Although Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been widely praised as one of the best games in the last decade, many players and critics justly excoriated the game for its combat segments. The swordfighting in that game took up a great deal of time, felt very repetitive, and also was essentially divorced from the platforming activity that took up most of the game and gave it much of its appeal. For the reboot of the franchise beginning with the recently released Prince of Persia, the developers promised a very different take on combat. This they delivered, but the fighting in Prince of Persia nonetheless suffers from most of the same problems as in Sands of Time, and some new ones as well.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons I hold a high opinion of The Two Thrones is that it managed to partially solve the division between combat and platforming that had plagued the previous two games in the series. I had hoped that the PoP team would take the new game further in this direction to seamlessly integrate the two systems. Instead, they went in exactly the opposite direction. In the new Prince of Persia, entering combat feels like entering an entirely different game, one that is utterly divorced from the rest of the world. The changes in the screen are part of this, but there are other aspects, too.
Each battle takes place in a large, open space, meaning that it is nearly impossible to really use the environment in combat. Yes, there are scripted things that can happen involving walls or platform edges, but the variety of acrobatic tricks involving walls and pillars that were possible in the earlier games now seem to be gone. The pacing of the two gameplay modes is also incongruent. The platforming of Prince of Persia is fast and fluid, while the combat is slow and halting. In addition, the platforming doesn’t actually rely very heavily on timing. Especially late in the game, however, the fights devolve into very unforgiving sequences of quick-time events, in which it becomes absolutely essential to get the timing precisely right.
So the combat is divided from the rest of the game by its look, its central activities, its pacing, and its attitude towards towards player error. Because of this it actually feels further apart from the platforming than did the combat in Sands of Time.
The combat also ends up being fairly repetitive. Some of this is due to the fact that you literally must repeat battles with each of the main enemies. Each of the game’s four bosses must be fought six times, and only in the case of the Warrior do the fights change up significantly. The occasional battles against Ahriman’s soldiers hardly provide any variety — the enemies all seem to have essentially the same moveset, and the combat locations differ from each other only in minor ways. Within each fight there is also repetition on account of the different “shields” the enemies can use. Although these have the virtue of pushing the player out of his comfort zone and forcing him to explore the combat tree, each use of a shield forces the fight into a set shield-counter-attack pattern. When the use of a shield is occasional this is not a problem, but as the game goes on your enemies will engage one at every possible opportunity, forcing each fight into a routine. What’s worse, some enemies will keep using the same shield over and over, making the activity even more uniform, and stripping the system of its only virtue.
The main new problem for the combat is that it is all wrong for the character. Part of this comes from the pace of combat. The Prince of this game moves fast and talks fast, but when the sword comes out he starts inching around everywhere like a caterpillar. He’s practically incapable of closing with his enemies, most of whom move with greater speed and fluidity than he. Seeing this man scamper around the land of the Ahura, you might expect that he would fight in a similar manner, using speed, guile, and the environment to defeat his foes. He’s the sort of man you might expect to take on a squad of guards with a dagger and a loaf of bread and somehow trick them all into running each other through. Instead, he fights in a series of one-on-one duels, moving sluggishly around an empty arena with his giant sword.
The weapon itself is also outrageously inappropriate. The man is a thief, after all — he needs a weapon that’s light and easy to carry on his acrobatic forays through crumbling tombs. Instead he gets a blade longer than his legs. You couldn’t walk around your living room wearing that sword without knocking it against a dozen pieces of furniture and every wall, so it’s hard to buy that he can manage wall-runs and navigate ledges with it on. This weapon belongs to the Prince of the previous trilogy, a man obsessed with martial glory, not the tomb raider of the present game.
Prince of Persia has rebooted the franchise with a new storyline, a different look, and significantly altered combat mechanics. Some of these new directions feel like progress, but the combat seems to have taken a step backward, shedding the advances of The Two Thrones in order to revert to the same gameplay division and combat tedium that hurt The Sands of Time, while adding a new wrinkle in that the combat style is now totally unsuited to the Prince himself. All in all, the combat still juts out from the rest of the game like a sore thumb. This brand-new Prince may have a whole new world to explore, but the combat has the same old problems.