Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

In 2008 the storied action-platformer series Prince of Persia was rebooted with, to my mind, its best entry — a sadly underappreciated gem that was unceremoniously rebooted almost immediately for a cash-grab tie-in with the now-forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal movie. Unlike many 3D games from the era, Prince of Persia’s cell-shaded art style provides visuals that hold up 15 years later, and its vibrant colour palette looks exquisite on modern OLED displays like the Steam Deck I used to replay it.

Set in the disintegrating ruins of a desert city, the Prince is a scoundrel who finds himself dragged into Princess Elika’s battle to prevent a great evil breaking free from a thousand years of captivity. Ahriman’s evil power has infected the land, visually desaturating it, with his corrupted lieutenants each guarding four regions connected by a desert temple. The semi-open world allows players to choose the order in which they tackle accessible areas. In each location players locate a “fertile ground” which Elika’s magic can heal, restoring life and colour, and populating the space with the collectable orbs of power that enable progression. Healing all fertile grounds in a region grants access to the lieutenant’s tower for a showdown.

Unusually the Prince begins the game with the four combat skills he will use throughout the game, mapped to the controller’s four face buttons. Player progression is instead by way of Elika unlocking the ability to interact with various magical plates embedded throughout the world, allowing the pair to access new areas whilst free-running — the joy of traversal is the game’s strength.

Elika’s ability to catch the Prince whenever he falls was derided by some as too much of a concession to casual players. Yet, by returning the player to the last stable ground, the game still forces you to complete each platforming challenge — as they increase in length these can become memory tests, particularly when an unruly camera obscures what lies ahead. Meanwhile combat variety comes from learning the corresponding move to negate certain enemy defensive stances with variety added through environmental hazards into which the Prince can lure enemies. It may lack depth but it is sufficiently engaging for a dozen hours.

Having a companion throughout the entire game, it is vital that Elika and the Prince banter believably. He quips like Spider-Man but she is unconvinced, perceiving the depth he hides behind shallowness. There is an attraction but they are evenly matched. Each time Elika heals a fertile ground, it is clear that the act is exhausting. Usually the Prince helps her up. When he does not, she notices; sometimes she avoids his hand. Their relationship develops in bursts and feels organic.

“You had to pick this religion? You couldn’t have picked one where all the evil creatures were, I don’t know… slightly angry sheep?”

The Prince

After defeating Ahriman’s lieutenants, we return to the desert temple to find Elika’s father possessed by Ahriman. Following a prolonged battle, her final act of restoration is to rejuvenate the trees that had imprisoned Ahriman. Depleted, she callapses, and as the Prince carries her lifeless body the credits begin to roll. He lays her down on an altar before the temple (an image that may seem familiar to those who played 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus). A vision of Elika’s father flashes and we realise he too sought only to save his daughter. At this point, the game returns control and gives you no direct prompt, although the newly restored trees glow invitingly. The player could turn off the game, the Prince presumably retreating back into the desert a changed man. But those trees are an innate lure, silently encouraging us to to approach and do The Wrong Thing.

One by one, we cut them down restoring life to Elika but releasing Ahriman in the process. “Why?” she asks as we pick her up. It turns out that we — the Prince — are just as selfish as Elika’s father in our determination for a good ending. A similar act would not have the same weight in another medium: only in a game are we actively choosing to unravel all the progress we made over the past 15-odd hours of healing the land, all to save one person. The game ended abruptly here, although downloadable content added a further sequence in which the pair hunt down and defeat Ahriman, frustrating players that this ending was locked behind a paywall.

Yet I rather prefer the original ending. It may not be triumphant or cathartic, but its surprising nihilism feels more meaningful. Not everyone gets to be a hero.

“The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. Unaware of the world around it. Whirling on the breath of the Gods, at the mercy of the storm that engulfs it. What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?”