The Prince of Persia trilogy (The Sands of Time, Warrior Within, and The Two Thrones) is quite possibly my favorite game series of all time. So much so that I played the mid-quel game The Forgotten Sands (it’s okay). So much so that I bought the Prince of Persia reboot, despite hearing that it had little to nothing in common with the original trilogy, despite hearing that it wasn’t very good.
Here’s a brief review before I get into the meat of my intended topic: Despite having breathtaking environments, gorgeous character design, and several neat ideas, The Prince of Persia (2008) is, in one word, tedious. Its controls are too simplistic for an adult to enjoy, but there’s too much adult humor for a child to enjoy it. The Prince can’t die, either in combat or in platforming, which along with the restrictive, inexact controls and the “catch em all” nature of the quest make the game irritating at best. There are no upgrades or abilities beyond what essentially amount to keys to the next area, so there is no tangible sense of progression. We’re given very little reason to care about the main characters outside of optional dialogue opportunities that are far too easy to miss. And the ending!
On to the point.
The main problem of the reboot is its pacing. The Prince of Persia trilogy has each game’s story fall into basic three-act structure, much as a movie script would. There’s the inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action. But what I’m going to focus on is one specific element, falling often late in the second act, which the games of the original trilogy contain: an identifiable nadir.
Nadir means “opposite” in a literal context; an object’s nadir is the farthest from its zenith, and its lowest point. In fiction, this word is used to indicate the main characters’ lowest point. The moment when it seems impossible that they can recover to accomplish their goals. The moment when it seems like failure is at hand.
In The Sands of Time, Warrior Within, and The Two Thrones, you can see three respective nadir (bonus points to The Two Thrones for managing to make its nadir also that of the entire series).
Why do stories implement nadir? To increase the tension, certainly, but also to make the ending more satisfying. Even more than this, though, what a good writer can make of a nadir, and the reason they’re an excellent plotting tool, is that showing the characters at their lowest point, and how they react to this moment, defines who they are. This moment, giving in to despair or clinging to hope or pushing through with determination, is one of the few moments the audience is almost certain to remember about your story. This makes the audience care for the character in question, root for them, which makes their eventual success or failure more powerful.
The Prince of Persia (2008) seems, at first, not to have a nadir. It’s a constant climb toward the end battle, with no twists or turns of the plot. The end feels inevitable…right up until after the final boss. The denouement, usually reserved for tying up the loose ends of the story, serves here to give us our first real glimpse of the Prince as a character, beneath his bravado and his wit. It gives us a view of him, wounded, hurting. It makes us care about him, for the first time. It gives us the nadir.
Let me repeat that. The Prince of Persia reboot waits until what is essentially the epilogue to give us the nadir, a storytelling tool meant to be used before heading into the third act. The game ends just as it starts to get interesting.
Some will argue that this is an intentional choice; that, rather than a misplaced, misused plot element, this is in fact a downer ending, one in which the characters don’t get whatever they want and live happily ever after. They call it a rare show of bravery by AAA video game developers, an attempt to treat the game itself as a work of art that isn’t bound to tropes common to games. They’re likely to compare this to Shadow of the Colossus as they do. I can see where people come to that conclusion.
However, I have a few reasons to refute that notion.
The first reason is because we never before see the Prince giving real, unfiltered emotional responses. He always has a wall up, never letting anything get to him. Losing his donkey? He’s fine. Losing his gold? Some minor whining. Being drawn in to a potentially world-ending conflict in which he has to place himself directly on the bad side of a dark god, fighting said god’s immortal monstrous minions? You gotta do what you gotta do. But this, the moment at the end of the game, the moment where the witty retorts and the friendly bickering stop? This is the Prince that we need to see going in to the third act. We need to see his resolve, his anger, his regret. But instead, we only see it for a moment.
The second reason is because the plot is too simplistic, too predictable, for an entire story. There aren’t really trials that the main characters go through. Sure, each area is supposed to offer its own challenges, and sure, each quadrant of the map is supposed to build to an epic confrontation with a boss. But there is never a question about whether and how the Prince will accomplish the next task, no questions at all except “where the heck am I?” (The map isn’t very helpful) and “why aren’t the quick-time events working?” (the controls aren’t very responsive). And while there are minor reveals to the game, none of them are what I’d call surprising. They’re all foreshadowed over such a long period that I was waiting for the reveals. It all feels stretched out, as if half a game’s plot was taken and used for the plot of the entirety.
The third reason is that the quest design isn’t just simple; it’s inherently tedious. Tedious; there’s that word again. In this case, it’s a simple formula: Travel to new area, purify the corruption, collect all the shiny orbs. Do that four times to upgrade your abilities so that you can access more areas, rinse and repeat, four more times. Sixteen areas in all. It gets boring after the first set of four. But imagine if instead of sixteen levels, you had eight, and unlocked a new ability at every two. Imagine if the second set of eight were completely different, if the objectives were different. Imagine if it introduced a mechanic that turned the game on its head (like Warrior Within did), or took away a safety net you’d come to rely on (like Sands of Time did). Instead, you repeat the same actions, fight the same bosses, almost literally ad nauseam.
Most likely, this mistake wasn’t born from laziness or from greed. Either way they chose to take the story, this was supposed to be the first in a series. The story was supposed to go on, featuring these characters. I feel instead that the developers of this game made the same mistake that a lot of writers make when planning a series; saving all the cool stuff for the sequel. I’m willing to bet they had grand plans about a world-spanning adventure in the second game; it’s even referenced at one point, when one of the main characters speaks of “Other Fertile Grounds” outside of the city. They had plans to escalate this threat, to develop its characters, to surprise the players. But when you save all the good stuff for the sequels, you can wind up with the worst case scenario: The first one is so boring that no one wants a sequel.
I just hope that this game’s failure doesn’t put the Prince of Persia name on the shelf indefinitely.