Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft
Box Quote: “Like one of those rides at Epcot Center, but in a good way.” -- Iroquois Pliskin, versusclucluland.blogspot.com
Full Disclosure: Even though I'm awfully good at video games, I'm what Mitch Krpata would call a tourist. If I wanted a gaming experience founded on the systematic humiliation I would just go out and play golf. Though death is a fine tool for teaching the player the rules of a video game, I think that the course of civilization has brought forth effective pedagogical alternatives to routinized cruelty. People forget that if you remove the soulcrushing frustration from golf (the putting-the-ball-in-the-hole part), you still have walking around outdoors drinking with your friends for a couple of hours. Nobody complains that strolling around manicured hillsides and sipping on malted hops is too easy.
Gameplay: Despite appearances to the contrary, Prince of Persia is not a character action game. Think of it as “Parappa the Rapper meets Aquanaut's Holiday” and you're getting in the right frame of mind to appreciate what it's trying to accomplish. The series' trademark acrobatic platforming has been reimagined as an exercise in rhythm-based gameplay: you hit various buttons with correct timing to transition from wallruns to bar swings to longjumps. By eliminating death from the scenario (your magical companion swoops in every time you fall into an abyss and cheerfully deposits you on the last bit of stable ground you touched), the game encourages you to traverse the game-world without stopping to think about your next move. And this is how Prince of Persia goads the player into pursuing its core experience: falling into a rhythm, sight-reading your path on the fly and losing yourself in the simple joys of motion. The legibility of the environments (there's always clear visual cues-- scratched-out patches on the wall, woodlined crevices, blocky hooks-- that indicate the right course through the world) removes the “puzzle” from “puzzle-platforming,” but your compensation is the fact that the world itself is a shimmering, colorful treasure. It's the closest approximation of an inhabitable painting yet seen in video games, and over the eight hours it took me to complete the game its relentless beauty never wore on me. It's a world that exists to be seen, not beaten. Bits of rhythm-based combat and simple lever-pulling puzzles interrupt the platforming at points, and while both are diverting, these elements seem to exist in order to punctuate the platforming segments rather than compel in their own right.
Story: Much like Sands of Time, the newest entry focuses on the flirtatious relationship between the reluctant hero and his fetching consort. The female lead this time around is Elika, the princess of a corrupted kingdom whose moving plight slash diaphanous clothing attracts the attention of the roguish protagonist; you spend the game healing her cursed realm and letting the dalliance marinate. Prince of Persia's designers took an unusual tack on the delivery of the narrative: instead of mandatory cutscenes, they allow the player to initiate a brief conversation between the prince and Elrika by hitting a shoulder button. While I thought this technique was a step back from Sands of Time's seamless integration of voiceover narration and conversation into the action itself, the quality of the voice acting and scripting are both noteworthy for their competence. The prince has a chuckle-worthy wisecrack or two in him, and this was incentive enough to take a moment for reflection between wallruns. But really, all the romance is in the charming physicality of the platforming itself: the way the Elrika clings to the Prince's back as you scramble across vines, the way they swing around each other in order to exchange places on a beam, the way that Elika's jump-extending fling becomes a natural part of your own movements. These kids dance so well together that their falling for each other seems inevitable, and this is as it should be. The unexpectedly poignant finale was a fitting counterpoint to the breezy, swashbuckling tone of the narrative and presented the player with the one of the few real ethical dilemmas of the holiday season: turn the console off, or finish the game?
The Takeaway: If you're like me, you've spent a lot of time the last few months wandering from one bombed-out warzone to another. Why not let a game transport you somewhere you want to be?