All Your History: Prince of Persia Part 3
The Prince of Persia franchise had made an unlikely comeback. An underground phenomenon when it first released, the series tanked with the ho-hum Prince of Persia 3D. But French publisher Ubisoft’s faith in the franchise led them to give it to their new studio in Montreal. Young and inexperienced, the team nevertheless created one of the most innovative and recognizable games of its generation. But while the time-warping antics of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time were sensational for fans and critics alike, it somehow didn’t lead to the kind of sales that Ubisoft was hoping for. But now that Ubisoft knew that the Prince could leave a mark, they wanted to make him into a must-have property. To do that, he’d be appearing more often than ever before.
Prince with a Thousand Faces
With the critical success of Sands of Time, Ubisoft decided to double down on the Prince. Literally. They knew that creative director Patrice Desilets had been a huge factor in the series’ rebirth, so they asked him to do it again. Desilets was tasked with making a another new Prince game, this time in HD for the upcoming seventh generation of consoles. He brought his team along with him.
In the meantime, a new team, still under producer Yannis Mallat, was tasked with making a direct sequel to Sands of Time for a release only a year later. For this game, they wanted to expand the game’s appeal to a broader audience, so that its sales would match its critical reception. To that end, the team swung hard towards emerging trends in the industry: they went for darker, grittier, and bloodier. The idea was to make the game a much more action-oriented experience, with a gruffer tone to match.
While it wasn’t a bad idea, at some point they lost control of it. The bright, light-hearted feel of the original was completely swept aside, leaving them with a much bleaker and blander world. The great music was replaced by guitar riffs and, during certain sequences, samples from the band Godsmack. Even voice actor Yuri Lownethal was replaced by the gravelly Robin Atkin Downes. And then there was the representation of women, which went from very tasteful in the first game to… let’s not go there.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within became something of the inverse of its predecessor on its release in November Two Thousand Four, a commercial success but a critical disappointment. While the combat was cited as being much improved, everything else that had made the original stand out was missing. But with its stronger sales, it also proved that the franchise was still thriving.
So Ubisoft greenlit another sequel, once again for release only a year later, making for three Prince games in as many years. The team had the tough chore of trying to combine everything that fans loved from the first game with the broader success of the second. They also wanted to make sure that the story was a logical continuation of the grim Warrior Within, while being more lighthearted like Sands of Time.
Fortunately, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones did a fantastic job of wrapping the narrative around the theme of redemption. This allowed them to start the Prince off in the same bleak state as Warrior Within, but change him back into his older self as the game progressed. In fact, the Prince would literally find himself battling an evil twin as a gameplay mechanic. To show his journey back to the light side, Yuri Lowenthal was back voicing the Prince.
Gameplay-wise, it didn’t change too much from Warrior Within, except that it added chariot races.
But brighter colors, a warmer tone, and much more likeable characters all combined to bring Two Thrones a level above its predecessor, finally both a commercial and critical success. It was a fantastic note to close the trilogy out on, since this game was to be the end of the Prince’s journey on the sixth generation of consoles. His next adventure would be in HD from Desilets.
Except it wasn’t. During production on the HD Prince, Desilets had been doing some research into the Crusades, to give it a more authentic feel. As he dove into the history of the Crusade-era Assassin order, however, he started gearing the game to be more realistic and historically accurate. While the result looked amazing, it didn’t feel like the Prince of Persia. But Ubisoft’s executives were smart enough to realize that Desilets was onto something, and so they agreed to let him keep going under a different name. Prince of Persia HD became Assassin’s Creed, a spiritual successor to the Sands of Time trilogy. It featured parkour and combat like the Prince, but it’s historical setting and more sophisticated themes let it stand on its own two feet. The game was the fastest-selling new IP in history on release, and has gone on to be a wildly successful franchise still going strong to this day.
Oddly enough however, this didn’t stop an HD Prince of Persia from coming out! Prince of Persia Classic released in Two Thousand Seven, the original game rebuilt with a modern engine. It kept the same levels and mechanics as Jordan Mechner’s old masterpiece, but layered on the art design of the Sands of Time era with the graphical powerhouse of the seventh console generation. Everything old was new again.
But Ubisoft hadn’t quit on the Prince of Persia brand just because Desilets’ game became Assassin’s Creed. Once the Two Thrones shipped in Two Thousand Five, that crew immediately set off to work on a ground-up reimagining of what and who the Prince was. The Two Thrones’ producer, Ben Mattes, wanted to take that opportunity to rethink certain gaming conventions that had simply become accepted within the industry.
To that end, the new game, called The Kindred Blade, featured a new art style, a new world, and new characters. While the central ideas of platforming, combat, and adventure all remained, not much else did. The Prince would once again be fighting enemies one-at-a-time, as he hadn’t done since the original Mechner game. The Prince’s entire moveset would be available from the beginning — there would be no progression. The level design was nonlinear and dynamic, with a constantly evolving landscape that would be different depending on how players went through them. And for the entire experience, the Prince would be followed by a companion character, Elika, who could aid him in any number of ways.
Chief among these was her ability to save the hero from death. All the time. No matter if players missed a jump, or lost to an enemy, Elika would immediately and instantly save the Prince. It was the culmination of a long-running belief in the gaming industry that death was dead. In other words, the old idea of dying came from the arcade era, when companies wanted kids to put in another quarter. In the home console era, that didn’t make any sense, so why bother with it?
With all of this creativity in mind, it was with great fanfare that Ubisoft released Prince of Persia in December Two Thousand Eight, although without the Kindred Blade subtitle. Unfortunately, it never got off the ground. Critics and fans alike were split on the title: was it a daring experiment in game design, or a misunderstanding of what the Prince was supposed to be? In particular, the inability to die was seen as a cheapshot by gamers looking for a challenge. It was if the game had no difficulty whatsoever.
While some gamers liked the new art direction and mechanics, the new Prince of Persia was a nonstarter at retail.
But at the same time, an older Prince was getting a second chance at life. All the way back in Two Thousand Three, franchise creator Jordan Mechner cut together a trailer using footage from The Sands of Time. He wanted to follow his lifelong dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter, and he was going to do it by adapting his own game. He pitched the idea with his trailer in tow, and no less than Disney liked what they saw. Superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer soon signed on to make it, and Mechner followed his dream and wrote a script.
Sadly, Hollywood decided to be Hollywood, and a revolving door of other writers came in, rewrote it, and left again. The final product reached screens in May of Twenty Ten. The similarities to the original game Sands of Time included the title, the dagger of time, and the sands of time themselves. Other than that… there was no real connection. A confused plot and lackluster direction did no justice to the source material, without offering a good alternative. Star Jake Gyllenhaal in particular took quite a bit of flack from fans, mostly because he is in no way Persian; the old Hollywood model of casting a white lead, regardless of the role, just didn’t hold water in the modern era.
After Disney threw a hundred million dollars at the movie and marketed it with all their muscle, it was supposed to be the first great game-to-film adaptation. It wasn’t. The film flopped at the box office, and sadly, has probably convinced Hollywood that games cannot make good films. That being said, it is the highest-grossing game adapatation of all time. Just don’t expect a sequel anytime soon.
Typically, when Hollywood releases a big blockbuster movie, they also release a video game. But in this case, the movie was based on a game. What to do? Make another one! Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands took place between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, and released alongside the film. Essentially, Ubisoft wanted another Prince game to tie in with the film, so they rather ungracefully invented a new story and shoved it within the existing trilogy. The game itself, while nominally adhering to the old Prince tenets of platforming, combat, and time warping, ended up rather luckluster. The Forgotten Sands was quickly… well… forgotten.
Currently, no more Prince games have been announced. It’s possible that the franchise has simply run its course, or that Ubisoft believes that Assassin’s Creed better fulfils the desire for platforming-adventure. Then again, Ubisoft could easily just be waiting to bring the series back in style. Either way, the series has consistently remained at the forefront of animation and controls, and has defined adventure entertainment for generations of gamers. While we may never know his name for sure, and he’s taken many different forms over the years, no one will ever deny that there is only one Prince of Persia.
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