Prince of Persia
Ubi sands down some old moves - is the Prince fresh again?
360, (PS3, PC)
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Sometimes you just have to admit you're wrong. It's the mark of a bigger man. As Kikizo's personal trainers and tailors will tell you, we're absolute bloody titans - gods among insects, sort of thing, exemplars of our species. If ever there were a Nobel Prize for sheer personal integrity, we'd be top of the list. Morgan Freeman's got nothing on us.
So here goes: when we wrote our preview back in October, we were wrong about the latest reinvention of Prince of Persia. We were wrong to call him a "pillock of the first rank", and a "3-for-1 bumper edition of sodden one-liners". It was deeply, deeply misguided of us to refer to new sidekick Elika as an "unpleasantly apt foil" and a "whiny slip of a girl". We're awful sorry, Ubisoft Montreal. We're don't know what we were thinking.
Far from being the worst things about this seventh episode in a series whose PS2 debut set 3D platforming alight, Elika and the Prince's new persona are actually among the best. It is, to be fair, easy to get off on the wrong foot, as we indeed did when we tackled the pre-release code. The duo are cut from very familiar cloth - he's a lovable rogue while she's a spiritually inclined, straight-and-narrow daddy's little girl - and while the voice-acting may not be quite so "ham-and-cheddar" as it first appears (we're weally, weally sowwy) it doesn't compliment its surroundings. We're dealing with Persia here, albeit a romanticised, almost entirely desolate Persia, so why do the protagonists sound like they've walked off the set of Smallville? (We know why, of course - it's because of you wretched consumers, with your Fox News-filtered understanding of the world).
But this initial upset is soon forgotten in the face of the subtly evolving characterisation and moderately witty script. The chemistry is all too easy to anticipate - Elika teaches the Prince to face up to his vagrant past and trust other people, while he teaches her to chillax, basically - but rather nuanced, and lends flavour to the otherwise formulaic plot. In essence, Elika's robustly bearded father has freed Ahriman, dark god of epic fail, from his imprisonment at the hands of Ormazd, light god of epic win, and the Prince, who gets embroiled in all this while hunting for his donkey, is called upon to sort out the mess. Said sorting out is achieved by travelling to areas corrupted by Ahriman and having Elika purify the "fertile grounds" at their summits, much like Okami purging feudal Japan of Orochi's bad juju, or the janitor in our local Sainsburys mopping up some spilled pesto.
As you flit to and fro between the game's twenty five non-consecutive regions (split into four themed districts) you can talk to Elika by pulling left trigger. Often you'll be treated to a terse place-holding remark - "we must reach the fertile grounds" - but there's a wealth of character detail (and at least one Live Achievement) to be had here too, ranging from light banter - a game of 'I-Spy' mid platforming sequence - to genuinely touching bits of back-story. You're not obliged to stop for a chat, as the cut scenes offer enough plot and dramatic progression to keep things pointed in the right direction, but you'll be missing out if you don't.
Like that of Yorda and Ico, the relationship between Elika and the Prince is founded on more than merely non-interactive dialogue. It's in the way they swing each other round to opposite ends of a balance beam, or his gallantly catching her after a perilous descent. The girl is as if not more athletically inclined than her knight in shining armour, and dogs your heels faithfully as you trot, leap, chimney kick and bar swing your way through the game's abandoned citadels, picturesque windmills and sand-blown arenas. There's never quite the heart-melting poignancy of Ico's hand-holding mechanic, and you needn't look much further than Elika's spray-on vest to get an inkling of the game's target gender, but the sense of a living, breathing partnership is admirably sustained.
The combo, a guiding principle of the series from Sands of Time onwards, has been given free reign here: it's possible to get from one side of an area to another in a single graceful dollop of acrobatics. What new moves and tweaks Ubisoft Montreal has built into the existing set are designed, quite simply, to keep you in motion - grab onto a pillar and the Prince will automatically swing to the opposite side, ready to leap for the next; miss a ledge, and he'll somehow find purchase on the brickwork beneath and launch himself a few feet higher. You can swing on hanging rings with a quick tap of B to chain together multiple wall-runs, or navigate the corners of buildings. Even the very, very few "ordinary" enemies that dot each area needn't interrupt your progress: spawning points are manifest as jets of ominous black gloop, and if you get to them fast enough you can nip the foe in the bud with a single sword swipe.