Monday, December 8, 2008

Prince of Persia

Well, I'd just like everyone to know that I've totally already beaten the new Prince of Persia. Yeah, it came out on Wednesday. And I beat it late last night (okay, early this morning, but it's the principle that counts). Admittedly, after I picked it up, my whole life consisted of work, Prince of Persia and sleep. Just to be clear, that means I didn't eat. Okay fine, I did bathe. You caught me.

So, yeah, I can now have an intelligent conversation about a recent game. It feels kind of cool. Like, I can spoil the ending sequence (and I totally will, by the way, but not right now, it has to be in the context of the discussion of the game, not just part of being an ass).

The last Prince of Persia trilogy was built upon three game play elements: exploration, puzzles, and fighting. The best was, and always has been, exploration. Starting at the bottom and slowly working your way up to the top by moving from one interactable piece of the environment to the next. This was always the best because they built incredible environments and had incredibly cool animations, so moving from place to place was exciting in and of itself and it was exciting to see the next place. Fighting was always the worst. At best it was a distraction and at worst it was a pain. They tried new systems with each game and none of them were particularly fun (for me, I knew other people who loved the fighting in Prince of Persia, though). Puzzles were somewhere in between. Personally, I've never been a fan of progress stopping puzzles. I prefer puzzles where the reward isn't that you get to continue playing the game, but rather a slightly more optional reward, like extra life or powers.

Game designers typically seem to prefer rewarding exploration with those things, instead of puzzles. I'm not sure why that is. I guess hiding something in the environment is easier than creating a whole optional puzzle and playtesting it. Although, the best exploration rewards are more like mini puzzles in that the reward is apparent, but the puzzle is how to get there. While I count that as an exploration reward, it often requres more logical thinking and planning skills than the official puzzles.

It's interesting to look back at that trilogy because you can almost make up a story behind the development of those games. In the first game, fighting was primarily done against mid size groups and it was hard because the Prince didn't have a lot of fighting options, especially against groups. He also had a princess with him who was sometimes helpful, but typically had to be kept safe, which was kind of a pain. Long environmental exploration sections weren't especially common yet, especially in this style, so sections would provide lots of hints to make sure you made it through okay. Puzzles were simplistic at best, I think (I only vaguely remember them, but I think most of them really just involved finding the switch). Story and character-wise, though, it was a blast. The interactions of the two characters were incredibly fun and made progressing through the game really cool. We got to know the characters primarily through their conversations, which occurred during exploration periods. That was so cool and definitely a story-telling innovation at the time. At heart, though, that game was just fun and carefree. It was, and still is, the best in the series.

The second game is almost certainly the worst, but it's hard to really justify that. Now that the exploration concepts the original created were common, the second one had much more complex environments. And some really cool ones, at that. The fighting system was overhauled and the Prince was turned into a complete bad-ass who could really fight. The puzzles became much more complex too. With all those improvements, though, something was lost in the translation. For one, the story which had been both cute and unobtrusive in the first one, became inane and downright annoying. The art design, which had been bright and dynamic due to its focus on exploration and discovery, became dark and brooding with environments that were rather Gothic in appearance (epic, but Gothic). The game did managed to take those three key game play elements and improve on them, but completely wrecked the rest of the package. The result very sub-optimal. Also, the main character became an ass, that sucked too.

Oh, it also had a game breaking bug that hit me right before fighting the last boss. That was kind of annoying.

And then the third one was more of an apology to fans than a game in its own right. It had to deal with the stupid story decisions from the last one, which means that it still had a stupid story. Completely unrelated, but I think Kingdom Hearts II is one of the only games that actually managed to even remotely deal with the stupid story decisions made in a previous game in the series, which isn't to say that its story isn't stupid, but it did an amazing job cleaning up after the mess the original made. The third game's best decision was to make create these sections that were a hybrid of fighting, puzzles, and exploration. Basically, they made stealth sections where you could take out all the bad guys without having to deal with the fighting if you could figure out how to sneak up on all the bad guys. In most cases, you had to do this by never touching the floor. Disappointingly, this was not carried into the next generation. More sadly, the only real misstep of the game, on-rails vehicle sections were kept (sort of). It's hard to summarize my feelings on the third game, but it was good. It fixed the rest of the packaging and kept the improvements that the sequel made, but it somehow still lacked the magic of the first one.

So, it's a new generation, and the franchise is being rebooted again. The result is probably the second best, but in a lot of ways, this is a different game than the previous trilogy, with different goals. It has its own magic, which was a lot of fun, but it doesn't compare that well to the old games. A lot of reviewers look back on the previous trilogy and talk about sections that are just frustratingly hard and talk about how this game doesn't have stuff like that. I agree that this game doesn't have stuff like that, but I can't recall very many sections that were really frustratingly hard in the past games, either. Actually, let me rephrase that. I can't recall very many sections that didn't involve the fighting system that were frustratingly hard. And, I don't exactly miss those sections anyway.

This game has changed the focus of the gameplay. They weighted exploration and discovery even higher than it was before and reduced the number of puzzles down to 4 (actually 3, since I can't in good conscience call one of the puzzle sections a puzzle...even though it took me a little while to figure it out). Fighting was reduced pretty drastically and could often be ended with a single well timed attack . Surprisingly, something else they increased their focus on was story. This game easily has the most fun dialogue since the first game and it has a lot of it. But, they also made some other cool story decisions (ending spoilers will be part of that section).

Now, the primary mistake they made in this game, was that with this increased focus on exploration, discovery and story, they wanted all the players to experience all of that. So, they made exploration really easy. They took away the need to have skill to explore the environment. Now, the truth is that this is something of a carry over from Assassin's Creed. They decided that interacting with, and moving through, the environment should be as simple as possible in that game (because that's almost the whole game, and often times you're doing that with the entire town guard on your tail). But, it shouldn't be as simple as possible in Prince of Persia. My problem was that the Prince shouldn't automatically start wall running in the correct direction just because I jumped at the wall. I didn't prove that I knew where I wanted to go next, and the Prince shouldn't pick the right answer for me. I could be swinging from bar to bar and not know where I was going to go next, because the Prince would get there anyway.

Almost every reviewer articulated that the game felt really easy compared to the other games, but everyone seemed to struggle with what exactly was so easy about it. Tycho at Penny Arcade gave a decent explanation for why Elika (your cute heroine) automatically saving you and dropping you back at the ledge is not what makes the game easy (because, in truth, the Sands of Time in the last series were even easier than that in a lot of ways). Chris Kohler at Wired talked about how you couldn't interrupt animations, which made him feel like he didn't really have the control of the Prince that he expected (which is true). But, I think it comes down to the fact that you don't have the control of the Prince that you expect because he's too busy doing your work for you. You don't get punished for this lack of control, because it is pretty much guaranteed to make the right decision for you.

Another poor decision was this extreme focus on finding and defeating the game's bosses. Whenever you get to a new area, your whole goal is to get to the boss and beat him. After doing that, then you need to go explore and find the little collectable McGuffins (light seeds, in this case) for continuing the story. This is backwards. You should find the light seeds and then fight the boss. I know that's how every other game does it and they wanted to be different, but every other game does it that way because it makes sense. Once you beat the boss in an area, then all the evil obstacles in that area go away, which makes exploration really easy. But, we, the players, want there to be evil obstacles present to make exploration challenging. That's part of the fun. It's like if, in the last series, the big environments always had a boss in the middle and once you beat the boss, then all the traps and moving saws and everything else that was dangerous went away, even though you didn't have to get past most of them to even get to the boss, because he's in the middle (and you didn't have to walk all the way around the edge or anything to get to him). As a result, probably half or more of the traps never even had to be navigated. Doesn't that feel like a poor design decision? It certainly does to me.

Let's see, other mistakes included the tutorial being incredibly obtrusive and it often felt like it wanted to play the game for me (that's kind of a theme, it's like they thought the game was so cool and fun, that they wanted it to just play itself for our enjoyment). I'm not going to call Elika a mistake, but she could have been utilized better. People have compared her to Yorda from Ico, but for me, I think of her more like Navi from Ocarina of Time (only she doesn't drive you insane). She's certainly not a liability like Yorda, but she isn't used for puzzle solving or anything like the female companions in past versions of the game (i.e.- Farah). When playing the game, you pretty much ignore her except to use her for double jumps and for slowing you down when you're climbing on vines (why does she only slow you down then? I can't even fathom). Her only real purpose during gameplay is to make conversation, really.

So, what did they do right? They rediscovered the magic. The Assassin's Creed engine allowed them to create unbelievable environments. While Assassin's Creed was an interesting experiment, this is what it was meant to be for. It's clear the game makers dreamed of making a Prince of Persia game set more in reality, and that's what Assassin's Creed is. They built whole cities and populated them with a people and a history and it was totally cool. But also kind of boring. I mean it's cool to be running from rooftop to rooftop hunting people down, but compare that to slowly progressing along the top of a cave looking down upon glorious glowing stalagmites and a little cave lake. Or climbing up the spires of a palace and then sliding down them as they're collapsing. Or jumping across air balloons. I mean, you can't do that in reality. But that's just part of the regular environment in Prince of Persia.

As I mentioned above, the other thing they did right was the story. It's not inane or obtrusive and there's a reasonable number of cliches. Quick sidetrack, but in a pretty large number of the Final Fantasy games, the real main character is not the character that the player is meant to identify with. I especially noticed this the recent ones, numbers X and XII. In both of those, the girl is the real main character, but the story is told from the young male lead's perspective (although in XII, I'm not even sure you can call him the lead, he's really just a bystander). Prince of Persia makes that same decision. The one with the power to stop the bad guys is not the Prince (who's not even a prince in this one). Elika is.

And, over the course of the game, we learn both why the world needs saving and why she has the power to save it. Their conversations are the player's only insight into what is going on, just as it is the Prince's only insight as well. And each time she saves another area, she gets weaker. It reminds me of how Shadow of the Colossus informed the player that the hero's actions were having a negative effect by slowly turning his appearance into that of a monster. So, when she dies at the end, it's not that much of a surprise (oops, that might have been the ending spoiler I mentioned). I loved the execution though.

The credits roll as the Prince carries her out of the temple. With the player in control. Each step is very slow as you progress towards the altar to lay her upon it. To lay her in front of the place of her God. The God that the Prince had been claiming had abandoned her for the entire game. I thought it was a powerful sequence (for the record, more stuff happens, but I'm not going to spoil that, go play it yourself).

It was a really great way to end and was easily the greatest advance this series had yet. I only very vaguely remember the ending of the first game, but I think it's the only one that might compare.

Oh, lastly, everyone's been talking about the art style, but to be perfectly honest, it really shouldn't be as divisive as it's been. It feels like the art style of the first game, only gorgeous and detailed. I know that it's cel-shaded, but it's done very discreetly. And, really, any and all separation from the art style of the second game is to be appreciated (that was the only one that really went for realistic and it was ugly). So, yeah, this one looks really nice, but since I've been playing Valkyria Chronicles, which easily has the most beautiful cel-shaded graphics ever, it's hard to really rave about them.

But, in the end, this is a Prince of Persia game. And it feels like a Prince of Persia game. And that is a very good thing.

That is all.


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