Count me among those who find the new Prince of Persia a joy to play. I love its try-fail-try again approach, and while I'm not sure I see the direction Ubisoft took with this game as revolutionary, it's certainly a breath of fresh air in the platforming genre. I love the art direction; love the in-the-zone feel of stringing together acrobatic combos; love the character models and overall vibe of the game. Prince of Persia is a gem of a game that you should see and play.
What I don't love is the story, and what I really, really don't love is the Prince, who seems to be Prince of nothing, as far as I can tell. It's a shame that Ubisoft invested so little original thinking in the narrative aspects of this game, especially given its bold and controversial revisions to the genre and to the PoP series itself. It's as if the developers chose to alienate the fanbase only so much, focusing on overhauling the familiar PoP experience of dashing up, over, and around luscious environments, but duct-taping it all together with a worn-out plot featuring yet another muscle-bound wise-cracking cipher in the lead.
The Prince arrives, loudly announcing himself as the sardonic, self-interested, devil-may-care hero whose hard shell, we know, must eventually be dissolved by the tough, beautiful but vulnerable Princess. We know all about this character, of course, because we've seen him dozens of times. By itself, that's okay. We're willing to accept him as part of a long lineage of hard-boiled, soft-hearted Hollywood-style hunks that extends from Rick O'Connell (The Mummy) and Han Solo (Star Wars) all the way back to to Peter Warne (It Happened One Night), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick Charles (The Thin Man). Such a man is a handy guy to have around, especially if you like adventure mixed with a little romance.
Unfortunately, the Prince simply isn't clever, charming, or interesting enough to play in this league. He isn't much of anything, really. Were it not for the fact that the game insists that he occasionally carry Elika to a light seed, it's hard to figure out why he is necessary to the game at all. Elika, the only interesting character in the game, already possesses all the skills required to heal the world. She knows the lore; she knows where to go and what must be done; and she has special powers. She prevents the Prince from plummeting to his death, and she fends off enemies that would otherwise kill him. So why is he there?
He is there because the game is called Prince of Persia, and this fact alone means that Elika must fall in love with him later in the story. Hunky swagger wins the girl every time. What a shame. The game goes out of its way to depict a soulful, altruistic heroine with depth of character and a sensitive, spiritual persona (who also happens to be tough as nails). With no real motivation to do so - and with minimal character development from the Prince (whom we know almost nothing about) - she falls for this narrow-minded, money-grubbing, tomb-raiding, self-absorbed jerk. Would such a woman really fall for a guy whose best retort to her evil father is: "Hey, the next time you want to win your daughter back, you could try giving her a pony. The apocalypse doesn't really cut it." Clever.
Unlike Sands of Time, which features two reasonably well-developed characters that slowly evolve while verbally sparring their way through an adventure, the new Prince of Persia unwittingly makes the case for a silent protagonist. If the big outcome of a hero's journey is that he ends a bit nicer and a bit less defensive than he began, was the journey worth taking? Better to keep such a character mute, in my view, and focus on the truly compelling story being told: Elika's.
Better yet, why not make her the playable protagonist and let the Prince play the clever, wise-cracking sidekick?
What's most missing from the Prince is vulnerability. Each of the characters I noted above possess this virtue, buried somewhere beneath his bravado. Good writers know how to let this little trait sneak out at just the right moment, and when it does we learn more about the man than we ever knew before. Toughness and swagger always conceal something else far more interesting. Except when they don't. In the Prince's case, there's nothing else there.
I agree with Leigh Alexander's notion that engagement is a choice. I can thoroughly immerse myself in a simple game like Animal Crossing if I fully invest in that experience and infuse it with a healthy dose of imagination. I'm sure the same holds true for Prince of Persia, and I don't mean to suggest that every player will or should share my response. But, for me, the game erects too many narrative/character barriers for me to overleap, despite my willingness to do so.
Others have remarked on the strong similarities among the plots of PoP and other games like Twilight Princess and Shadow of the Colossus. If you've played these or other "purge the darkness" narrative games, PoP will probably feel like a worn-out shoe to you, as it did to me. But newer players - the ones Ubisoft clearly hopes to attract - may have no problem with this at all.
Even the best video games derive their plots from a variety of sources. Believable, charismatic characters with detail and nuance can elevate formulaic plots. Prince of Persia has one such character; it should have had two.