One of my biggest beefs with the Android development platform is when a game isn’t as good as an 8- or 16-bit console game. Don’t get me wrong; there are some amazing games in the Play Store – I’m especially impressed by the quality content released by Indie developers. The problem is that for every Dead Trigger, Riptide GP 2, or Ultimate Stick Fight, there are a dozen clones of Farmville, Bejeweled Blitz, and ___ with Friends chipping away at my faith in humanity. Thankfully, veteran gaming house Ubisoft has come to the rescue of my sanity, bringing Prince of Persia: Shadow & Flame, a reboot of the 1993 MS-Dos and SNES game, to Android.
Although it resembles the 2003-2005 iterations of the franchise, Shadow & Flame follows the events in Prince of Persia Classic, the modern port of designer Jordan Mechner’s 1989 Apple II original: the Prince, hailed as a hero for defeating the evil sorcerer, Jaffar, turns down fame & fortune for the love of the Princess. It turns out Jaffar didn’t take defeat very well, and he’s come back to make things difficult by transforming the Prince into an unrecognizable beggar so he must escape through a window. This is where you come in – you must guide the Prince safely from the guards, through a cave of reanimated skeletons, and into a temple to gain the power of shadow and imbue your sword with the sacred flame necessary to reunite with the Princess and defeat Jaffar once and for all.
The first thing PoP does right is the freemium business model. The initial $2.99 game is quite playable – although you can purchase coins to use for in-game upgrades and items, it isn’t necessary to avoid a grind, reset a timer, unlock a level, etc. Coins don’t have to be bought, though – they can be earned through some good ol’ fashioned exploration, and, as your exploration progress is tracked as a percentage, completionists will want to explore every crevice and open every chest anyway. I had no problem playing through the game without purchasing coins, and that’s one of the more impressive balances Ubisoft delivered in Shadow & Flame – I was given enough resources (health potions, extra lives, coins) to organically progress through the game, as long as I played with skill.
The controls are intuitive and easy enough to master. Like many platformers and FPSs, the screen is divided in half with the left side used to navigate and the right side used to perform actions, such as ducking, jumping, sneaking, and sword fighting. The right side can be configured to work with either swipe controls or by pressing an onscreen “button” for each corresponding action. The option to choose between control schemes is a great console and PC gaming feature that really should be more prevalent in mobile gaming. While the basic controls are simple enough, in order to really explore the world of Shadow & Flame, a little finesse is needed.
PoP tests your control and patience with some brutal obstacles. You can’t just run through a level with guns blazing (and not just because you’re armed with a sword, rather than a gun), navigation requires a little bit of strategy. If you fall down a ledge in beginning stages, you just have to walk a harder path. In later stages, falling from a high ledge will kill you, and you’ll have to cross your fingers you can revive, because starting the level at the beginning can be a pain. It’s not just falling – some jumps have to be carefully timed or measured to avoid being shot by an arrow and losing life or hitting spikes and dying.
The combat system in PoP can get a little frustrating, but the pain is lessened with careful timing. If you get close to an enemy from behind, you’re given an option to sneak up on them. All you have to do is successfully reach them before they turn around, and you’re rewarded with an instant kill. If you come in too fast or too slow, though, you’re forced to fight (or escape by jumping up to a ledge above, below, or behind you if you’re lucky enough to have an escape route). Once you and your enemy have your swords out, you can swipe the screen to fight or hold the onscreen shield button to defend. If you defend at the right time, you’ll parry an attack (be careful attacking a defending enemy, as they’ll do the same), stunning them and giving you the opportunity to perform a damaging 3-hit combo.
The soundtrack and graphics in Shadow & Flame are amazing. My tablet was pushing out some really inspiring music that reminded me of The Mummy Returns while my touchscreen displayed crisp and intricate architecture, creating an exotic desert vibe. The lighting was kept dark for dungeons, caves, and night scenery, so it got a bit difficult to play in bright sunlight (nearly impossible while wearing sunglasses), but I didn’t have many issues other than that. The character animations and subtle background effects rounded out an enjoyable overall experience.
After seeing so many large gaming companies drop the ball on popular franchises (WB slapping us in the face with Man of Steel and Arkham City: Lockdown) or stick it to gamers with overpriced garbage freemium content (EA’s digital race cars cost as much as an actual car payment, and they neither fly nor travel through time), it’s nice to see Ubisoft put so much effort into polishing this remake to bring the franchise full circle for mobile platforms. Shadow & Flame has much better graphics and a smoother control scheme than the original PoP 2, but it retains everything we love about the franchise: stellar animations, an engaging storyline, and challenging puzzles. Shadow & Flame may not be an original game, but it stands out from the crowd with solid gameplay and a noticeable focus on creating an entertaining Android experience.