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Prince of Persia on Game and Player

Prince of Persia

Michael Ubaldi  //  December 19, 2008

An insurgent masterpiece.


ith something as elementary as a sandstorm is how Ubisoft begins its rejuvenation of Prince of Persia. Fortune, the prince's only friend, stopped smiling hours back. Fresh from a heist, he had lost his donkey, now his way. The prince spots a woman running into a canyon and gives chase, joined by royal guards with intentions less innocent but more straightforward. She is Elika, a princess from a city-state built on tall spires of rock — a kingdom brought to ruin when Elika's father, the monarch, invited a demon. The prince interjects — why waste a perfectly good-looking girl? — and helps Elika escape from a king who reaches to his daughter while his cohort points halberds.

Why is Elika dispossessed? Why is her father in league with Ahriman, the fell lord? No time to explain, at first — young man and young woman are propelled by events to halt the growth of a nether corruption and reclaim the empty city, as its temple is the gate keeping Ahriman from consuming the world. With a swaggering exposition and light exchange of barbs, the prince joins Elika and does what he enjoys most — jumping, leaping, climbing, surmounting.

Ubisoft Montreal invested
Prince of Persia with rapture.
The City of Light was abandoned years before, disintegrating before Ahriman's portent slithered into it. It arches and splays, all of it the prince's big playground. With Elika just a few steps behind, the prince speeds through four quarters, a platformer hero to players and an acrobat onscreen. He glides along rock faces and facades, vaults off beams, flips from flagpoles to columns, and flies aloft magic. Gameplay is forgiving — and gently introduced through an in-game tutorial. Accuracy, not precision, is judged. If a player's timing and general direction are right, the prince will succeed. But sequences of leaping and running are brisk and increasingly complex, timed at a minute or longer in the game's finale.

All this without stopping for breath? Ubisoft Montreal found a curious solution to dramatize the game's peril without killing the leading man and interrupting cinematic narrative with a death scene. Elika, the only one who can save the city, is gifted with powers of restoration. When the prince stumbles or misjudges, she catches and returns him to the nearest sturdy platform. Every other mishap, the two quip, and instead of causing players to abruptly shift from a permanent — if nonbinding — end to the adventure and back again, the prince's plunges become part of the adventure, intensifying it. They become what might have happened, were there a lesser man chancing fate. Need a character die to fail? No — falling short is well enough, and more inspiring than an out-of-body experience.

Neither sympathetic animation
nor sidekick: Elika is
a partner and a friend.
Elika can also use her magic to fling the prince forward, allowing him to jump twice as far. But cooperation between the two is not only functional — it's tacit and affectionate, tenderly portrayed by Ubisoft. When the prince grapples ivy, Elika hugs and hangs on. He reaches down and pulls her up. If she's on the side of a beam he needs to be, the prince twirls her in a dance step — sometimes he jests as they trade places, and once she giggled. When the two fly from one city corner to the other, they hold hands. When she drops to the ground after him, the prince catches her in his arms. This is no sympathetic animation, nor a sidekick; Elika is a partner and a friend.

They make quite a pair: she erudite and determined, he hardnosed but puckish. He's shrewd, she's smarter; try as he may, she can't be wheedled. He can see the big picture, but mostly refuses. Back and forth, back and forth. Every five minutes or so, the push of a button can engage another dialog from a sharp script, written by meet comedic talent and performed by an able pair of voice actors. I have not enjoyed advancing a relationship so much since Knights of the Old Republic. No matter how grave the mission, there is no interstice in which the prince won't look for a little irreverence. Yet she inspirits him.

Elika and the prince act
in the spirit of Technicolor.
He needs the encouragement. Four servants of Ahriman occupy the City of Light. Each was put in thrall to a vice, and each bears resemblance to the damnation: the solipsist Concubine, the bestial Hunter, the pedantic Alchemist, the martyr King. They all try to vitiate Elika and seduce her keeper, who must defeat them with his scimitar. Duels are simple, swift: thrust, riposte, thrust, grapple, toss, en garde. The four have altered forms, powers granted by Ahriman, which can only be dispelled by a certain strike — or intervention by Elika. Hand-to-hand struggles are resolved by button-mashing, occasionally frustrating but often the answer to a servant's weakness. Elika and the prince fight each immortal several times, the last time à outrance.

The four defend ancient ground — whenever a servant is driven off, these stone plates hold power channeled by Elika to revive a part of the city. Each restoration, drawing oases from chalky barrens, reveals more of the game's little world. If contemporary Tomb Raider: Underworld aspired to grandeur, Ubisoft Montreal has invested Prince of Persia with rapture. The City of Light is towering, deep, whimsical and alive, undaunted by scale. Points in the distance, assumed to be a matte background, can be reached when magic or contraptions hurl Elika and the prince. Even Ahriman's corruption was rendered in art, appearing under tinged skies as serpentine virulence or black flakes of detritus that hang in the air. Elika and the prince are walking storybook legends, painterly and limned as if by thick pencil line. As the two battle Ahriman's servants, buildings pull and twist, turn, unlock and writhe.

Beauty carries to the plot, which matures gracefully, resists surrender to Hollywood and, in an epilogue, drives on to where even romantics hesitate. Despite genre, narrative modesty or previous entries for the franchise to which it has been unfairly compared, Prince of Persia is as total a video game as one could sit down for, experience and never forget. The average player will be challenged, awed and moved.

Who would have known? Not me; I took the game over a coin toss. My strongest criticism is of Ubisoft's marketers, who portrayed the game as trendy and derivative of titles preceding — when the box art should have been a poster with the epic portraiture from Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood. The prince and the woman at his side act in the spirit of Technicolor. There is levity, a little vaudeville, swashbuckling — but what some might think quaint avows an earnest and old, old mission. The rogue has heart; a man has a soul. Elika chides the prince: "You lost your donkey, fell into a celestial war, and you still consider yourself lucky?" Yes. And no one else would.

Prince of Persia



Ubisoft Montreal



NA Release

December 2, 2008


Play Mode

ESRB Rating

In Favor

  • Rapture for the eyes
  • Powerful script, characterization
  • Classic fable


  • Foibles of the genre

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