Prince of Persia:
Flaws

By Shamus
on Jan 2, 2009
Filed under:
Game Reviews

In Reset Button I said that Prince of Persia was “flawlessly executed”, which, looking back, was a little hyperbole brought about by my love of the game and a desire for brevity. Let me make good by enumerating some of the shortcomings.

It’s a matter of taste, but the saturation of fantastical elements has been maxed out in this entry. In Sands of Time, the buildings and stunts were all semi-plausible in a visual sense. In the latest game, the stunts are preposterous, with barely a nod towards the effects of gravity or friction. The scenery is a lot of abstract platforming with Persian-themed highlights and window dressing. It looks wonderful, but it doesn’t look like there was ever a point where the place made sense as an inhabitable space.

The game suffers from a lack of challenge for advanced players. This is a nice change of pace from all the other games which are aimed only at advanced players, but I have a big-tent view of gaming, and I would have liked if the game could have offered everyone a challenge. My worry is that the next title will over-correct for this, and we’ll get another tedious game of pointless punishment. (This is exactly what happened going from Sands of Time to Warrior Within. The rewind feature and forgiving platforming brought in new people and bored hardcore, and then Warrior Within placated the hardcore and frustrated the newcomers.) But they could ramp up the difficulty without resorting to the cudgel of checkpoint-based practice & punish gameplay. Some suggestions:

The scratches in the wall don’t make much sense unless the Prince has been platforming here for years, but they provide a visual cue so they can tell the scenery from the platforming sections. It has the side-effect of taking a lot of the sense of mystery and discovery out of the world if you already know what you’re doing.
The scratches in the wall don’t make much sense unless the Prince has been platforming here for years, but they provide a visual cue so they can tell the scenery from the platforming sections. It has the side-effect of taking a lot of the sense of mystery and discovery out of the world if you already know what you’re doing.

  • Remove the “trail of breadcrumbs” for platforming. The gameworld has all these scratches on the wall, cluing you in to where you’re supposed to go. It works well for people who aren’t familiar with the genre. (They were invaluable in teaching my wife how to play and giving her clear direction as she learned to spot viable paths through the gameworld.) But for vets this seems like a bit too much hand-holding. Giving an option to remove them would give the game a “puzzle platformer” feel, which is something with which I would be down.

The Prince can grab onto this brass ring and use it to restore his momentum during a wall run. Doing so is a matter of choice for the player, not a matter of timing.
The Prince can grab onto this brass ring and use it to restore his momentum during a wall run. Doing so is a matter of choice for the player, not a matter of timing.

  • Reduce the tolerances on platforming actions. The game is very forgiving. If you’re running along a wall and you come to a brass ring, you can press a button to have the Prince grab it and use it to extend his (already absurd) wall run. You can press that button almost any time between the moment you begin the run and the moment he falls. As long as you hit the button somewhere in that several-second window, he’ll do it. This takes the focus of the game off of timing and makes it more about broad decision-making. I like that, but veteran platformers hate, hate, hate this. Probably in the same way that I hate auto-aim in an FPS. You’ve cultivated a skill and the game doesn’t give you a chance to use it.

    On “hard” difficulty, the prince could reach for the ring when you hit the button. If you’re too far away, this reach ruins the wall run and causes him to fall.

  • Offer a “hard” combat mode. In the game, if you get into a situation where you would “die”, Elika saves you with her magic and the enemy regains part of their health. From observation, it seems like the first time this happens, they recover 1/2 of any damage. (So if they were nearly dead, they will be back to 50%. If they were at 50%, they will go up to 75%, and if they were at 90%, they will go up to 95%.) This effect diminishes with each successive “death”, going from 1/2 to 1/3, 1/4, and so on. (Again, these are just guesses based on observing the game.)

    I was never all that into the combat, so in a lame bit of exploiting I would just let the bad guy get in a free “kill” right away, thus reducing the risk of the upcoming fight. (I hated when I’d make a mistake in the last moments of a fight and have them shoot back up to 50%.) If I let him kill me first then my blunder wouldn’t cost me more than 33%. (Actually, I only did this in the concubine fights. The other fights were fun enough that I didn’t mind if they went on longer, but fighting the Concubine was always a little one-dimensional. And cheap.)

    But for people who hate this, hard combat mode could simply fully heal the bad guy whenever Elika saves you. This would make the system indistinguishable from all other games – you’re basically starting the fight over from the very beginning, and you can’t proceed until you can beat him in one go.

So, they offer three difficulty switches at the start of the game. But instead of calling them “easy” and “hard”, call them something like “casual” and “advanced”. So, you can put platforming on advanced and the controls would tighten up. You can put puzzles on advanced and the wall scratches would vanish. You can put combat on advanced and lose the ability to beat a boss by wearing him down in repeated attempts. Then offer an achievement for each one. This means the game would have eight distinct difficulty levels. Every player would get to focus on the aspects on the game that they enjoy the most, and downplay those parts that don’t interest them.

Silent Hill 2 and System Shock both had this malleable approach to adjusting the challenge of individual gameplay elements. Interestingly enough, both games have a place in my all-time favorites list.

Games have homogenized their challenge over the last decade or so, offering less difficulty levels, eliminating “easy” mode, and making the remaining difficulty levels much more similar. I hope the next Prince will offer an experience that includes everyone.

Still, it’s a tremendous game. Kudos to Ubisoft.

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From the Archives:

  1. vdgmprgrmr says:

    w00t f1rst p0st!!!!11two!1eleven!121!

    Also, agreed. I just love it when games allow you to choose the difficulty of different aspects of the game. When I first played System Shock (just last week, sadly), I was amazed when I saw the difficulty screen. I liked how the game could be basically made into a puzzler, story, or just a run ‘n’ gun (assuming here, never put the options like that). It was very cool.

  2. Mentalepsy says:

    You could also adjust individual elements of the difficulty in Thief 3. This feature didn’t “officially” make it into the game for release, unfortunately, but the framework was in place for it, so you could get the same results by tweaking .ini files.

    Examples of difficulty elements included AI visual and aural acuity, AI persistence (how long they would look for you before giving up), damage taken and given in combat, percentage of total loot required to finish the mission, number of “special” loot items required (out of three), and so on. I liked outsmarting tough AI, but I was never very good at finding all the available loot, and so the default “Expert” difficulty offered AI that was too easy while forcing me to comb over the missions several times after completing my objectives to find the remaining loot (expert required 90% of total loot and all three special loot items). So, I adjusted the .ini settings to ramp up the AI and tone down the loot requirements, which gave me a much more enjoyable experience more suited to my particular talents (while I was at it, I drastically reduced my carrying capacity, so I could only carry, for example, three flash bombs at maximum instead of twenty).

    It’d be great if more games implemented such features, and I’m disappointed that we still tend to be stuck with “easy medium hard” most of the time. Even in a standard FPS, you could have options for degrees of auto-aiming, enemy and player damage or health multipliers, maximum ammo capacity, reload time, AI aggressiveness, number of weapons that can be carried at once, and so on.

    So what are the good points of New Prince of Persia? Sands of Time is a fantastic game and really brought the Prince of Persia series back with a bang, but after playing the demo of Warrior Within, my interest in the franchise very quickly died.

  3. Shamus says:

    Upside of the new prince:

    * Platforming is a free-flowing blast.
    * Unlike Yahtzee, I really enjoyed the banter between the two main characters. (A lot of this might be related to accents. I just heard them as “regular people”, while Yahtzee heard them as “Americans”. If they both spoke with a Texas drawl I suppose I would have found their banter clanging and out-of-place the way he did.)
    * Interesting premise. Yes, an evil god busts loose, but the reasons for this are interesting.
    * Gorgeous and varied environments.
    * Combat wavers between satisfying and tedious, depending on who you’re fighting and what parts of combat you enjoy.
    * Open-world game. This means the difficulty is flat (bad) but it means you’re not following a pre-set path. (Good.) It’s a matter of taste, but I like it.

  4. Anon says:

    with which I would be down

    We’re all friends here; you can dangle your prepositions in front of us.

  5. tocky says:

    >>instead of calling them “easy” and “hard”, call them something like “casual” and “advanced”

    “Casual” is probably about as bad as “easy”, though. People don’t use “casual” to talk about the games they play, only the games other people play – the way the term is used, nobody who follows games wants to be called a casual gamer.

  6. Kevin says:

    I can remember playing Tomb Raider and screaming about the mother f–king egyptians who built their crazy town without normal sidewalks so that you have to memorize complicated jumping patterns just to go out and grab the morning paper. How much would I have loved the ability to make that insanity more forgiving to accommodate my level of play?

    Apologies to all the hard-core, but the inability to “dumb down” a game is what led me away from conventional gaming and into the arms of WoW. I’m still interested in the scene, and might return if games became scalable to the player. But most games are too long and too hard to maintain my interest. I went from spending lots of money on games to almost nothing.

    That ought to mean something.

  7. Ozzie says:

    This does sound like a great idea.

    What’s wrong with saying “easy” or “hard?” These seem easier to parse than “Casual” and “advanced.”

  8. Shamus says:

    I dislike “easy” and “Hard” because they’re so relative. A newcomer will find “easy” to be quite challenging, and it will be all the worse knowing they’re being smacked around by the supposedly “easy” mode.

    “Casual” and “advanced” are asking you about what kind of player you are. “Easy” and “Hard” are attempting to predict how you’ll perceive the difficulty of the game.

    But the point is taken about how “casual” has become a loaded word, meaning everything from “simple” to “non-punishing” to “slow-paced” to “Bejeweled Clone”.

  9. Ericc says:

    I haven’t played the PoP in years (since the first one, really). But the whole difficulty issue discussed here and in Reset came home to roost on New Years for me.

    We played Horde on Gears of War 2, and my girlfriend (a very casual gamer) had serious difficulties even understanding the world, usage of the controls (her comment: “Invert view? What the hell does that mean?”).

    It really makes a difference to be able to adjust difficulties to match a learning curve. Being able to increase difficulties, and thus add new experiences would increase the replay value of platformers and puzzle games.

  10. Nathaniel says:

    I think “casual” only has the derogatory context to the hard-core gamers, who mostly won’t be using the easier skill levels no matter what they’re called. As someone who typically chooses the “normal” difficulty, I’d be somewhat more likely to choose “casual” than “easy”.

  11. Krellen says:

    @tocky: I’m quite happy to be a “Casual Gamer”. I really don’t care what “Hardcore Gamers” think of me for it. It’s a hobby, not a competition.

  12. Zaghadka says:

    How about “forgiving” and “murderous?” ;)

  13. Zaghadka says:

    And from two of my favorite shooters:

    Wolfenstein 3d

    “Can I Play, Daddy?”
    “Don’t Hurt Me”
    “Bring ’em on.”
    “I am Death incarnate!”

    Crusader: No Remorse

    “Mama’s boy”
    “Weekend Warrior”
    “Loose Cannon”
    “No Remorse”

  14. B.J. says:

    I agree, these are all good ideas. I like the idea of adjustable difficulty for different areas of the game, like some of the Silent Hill games which had separate difficulty settings for puzzles and combat.

  15. JKjoker says:

    i remember crusader being extremely difficult (in a good way, you could usually tackle an encounter the second/third time you played it using some gadgets) in any of the difficulties, the game rocks tho

  16. Mrs. Peel says:

    tocky, I call myself a casual gamer. To me, that’s a reflection of the amount of time/money I can spare for gaming, not a reflection on my “abilities” or “street cred” or whatever as a gamer. I wouldn’t consider “casual” a loaded word.

  17. Taellosse says:

    I have to concur with the other dissidents regarding “casual” being a loaded term. It’s only really loaded for the people that would avoid those settings, I think. I play video games rather a lot, but I’m not a “hardcore” gamer by any stretch–when I first play a game, I invariably set the difficulty down if such an option is available, and any game that punishes me too frequently or harshly for failure tends not to get played a great deal. I’ve played Mass Effect through two and a half times at this point, and still haven’t tried the top two difficulty settings. I’d be perfectly comfortable with putting some difficulty toggles on “casual” if they existed.

  18. Mistwraithe says:

    Normal and Advanced would work fine as names for the difficulty levels (or use Standard instead of Normal, either works).

    I agree people try to avoid picking Easy difficulty because it says something about their ability (or lack of it!). But those same people are perfectly happy not to pick advanced.

  19. Krellen says:

    And again: I always pick easy. At least the first time playing.

  20. Hal says:

    The only thing that worries me about “achievements” in game (since I’m not an XBox owner, I don’t care about those) is that harder difficulties or greater challenges are often rewarded with a different game ending (usually a “good” ending, detailing more of the story). This is highly frustrating for the same reason I dislike 40-player raids in WoW: I hate the idea that game content is locked away from me because I’m not willing to spend years of my life mastering this one game.

    Eternal Darkness is a game that comes up here a lot, but the ending to that game is truly frustrating to me. In order to see the “real” ending of the game, you have to play through three times. Most normal people will beat it once and then be ready to move on to something else. Some people will call it a “reward” for the dedicated, but I call it a punishment to the casual.

  21. Arun says:

    Regarding the platforming difficulty, have you had a look at the Bionic Commando remake? The designers have implemented a very cool system where extra platforms appear and bottomless pits get ‘filled’ in the ‘easy’ mode thereby allowing new players to get used to the lack of a ‘jump’ button. I think difficulties like that would be really great even in FPSs where the levels change to reflect the difficulty that the player is playing on.

  22. Ranneko says:

    That reminds me of how Crysis scales the difficulty. Along with the standard stuff regarding enemy accuracy, damage, etc. It reduces the level of information available from the HUD, and also changes the (Korean) enemies to speak korean when they are coordinating rather than accented english.

  23. Alan De Smet says:

    I loved Prince of Persia, and highly recommend it. I was a bit disappointed with the end.

    I’ll try to avoid details, but SPOILERS LIKELY FOLLOW.

    The entire mess that our hero wanders into is because someone refused to accept a Lesser Badness. So the character did something Profoundly Stupid and Major Badness follows. So the hero and Elika run around cleaning up the mess and fix the Major Badness. But the price tag is that the Lesser Badness is back.

    So now there is a choice: Accept the Lesser Badness and walk away, or decide you can’t, and redo the Profoundly Stupid and bring back the Major Badness.

    Except that’s not the choice. Walking away isn’t an option. You still have control of the hero, but the only actions that the game recognizes are to redo the Profoundly Stupid and bring back the Major Badness. I got to this point and was frustrated. Having watched everything, listened to every line of dialog (assuming I didn’t miss any, I tried to get them all), I decided that the Lesser Badness sucked, but that sacrifices must be made. Nope, I don’t get a say in the matter. This made my jumping through the final few hoops of the game unsatisfying; I was being forced into it, presumably so they could be confident of a sequel.

    But, as a whole, a brilliant game. Everyone should play it!

  24. Thirith says:

    Good points, and it sounds like it would have been relatively easy to implement them. I hope that developers (and, as importantly, publishers) recognise sooner than later that they can keep a larger audience happy by putting a bit of thought into the difficulty issue.

  25. VTGamer says:

    One of the reasons I enjoyed mirror’s edge was the fact that the timing of the platforming were very hard but yet quite precise. Therefore when you did what ever you did, you felt a sense of accomplishment when you did it. I also appreciated that there was the easier slower way…usually…and the harder faster way so you could pick how much you really wanted to make the game hard for yourself. Even better in the hard difficulty mode, they got rid of the “Breadcrumbs” that were used in tinting helpful objects red. While some people were frustrated with the FPS platforming of Mirror’s Edge, I really wished more platform games gave more a fluid risk reward system. I think that Prince of Persia could had that even if it was just a hard platforming mode like you mentioned, but even better would be a reward to do it the hard way.

  26. Jeff says:

    I have to concur with the view that people who take issue with “Casual” won’t be choosing it anyways, so aren’t really a factor for the ones who would actually use that setting. Which makes the name not really a problem.

    I mean, if you hate being labeled casual, you’re probably not the ones who’ll have problems with the game anyways, right?

    Also, eight difficulties? Where’d eight come from?

  27. Robyrt says:

    @Jeff: 2 choices ^ 3 options = 8 difficulty levels.

    This is a great summary of the changes bandied about for a Prince of Persia Hardcore Mode. I liked the Casual Mode (the existing game) but I’d love to have the chance to test myself on Hardcore Mode and hone my combat skills. Also, the “breadcrumb trail” option should decrease the lifetime of Elika’s path-detecting power, similar to Dead Space.

    On semantics: I demo games to non-gamers all the time. They would pick Casual in a heartbeat, and love every minute.

  28. Georgeman says:

    I actually liked the game quite a bit despite having repetitive platforming sections and simplistic combat that was not very rewarding. That is till it I saw the ending. Oh God! It was horrible… and you (yes you the player, not the cutscene) are the one who is forced into bringing the results of it! Aargggh… In a summary, the ending makes you question why the hell you’ve played the game in the first place. And even worse, Ubisoft decided to release a DLC known as “Epilogue”, which is apparently the true ending of the game. Thing is, it’s only available for the PS3 and Xbox360, not the PC. Grrrrr….

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