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The Future of Prince of Persia

The 2008 Prince of Persia
The Prince is waiting

Prince of Persia, long before becoming the 3D action-adventure franchise it is today, was originally a simple 2D PC platformer with the most basic gaming premise: rescue a princess from an evil bad guy. It spawned two mediocre sequels in the 90s, but didn't become a phenomenon until the 2003 reboot, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which would itself be responsible for three sequels, a movie, comic books, Legos, and much more. In 2008, two years before the movie, Ubisoft attempted a second reboot with the love-it-or-hate-it Prince of Persia, which set itself up to be the launching point of a new series. However, despite a loyal fanbase and interesting gameplay, Prince of Persia is generally considered a failure, with most fans of the franchise longing for a return to The Sands of Time. When they got it with last year's film and the all-new game set in that universe, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, the numbers were disappointingly low. Now, with no information on the horizon about the franchise's future and designers at Ubisoft being reluctant to discuss it, one has to wonder if the Prince is officially dead.

Video game franchises, though, have a stubborn habit of staying alive even in the worst of times. The staying power of Sonic the Hedgehog, Silent Hill, Castlevania and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, among many others, attest to this. Therefore, I've decided to take it upon myself to imagine what a future Prince of Persia title might look like. I have been a fan of the franchise since the original PC game (which I played on a school's Apple II back in the day) and have enjoyed both of the subsequent reboots (I even liked the movie), so I have high hopes that it can return in some form or another. Still, it's hard to imagine Ubisoft recapturing the magic of The Sands of Time and it's uncertain whether or not they will return to their 2008 reboot, even though they promised, at the time, that they would.

As with all my fanboy speculations in this vein (such as my "The Future of Zelda" or "The Future of 5 Video Game Franchises"), I must make some disclaimers. I have no delusions about how much influence I could or should have on video game designers. I do not expect that my ideas will become the actual future of the franchise, and I will not allow myself to be greatly disappointed if the makers of the next game fail to read my blog (or my mind) and heed my advice. What follows are the speculations of a single fan, and I do not expect them to be treated as anything greater than that.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
2010's Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, despite some very cool gameplay, didn't sell as well as Ubisoft hoped it would

The first question that must be addressed from the start is what universe to set the game in. You could try to find another story within The Sands of Time games, but that story has pretty effectively been told, not to mention the loud and clear warning producers should get from the lackluster sales figures for The Forgotten Sands. You could also continue the story laid out in the 2008 reboot, which would please many fans, but that would make it difficult to bring in a new audience or bring back the fans who were turned off by 2008's Prince of Persia, of which there are many. Lastly, you could attempt yet another reboot, but you would run the risk of becoming an industry joke along the lines of those franchises mentioned above and ensuring an almost permanent level of audience fatigue.

I know it sounds like I want to have my cake and eat it too, but I think some combination of all three is in order. Probably the biggest complaint fans of The Sands of Time had against the 2008 Prince of Persia was the loss of the time-shifting gameplay that made the former series so groundbreakingly original. The reboot attempted to replicate certain aspects of the dagger of time gameplay by ensuring that the Prince would always be saved from a bad jump by his magical companion, Elika, (designers called this aspect of the gameplay "error management") but that felt cheap. Still, something like that is absolutely necessary, because the platforming in the franchise has always been incredibly punishing and difficult. Things like the dagger of time and Elika's magic helping hand make the parkour manageable and fun, and without them, the games would be far too difficult for anyone but the most hardcore of players. But because the "you can never die" mechanic of 2008 went too far and took away much of the game's intensity and excitement, I believe that the next game should include something more like the dagger of time and less like Elika. This would make the next game reminiscent of The Sands of Time without necessitating a return to that universe.

Elika saving the Prince
Time travel is better than magically levitating sidekicks

Luckily, the storyline of 2008's reboot is open-ended enough that the Prince's tale could go almost anywhere. This is why I think a return to that storyline is in order, though the gameplay should, in many ways, be more like The Sands of Time. Besides, most fans agree that the art style of 2008's game was cool, so seeing it come back for the next game would not be unwelcome. I would therefore continue the story of the Prince from the 2008 game (though we know very little about the character, including his name or if he even is a prince), but I wouldn't have Elika accompanying him this time around. Elika could fit into the story, but her role would need to be downgraded from constant companion to something more ancillary. Heck, you could even put her in distress, setting the story more in line with the original. The 2008 Prince has been established as a wandering adventurer, so the story could easily see him once again coming to a new land and encountering new things.

This is why the next game could be thought of as a reboot even though the story would technically be following the 2008 game and the gameplay would be more reminiscent of The Sands of Time. The 2008 reboot lost many staples of the series' storyline, including the villainous vizier (Jaffar in the original series and simply "The Vizier" in The Sands of Time) and the Prince's father, King Sharaman. These could be brought back, though they certainly don't have to fit the same mold. As with any good reboot, familiar ideas should appear, but they should be shuffled somewhat to seem brand new.

Which is also what should be done with the gameplay. While I absolutely believe the designers should stick close to the gameplay of the four games of The Sands of Time, I think some elements of the 2008 reboot should also be used and, most importantly, something completely new needs to be added to the mix. Opinions run strong concerning the many controversial gameplay choices of 2008's Prince of Persia, from the incessant collectables to the fact that you only fight one enemy at a time. The latter should probably be discarded, because the lack of groups of enemies takes away the game's sense of action, making it feel far more plodding and methodical than such an adventure should. Still, much of the fighting mechanics of the reboot can be preserved, because there were many vast improvements over those of previous installments. Granted, the stealth kills from The Two Thrones could make a repeat performance, but when it comes to fighting, designers should probably shy away from the repetitive mechanics of The Sands of Time and take inspiration from the far more fluid and interesting mechanics of the 2008 game.

Screenshot from 2008's Prince of Persia
As long as there's parkour and beautiful scenery, it'll feel like Prince of Persia

However, while juggling the most succesful aspects of previous games, game designers need a hook that keeps the next installment fresh, above being a mere shadow of greatness. This is perhaps the hardest thing anybody has to deal with whenever adding to any beloved franchise, be it a video game, a movie, a novel, or anything else. It's tough to brainstorm "something new" without falling into the trap of pulling ideas from other sources. For example, you could argue that a fresh take would be to use the parkour stylings of Mirror's Edge or Assassin's Creed (the acknowledged spiritual successor to Prince of Persia), but you'd be wrong, because these styles, while neat, are no longer "fresh." That's why I don't pretend this is an easy task, even though I believe it is absolutely critical for any future game in the franchise.

In short, these are the necessary ingredients for a future Prince of Persia game: punishing parkour-style platforming, an action/adventure feel, a beautiful panoramic setting (ideally in historic Persia), a storyline that involves a rogueish "prince" (and hopefully a villainous vizier), an "error management" system akin to the dagger of time, a fighting style that utilizes the lessons learned from every previous installment, and something new and exciting. If any one of those ingredients is missing, there is no real point in making a new game. Even then, of course, I will still play it, though I doubt it could ever be as successful as the games that preceded it. All thing considered, I don't believe the franchise is dead and I absolutely believe it can make a strong and worthwhile comeback. Here's hoping it does.

-e. magill 4/20/2011

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