Version tested: PlayStation 3
High definition may be all the rage these days, but the recent rush of HD collections – God of War, Sly Cooper and now Prince of Persia – owes more to the unique way videogame platforms used to be sent off to the glue factory four or five years after release.
In some respects it's cynical. With PlayStation 2 and particularly Xbox now airbrushed from history, and only piecemeal backwards compatibility on the new formats, publishers recognise the potential to make some more money off old games. But then these games might otherwise be lost, or at least off-limits to a new generation of gamers, and in some cases that would be a real shame. This Prince of Persia Trilogy is a good example.
Admittedly, the "high definition" element of the update is only a partial success. The Sands of Time, first released in 2003, stands up well – its curvy, wind-hewn masonry, cartoon-like character models and penchant for translucent veils and light diffused through sparkly sand preserve its ethereal atmosphere against the ravages of time. But the younger games, Warrior Within and Two Thrones, are home to some ghastly animations and character models introduced as the developers sought a mainstream audience. Look past that, though (and the eight-minute mandatory hard-disk install) and this is a fine compilation.
The Sands of Time is the predictable standout. The Prince of Persia and his dad are flush with new toys after a playable intro where you invade India and loot the Maharajah's city, but one such trinket, a dagger, unleashes unspeakable horrors when a treacherous Vizier tricks you into releasing the Sands of Time. It's bad news for the Prince, but for us what follows is a cleverly told, atmospheric platform adventure in a mysterious palace full of excellent ideas and puzzles.
The Prince is easy to control and has a useful range of abilities – he runs up and along walls, has never met a ledge he can't hang from or sidle along, and knows his way around a trapeze – but the important thing is that he does everything fast and moves fluidly between actions, which back in 2003 gave Sands of Time an advantage over clunkier rivals like the then-ailing Tomb Raider. Others have caught up since, but the Prince still holds his own.
It was rewinding time that helped the series make its name, though, and it's still a welcome idea, better implemented here than in many derivatives. Should you foul up a jump or take one too many hits in combat, you can use the Dagger of Time to rewind a few seconds' worth of gameplay and do things differently.
It was no surprise to see time-manipulation return in other games and genres in the years that followed Sands of Time, but it is perhaps surprising that some of the game's other good ideas never caught on. Whenever you reach a save point, for example, you're shown a cool little video montage of things you're about to do, and, with frequent checkpoints evenly spaced, more often than not it compels you to continue rather than call it a day.
There's nothing jarringly anachronistic about Sands of Time either, although you may be surprised at how small a distance the Prince can fall and still perish compared to his superhumanly resilient descendants and contemporary cousins. There are some rough edges though, especially the combat, which is dull and increasingly frustrating as you get to the end of the game, while switches in camera perspective often catch you out elsewhere.
These things are easily overlooked, however, and the game is rather more easily remembered for its superb atmosphere, simple and elegant presentation and of course its marquee puzzles. Contrived they may have been, but the menagerie and the library, among many others, were and remain wonderful places to explore and conquer.
Off the back of that, we all had high hopes for Warrior Within, and it was a nice enough idea. Despite his best efforts to undo the mess he made at the start of The Sands of Time, the Prince is pursued to the ends of the earth by the monstrous Dahaka, who upholds the timeline. In his desperation, the Prince journeys to the Island of Time to try to sort this out, "you cannot change your fate" ringing in his ears.
He's not the Prince we remember though. He's angry, rude and bitter. He's forced into combat a lot more often too, and while it should more fluid and diverse than the first game's, really it's just the same system with more easy-to-forget combos and a broader range of aggravating enemies. There are long, arduous boss and mini-boss fights, not to mention enemies who leap frantically around the screen whenever you swing your sword, and most encounters are a tortuous grind.
Confusedly hopping back and forth in the timeline and referring to a useless map, you also discover that the platforming has lost its zip and panache. Checkpoints are frequently positioned right after a battle that is itself preceded by a long sequence of dull jumps, forcing you to redo everything when you inevitably perish the first two or three times. The camera is worse too, often failing to frame up relevant ledges and platforms or giving you the wrong impression about where to go next, leading to many unnecessary deaths.
The attention to detail from Sands of Time is gone. The sense of isolation is still there, but not because you're alone – because you're in a fortress full of gits. It's not a happy game.
Fortunately, all was mostly forgiven with the third instalment. The Two Thrones sees the Prince heading home to Babylon with his new girlfriend, only to discover it overrun by the forces of an old enemy, who quickly makes his life miserable and releases the pesky Sands of Time again, turning everyone into angry monsters for the umpteenth time.
There's still a lot of combat, but the grind is mitigated by a new stealth kill system that allows you to manoeuvre around enemies using platforms, trapezes, switches and ledges, often saving you the tedium of having to worry about crowd control and pressing the square button a lot. Yes, it's a precursor to Assassin's Creed in many respects – just look at the Prince's new outfit.
There's a new Dark Prince angle, but this injects variety rather than the ill-advised angst and frustration of the second game, and elsewhere Two Thrones is a noticeably better effort in every respect – heavier on mischievous environmental traps and puzzles and captivating acrobatic sequences than Warrior Within, and much closer to Sands of Time in atmosphere and detail. It introduces new ways to move around the environment, teaches the Prince some manners again and takes the trilogy out on a high.
All the same, by this stage we were growing tired of Prince of Persia, and it was no real surprise that Ubisoft struggled to recapture its former glories with the subsequent 2008 reboot and this year's already-forgotten Forgotten Sands. The spirit of the Sands lives on though – most notably in Assassin's Creed – and for those gamers who weren't around eight years ago to see where that began, this is an enjoyable history lesson that survives the test of time.
8 / 10