How would Pong have felt, were there walls that wouldn’t let any of the two players lose? How would Super Mario Bros. have felt, if shortly after every leap into a man-eating plant’s eager mouth, you’d just be slightly pushed back, without having to redo the whole level?
Would they still be games? To what extent? Isn’t it important for a game to have rules, challenges, winners and losers? „Ain’t it so that the world revolves around the Sun for 365 days in three successive years and then for 366 in the fourth?” (rough quote from Romanian playwright’s I.L. Caragiale’s „Pedagog de şcoală nouă” / „Modern School Teacher”)
What happens when the Prince standing in front of you is utterly oblivious to earthly matters, like plunging from a pinnacle towards some obscure abyss or having to dodge a tar-like monster’s dangling rock fist around your delicate little head?
Would we be looking at a game or a cartoon with a couple of interactive segments?
Prince of Neverland
The Prince of Persia is dead. The concept that Jordan Mechner brought to life back in 1989 is dead, buried, archived somewhere behind the retinas of a few nostalgics. Even 2003’s Prince of the Year, toying with his little scimitar among magical sands will have his memorial soon enough. Their direct descendant is a Prince that’s somewhat dumber, waving his little Tokio Hotel hairstyle around, wearing his rebellious little bandana and flirting, in a Hochland „maybe next time she’ll kiss me” manner with some flying chick.
While the original Prince and his doppelgangers were a classic symbol for the „default” adventurer, the primordial hero, Bruce Campbell, the Sinbad we imagined with a flashlight under our bedcovers in somewhat less cybernetic childhoods, the new hero is… cool and nothing more.
A few brief glances through a trailer of the game can give you a bittersweet taste: the truly beautiful aspects of it – a visual style a la cel-shading, almost perfected to the level of fine art, the color palette, meticulous animations, particle effects and convincing textures are still drawn back by the generic pathways, abstract level structures and a pressing feeling that the characters are a tad too trendy to be believable. All the Prince is lacking to be the apex of teenage „coolness”, in the current context, would be an iPod and a pair of rollerblades.
Naturally, this shouldn’t stop a good story or exciting gameplay from conquering the hearts of generations to come – as an example we’ve got the Final Fantasy series that, no matter how anime it is, with androgynous schoolboys in the main role, „sensitive” conversations or ridiculous animals sprinkled through the lore, is still a solid milestone when it comes to jRPGs.
Lost donkey. Offering reward.
The New Prince (or the New Wave Prince, if you will) appears from a sandstorm into an unknown land, after loading up his donkey with all sorts of dishes and jewelry from various tombs. After saving a princess from a pack of stalkers with obvious not-so-noble intentions, the protagonist discovers that the god of darkness, Ahriman (or Angra Mainyu to the dedicated scholars), is ready to be unleashed upon the world, unless someone does something about it.
The saved princess, Elika, has, for unknown reasons at first, magic abilities that allow her to heal areas of Ahriman’s corruption when getting on certain platforms named „Fertile Grounds”. Done and done – about 90% of the game you’ll have to travel between the locations that make up the world map and find the fertile land off each of them in order to restore order, discipline and birds singing.
The story isn’t all that complex; it doesn’t juggle around with concepts about temporal paradoxes like in the previous series and certainly doesn’t hold many surprises or twists until before the end. For additional back-story details, characters motivations, etc. you can start soft conversations with Elika, but they contain a rather consistent dose of superficiality and childish clumsiness.
The story’s concept and the illustration of a few religious subtleties are way better done, partially due to the fairy tales graphics and partially because, as they say, religion is the most consistent narrative oasis when it comes to making up the base for some epic saga. The design and storyline are pretty closely knit together to Zarathustra’s religion, an Iranian prophet that even Nietzsche flirted with in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”.
It’s fairly improbable that the same people who recognize and appreciate the tiny islands of theological referrals make up any part of the “Pokémon dialogues” demographic, but it’s worth mentioning that for whoever’s looking for a bit of depth, it’s there, even if blurry, in the background.
The narrative unveils progressively, as you heal the game’s areas. The order you choose stands at your choosing and you can always teleport into a “clean” area to avoid boredom caused by running the same errand too many times, as long as you’re on fertile ground at the moment. The game mechanic, the idea that you’re eliminating a visible evil from a corrupted area is pretty motivating –one we’ve albeit seen before in Okami, or adversely in American McGee’s Grimm.
You go through a zone, you clean it and then you can explore the same places, but instead of being gray, dark and dirty, they look like a sunny day in The Shire. Truth be told, everything does look very good and you feel like a productive ecologist. Except that you’ll be doing it for many hours to come that it gets too repetitive to keep alternating between two versions of the same level – especially since there’s no strong narrative motivation like in, say, the Soul Reaver series that gets you pumping effort into seeing what goes on next.