland Cad, I returned to the game to give it another shot. The experience was a conflicting one, to say the least. Come now, traveller – let us speak of this strange entry in the storybook style of Prince of Persia. Let us speak of a game that fits in nowhere, but fits in perfectly. Let us speak of a game with great ideas that are terrible ideas. Let us speak to the Prince of Persia game known, ever artlessly, as 2008.
Return To Persia
Just a note, people doing reboots, subtitles are good for you because they keep us from having to refer to your game by something as stupid as Prince of Persia (2008). Ugh! But okay, that aesthetic choice aside, let’s talk about what goes into this game.
Prince of Persia (2008) is a platforming game. Well, it’s an adventure game. Um, okay, no, it’s a rhythm game? It is a videogame. It is definitely, definitely a videogame. It’s a videogame where you play a nameless character who wikipedia articles refer to as ‘the Prince’ as he teams up with Elika (who is important enough to have a name) as they defeat the various terrible forces of Ahriman that you may, uh, have possibly been responsible for awakening. As with all videogames, you have to travel to all the areas and defeat all the bosses, some of whom have unique and special mechanics, and in the process collect shiny things whose primary reason for existing is to be collected. It really is one of the purest videogames I’ve played lately, for all of its aesthetic efforts.
The tie-in to the previous Prince of Persia games is pretty much non-existent; the games have Indian and Arabic imagery in them, and there’s an entity in both games named Farah. The real sinew that connects these games is not the Prince or the Persia but rather that parkour. Prince of Persia (2008) is a game of long, fluid parkour courses, courses made of disjointed parts that you have to react to with one of your limited set of tools in order to proceed. There’s combat and parkour and really, the combat is more like the parkour than it is like combat. The areas can even be approached non-linearly, with some zones becoming more dangerous the longer you leave them, which I quite liked and thought showed some serious effort on the part of level designers. Essentially, if you leave a starting area for the end of the game, you will not go back and find a wimpy level that can’t handle your expertise and skill – you’ll find a level just as rough as if you’d tried to do things in a more straightforward way. I particularly like this because it makes the nonlinear nature of the game more honest, more whole – it’s one thing to say ‘you can do everything in your own time’ if the game’s not going to back you up on that and treats earlier content as trivial and un-fun.
The parkour is actually the slightly acidic part of this. Whereas in the previous games, parkour courses were made out of distinct, bricklike shapes where the player character could try and retry when they failed, there’s no time-travel mechanic in Prince of Persia (2008). Rather than being constructed out of bricks and straight lines, the courses are made of curves and lines, where you sometimes have to throw yourself forward but not quite sure what forward is best. After The Two Thrones I found this parkour style frustrating. What makes it worse, though, is when you fail?
You just get teleported back to where you were, which feels… well, when I first started playing the game, it felt insulting. I was trying to become good at the game, but messing up didn’t mean anything, so I’d just do it again and again as sloppily as I could. What’s’ the point?
Return To The Not-Prince
Astute readers will remember that I dismissed this entire game based on a naff control scheme and a protagonist that bored me. It’s one of those videogames that bothered me so much I wanted to tell people about it, wanted to take the opportunity to complain at length in public. These days I don’t bother – that sort of pot-shotting can be done in a tweet.
There’s a lot of stuff here that still bothers me. The central character is a Prince, whose parents are dead, which I suppose makes him a king? But he’s not really a prince; he doesn’t do anything princelike or with royal duty. I can’t see any way the story tells me that he’s a Prince. That he’s a Prince doesn’t seem to relate to the story – there’s no yearning I feel in his words or his character dynamic that speaks of things like surrendered power, or duty, or nationalism. Is he an outcast? He’s a tomb raider, he’s an Indiana Jones – he is, essentially, your lovable cheeky everyman hero character that we see an awful lot of in media. I don’t find myself particularly drawn to him, nor do I feel he’s a good usage of the title of ‘Prince.’ Plus he feels more like he was drawn out of a modern setting than the one he’s in.
Then there’s the combat. Oh god, I hated the combat. I think the term I used for combat in this game was floaty. When you hit a thing there isn’t a real feeling of impact; individual hits aren’t very interesting, and you’re expected to beat opponents with combos. On the other hand, the combos don’t seem to be meaningfully different from one another – the values differ but you can really finish things by repeating the combo that worked for you. Even if you fail, the game just resets the fight back to a point where you can try again…
An Intentional Difference
… which is not, despite what I thought, a bad thing.
As games go, I feel I prefer games that do things because they tried them rather than games that do things by accident. What happened here, even though I didn’t like it, all shows a deep and deliberate set of game values. Everything that I didn’t like in this game was being done as a part of a deliberate, coherent, vision.
This game has parkour, and conversations, and it has combat, but those things don’t make Prince of Persia (2008) a parkour game, or a conversation game, or a combat game. It’s a rhythm game, and it’s a rhythm game that deliberately strives to minimize punitive punishment. There is no way to completely fail this game. There’s no lose condition. You just try again. And again. And again. Try anything. It won’t set you back very far. Don’t like the combat? Well, the combat isn’t very hard. You don’t have to be good at it. You can just experience it, you can just lean into it and zone out, trying to find that perfect rhythm within you that fits with the game.
It’s admirable, really. It’s amazing, even if I hate it. It’s even unified in the way the mechanics work – aside from a block button, every button used in the parkour is used in the combat. The combat and the parkour are unified with their punishment (none), in the buttons’ reactions, and being good at parkour rewards you with some combat benefits, too! These are interesting ideas, and I think there’s some strength to this. Do things with intention, do things deliberately.
Sure, I’m still mad at Prince of Persia (2008) for being a ‘Prince of Persia’ game when it’s blatantly not. I’m still mad at it for the gutsy move of writing for a sequel it couldn’t fulfil. I’m mad that it has two female characters and that the Prince feels an achronistic and non-princey. I wish the game was a slightly better, slightly different game.
But it’s still a good game. It’s meaningfully good, too, good in a way that none of its brethren are. It’s good for players who didn’t like the previous games, it’s good for people who weren’t already fans. I honestly sort of hope there’s some sort of resurgence for it, so maybe the people who wanted this story to conclude can see their finale.
Buy it if:
- You want to play a rhythm game with a lovely interface.
- You find the Prince sassy and fun.
- You want a game that’s forgiving without feeling insulting.
Avoid it if:
- You want to continue the narrative of The Two Thrones.
- You liked the stealth kills and combat system of previous games.
- You liked the foppish voice-over storytbook style.