Wherein I lambast a beloved and well-reviewed game. Read on for my own special brand of heresy…
I loved Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It was an incredible game with great characters, a fun story, and excellent gameplay. It would have been a brutal, merciless slog of instant-death jumping puzzles if not for the key feature that made me love the game: You can rewind the last five seconds or so of action, letting you correct a missed jump or bad step without enduring the punishment of replaying the entire level over from the start.
The pace of the game is much to my liking. Instead of a mad dash, the game lets you pause and check out the scenery, admire the view, and puzzle your way through as to how in the heck you can ascend some massive crumbling tower or descend into a deep chasm without breaking your neck. Can I make that jump? Looks pretty far. I’ll try it. If I misjudge, I’ll rewind and look for another way. It was a game which encouraged experimentation instead of punishing it. In a perfect world this sort of thing would be the rule, not the exception.
This weekend I finished with the (second) sequel, Prince of Persia: Two Thrones…
By “finished” I mean I’m done with it. I didn’t see the end of the story. I should have skipped this one. It mostly delivers the casual pace and brain-tickling acrobatics of the original, but throughout the game are sections where this gameplay is taken away. In these parts you play as the “dark prince”, and when this is going on your health is constantly draining. You can only replenish it by speeding through the area to reach the next “checkpoint”. If you’re too slow, then you’ll die before you get there and have to play the whole thing over again. Suddenly the experimentation and exploration of the original are gone, and you have to practice an area until you can do it well enough to meet with the exacting standards of the game. These parts are like trying to solve a crossword while someone smacks you in the back of the head repeatedly, “Come on dummy! Quicker! Hurry up loser! You suck! Do it again!”
I made it through these sections grudgingly, allowing the game to senselessly waste my time because I knew there was more fun to be had up ahead.
Around mid-game I reached a point where I had to do a very stupid puzzle. I expended all of my sand doing it (thus I couldn’t rewind and correct mistakes) and as soon as the puzzle was solved I was thrown into a “chariot race”, a chase scene with about a hundred ways to get instantly killed along the way. Without the ability to rewind, I had to do the Entire. Thing. Perfectly. This nearly cost me a controller. This was a rude and asinine move on the part of the developers, obviously designed to deplete player resources before throwing them into a challenging part of the game.
And then right after the chariot race was a boss fight. It began with an un-skippable cutscene. It was stupid and pointless the first time I saw it, but by the twentieth time I watched the cutscene it was nearly obscured behind a white-hot cloud of rage.
Note to UbiSoft: You guys owe me that hour of my life back, you cruel hacks.
I did manage to slog through that unrewarding mess.
And then I got to the end game, which made the earlier chariot race / boss fight look tame by comparison.
The fight against the end boss starts with this elevator ride. It’s short, but there is nothing to do but wait to reach the top. This isn’t bad a couple of times, but somewhere around the twentieth trip up you’ll wonder why the developers couldn’t start you off at the damn top. Then there is the first section of the fight, which isn’t hard once you know the trick, but it is painfully time consuming. Then the second section comes along, and requires a good bit of patience and dexterity. Again, nothing unexpected in a boss fight, but it eats up a good chunk of time every time you take another run at this boss. And then the final section of the fight happens. You must now leap from one floating platform to another. The sequence of jumps is long, complex, and must be done very quickly because the bad guy is constantly pummeling you with fireballs (or whatever) that knock you down and chip away your health. The only way to reach him is to practice until you have the sequence memorized. Keep in mind that you must continue to endure the elevator ride and the first two sections of the fight for each attempt, where you’ll get to learn a couple more steps of the sequence before you’re sent back to the beginning. About five jumps into it I did the math and realized it was going to cost me an hour or more of defeat and frustration before I’d even get a chance at beating this guy, and I realized I just didn’t care anymore. I sent it back to Gamefly without seeing the end. I would have liked to know how the story turned out, but I can’t imagine when I would ever have one or two hours to waste on such a thankless and repetitive task just to see the last couple of minutes of cutscene.
Even days later I’m still angry at this game. There are already a hundred “platformer” games that have this practice-makes-perfect dynamic going on. I just don’t see why people like me couldn’t be allowed to have our one title that breaks these conventions and gives us something less frustrating.
If you read reviews elsewhere you’ll see tons of praise for this game. It’s gotten awards and and glowing reviews. I’m glad other people are able to forgive these flaws, but for me it’s like finding a live, wriggling beetle in your taco. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoyed it before you found the beetle, because once it happens it will pretty much overshadow whatever other impressions you may have had about the experience. You aren’t going to think about the taste or the polite service, you are going to remember biting that bug. I can’t fault the game on technical details. The production values are high, the graphics are good, voice acting, yadda yadda yadda. Who cares? It ruined the gameplay I love by betraying the mechanic that made the game special in the first place, which is why my ire goes above simply not liking it.
I do think I’ll see if I can pick up a used copy of Sands of Time. I could go for another run through that game.
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