Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown Review

Josh Wise

Our first duty, when it comes to Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, is to work out when, exactly, the crown was lost. Scholars may point to the year of our lord 2007 A.D., when Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed, which leapt from an aborted princely project and all but dethroned him. There is a strong argument for 2010, when Jake Gyllenhaal clipped on a leather-and-bronze breastplate and grew his hair into a greasy waterfall for the Prince of Persia movie. Or maybe we ought to go further back, to 2004, and the release of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. It was that game, after all, in which the prince turned up scarred and scowling, shipwrecked on a bleak isle, and the soundtrack was thrashed off course by waves of heavy metal. Wherever you point to on the timeline, however, there is no looping back, as our hero would have done, to fix the fall. We can only press on.

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The new game hinges on Sargon, an elite soldier and royal guard to the kingdom of Persia, but the hinge doesn’t swing in or out. This is a side-scrolling platformer, a 2.5-D metroidvania. That’s the genre to go for, when you’re saddled with a plot and characters as dry as the dunes. You hardly need the motivation of a story, when you’ve got a knotted clump of map to unpack, and who needs depth – the slow teasing-out of personality – when you have a slew of dead ends to crumble and blow away?

Stripped to the waist, wielding a pair of curved swords and a killer hairdo, Sargon certainly looks the part. And to begin with he’s all swagger: “Death has come for you,” he says to an enemy general, pronging the man with his own trident. Before long, though, he falters; a slave to the flash and swing of his own moods, he admits to one of his mentors that he is “trying to stay humble,” to “find what is at the end of my blade.” In other words, to work out what he’s fighting for – the ethical and philosophical underpinning to why he so often reduces other people to shashlik. Thus, the crux of The Lost Crown is not just to safeguard Persia from those who seek its ruin, and to rescue the kidnapped Prince Ghassan from insurrectionary forces, but to banish the Worrier Within.

This is less than brilliant news. If you’re going to vault over an adversary, pirouette, and then slash him in the back, and you’re fretting about motivation, the correct answer is: because it looks really cool. This is partly why Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is revered as the best entry in the series. The hauteur of its hero was in direct proportion to the amazingness of his feats; if he could climb the air, as if on an invisible staircase, then why wouldn’t he see everyone else as having slid to the bottom of the banister? He was an arsehole, primed to inherit an empire, but his arrogance was constantly pricked, and over the course of the adventure, in a clever visual motif, the clothes were torn from his back. He was brought low and likeable. Here, we don’t get much of a handle on Sargon, who doesn’t belong to the monarchy but merely tends to their well-being. At one point, he meets a young girl and asks her the whereabouts of the missing prince. “There hasn’t been a prince here in so long,” she says. “I’ve only seen you.” Ouch.

Still, on the upside, the developer, Ubisoft Montpellier, has given the action a sharp pace and charged it smartly with challenge. The combat has real bite, all wrist-juddering counters and careful dodges. Now and then, you will trigger a finisher and get treated to a sunburst of cartoon hues that break over the final blow – as if Sargon could slip, without obstacle, into Street Fighter. He wouldn’t look out of place. There is a chunky softness to the art style that makes you think of Fortnite: textures brushed to a sugary matte finish, characters that could have been peeled from the top of a cake. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth for that look. More than anything, it made me miss the cel shading of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot; the colours there were drawn less like paint than like fresh blood, pulsing with life.

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Outside the fights, our man’s acrobatic credentials are impeccable. There are poles to whirl on and whip off at all angles, walls on which to leap, and mid-air dashes that warp you across gaps, leaving a shimmer of purple-blue shards. The time powers in this game are bound to the theme of universal crack-up. (A similar funky pattern can be found in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, as though the pressure of folding dimensions were enough to forge crystals of wrongness.) You can also leave a copy of yourself, go about your business, and zap back to that position at will – handy, if you want to avoid large foes, and crucial in the solving of puzzles.

These are of the vast and mechanical sort – towers hewn from the living rock and fuelled by water, gates that feed on chains and chattering cogs – and they entail not just Sargon’s brand of gymnastics but the brain-powered kind, as well. This is the best thing about The Lost Crown; there is a lovely, liquid smoothness in your movement through it, and Mount Qaf, where the entire thing unfolds, is like a Middle Eastern dream of Dracula’s lair in Castlevania. You never want for sheer spectacle. We get colossal statues that loom above rusted forests; endless libraries of stone tablets; and a sea that has stopped in time, with a frothy blue tongue curling over to lick a doomed ship, and forever falling short.

As was the case with Metroid Dread, it’s a joy when a big developer works in a narrow mould, with a limited budget, and the result is precise, thinly lacquered with a high-production gloss. Ubisoft has been here before, with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles. Those games, developed by Climax Studios, were 2.5-D, and their great coup was what that lack of depth brought to them – or pressed out of them. The Triple-A bloat that so often blighted the main games was gone, and the movements of its lethal figures had the lightly starched grace of a pop-up book.

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The problem is, Prince of Persia isn’t something you need, or want, slimmed down. What so amazed about these games, in the pomp of their PlayStation 2 era, was how free of weight they felt. You were plunged into cavernous palaces and faced with halls of byzantine machinery, but you flew through it like a bird, and spooled backwards in time until you were pleased with its flow. Even in 1989, when the series began, in crisp tones, on the Apple II computer, it seemed ripe with possibility and clear of baggage. The trouble with The Lost Crown is not that it’s new, a departure from something beloved; it’s that it fits in the oiled groove of an established template, and reminds you, with a pang of sadness, that these games were new, that they rewrote the course of their genre, rather than bowing to its comfy guidelines. And what’s next for this series? Full steam ahead to the Sands of Time remake, which seems lost in a limbo of its own. “No one cares about the Ancients,” someone says to Sargon. “The Present rushes blindly forward, erasing the Past.” Try telling that to Ubisoft.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

Fluid platforming and frenetic combat, with some lovely spectacle and a dull story.

Form widget
70%
Audio
70%

Gareth Coker collaborates with Mentrix to deliver a Middle Eastern medley of strings and woodwind. Exactly the sort of sounds you would expect, though not Coker’s best.

Visuals
70%

A 2.5-D style and some great spectacle and stylistic flourishes, with some slightly underwhelming character design.

Playability
70%

Precise platforming with a pleasing difficulty, and some frenetic counter-driven combat, broken up by some cleverly designed puzzles.

Delivery
70%

A polished and nicely paced adventure, with a good blend of platforming and combat, but a dull story.

Trophies
70%

A bog-standard list, pretty unimaginative, and mostly tied to simple progression – with a light peppering of combat-based challenges.

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