Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Game Review: A Prince among videogames

One of my favorite videogames that I owned for my old Mac was Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia. A side-scrolling game, it was the first I'd seen to incorporate natural human motions along with challenging puzzles and a fun storyline. Looking at it now, it seems primitive but 20 years ago, it was a step beyond.

One of the benefits to winning that PlayStation 2 in a raffle a few years ago was that the Prince of Persia franchise had been relaunched with vibrant 3D designs and actions. The first installment, Sands of Time, blew me away. The dark and largely charmless second game (filled with goth rock and busty sword-wielding ladies in metal bikinis) and the moderately satisfying third were fun but didn't have quite the same "wow" value that I found in the first. With the conclusion of the trilogy, the Prince appeared to be retired.

Until now. I finished playing the series reboot, simply called "Prince of Persia", a short time ago and it's the most beautiful game I've ever played. I know that's an odd thing to say about a video game but it's true. The world you inhabit is stunning, as detailed and creative as anything you might have found in Myst. In addition, the look of the characters has gone from CGI with smooth, unnatural skin to a blend of motion capture and cel-shading while the actions and storyline are compelling.

The Prince of Persia plot is quite good -- return life to a ravaged land and prevent the escape of a dark god -- that unfolds over time and a partner (Elika) who actually works with you rather than getting trapped elsewhere leaving you to face the challenges alone (basically, what happened in every Prince game that preceded this one). While the Prince isn't the most lovable character...truthfully, he can be something of a jerk...his conversations with Elika are worth participating in rather than just skipping. And they all build to an end that was simultaneously unexpected and perfectly in keeping with the tone and evolution of the story.

Sure, it's not the hardest game I've ever played but I'm finding myself appreciating games more for their storytelling now than simply for the hack and slash. For me, a good game is almost a video throwback to the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books only with cinematics, an opportunity to immerse yourself as if in a movie. While it reduces the tension a bit knowing that if you slip and fall, you don't die and reboot because Elika is there to save you (repeatedly in my case), I didn't find that it detracted much from the game because I was playing to reach the end and find out how the story wraps up. And the story, together with the artwork, and the "can't wait for the sequel" feeling at the end all make the new Prince of Persia a game worth playing.

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