It would truly be a tragedy if the App Store’s relatively few console-quality game developers gave up on trying to push the iPhone and iPod touch past their current widely accepted limitations, but Gameloft’s Prince of Persia: Warrior Within ($10, version 1.0.7) is one of the clearest indications yet of how highly capable programmers can put a ton of time and effort into a game, only to see it messed up by virtual controls and other small but non-trivial interruptions. As the screenshots suggest, this three-dimensional action game is a stunning display of what Apple’s graphics chips are capable of doing in the right hands, but what they don’t depict are the game’s constantly stop-and-start pacing, half due to poorly timed loading, and the other due to context-shifting virtual buttons that require you to pay far too much attention to ever-changing conditions.
You take control of the Prince—notably, the more recent, “edgy” prince with long-ish hair, brooding looks and just enough plate armor to keep his torso intact—as he runs, jumps, and slashes his way through complex 3-D environments that are divided into brief segments within 12 total chapters. The environments are unquestionably the star attraction in this game: they were clearly designed for another target platform, as the levels of polygon detail, texture detail, and ambition are all beyond the scope of typical iPhone and iPod touch releases. A pirate ship in the introduction is unusually soft-curved to begin with, then sees its floors and walls shattered as water streams in; later stages introduce treacherous rock formations and buildings requiring climbing, jumping, and sharp corner turning—all the products of level-building tools that were far more sophisticated than ones used on virtually every other iPhone or iPod touch action game to date.
To underscore the prior points, all it takes is a couple of looks at different levels and the things that are going on within them—drinkable water streaming from a fountain or washing up on score, enemies attacking with at least interesting animations, and camera shifts showing far more than just a single fixed perspective on the action—to realize that there’s an awesome game trapped here. Shifting sands, flocks of birds, and the acrobatic capabilities of your character offer frequent if not completely compelling reminders that the game isn’t just your average hack-and-slash adventure; the stages are way bigger than the screen can even contain. On that note, you’re not often presented with the correct camera view to understand your objectives within a room, so you need to hit one of two camera-shifting buttons at the top right of the screen, or swipe around in the center of the screen to shift the viewing angle, at which point arrows will guide you to your next destination. While the process of doing this is tedious and unnecessary on Apple’s devices—streamlining would have helped—it’s at least consistent with recent past Prince of Persia console and computer titles.
But even if you’re willing to accept the camera control issues, the control of your character suffers due to the imprecision of the virtual stick and buttons. Fighting certain enemies requires joystick and multi-button combinations that are hard to pull off—say, move in a direction, then jump, then attack twice while on a tiny platform—and moving from platform to wall to platform with runs, wall runs, and jumps is similarly less than totally smooth at times, resulting in just some of the game’s many falling deaths. Then there are the loading pauses, profound examples of why Apple has tried to insist that games be optimized for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad rather than just tossed onto the devices with recycled code. The first half hour or more of the game is spent just trying to work through screen after screen of different button explanations, and the lessons continue as you play, interrupting the action with cut scenes and tips, as well as red loading circles, sometimes right in the middle of jumps. These interruptions are so frequent that the game feels like it’s been broken into bite-sized parts for too small of a mouth.
Problems aside, there’s otherwise enough content in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within to justify the initial $10 asking price. Though there are little technical glitches here and there, Prince of Persia’s CG-rendered movies—nicely including both dedicated subtitle and skip buttons—tell a fine story, and there’s enough in-game voice work and ambient sound effects to keep your ears interested while solving the game’s many time-pressured level navigating puzzles. Fans of the series will recognize the trip-the-button-run-to-the-door tricks and clock-rewinding powers from past Persia outings, and though they’re hampered by the virtual controls here, they’re still more thoughtful than the straight line action sequences found in other App Store platformers. Your ability to toss a sword like a boomerang, cling to flopping curtains, and access time portals that change levels you’ve just walked through also distinguish Warrior Within from less deeply designed games.
By the standards of most iPhone and iPod touch games, then, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is so ambitious that it’s worth checking out despite its flaws: the action may be halting but the puzzles and the overall ambience of the game will both impress App Store players. Gameloft shouldn’t be proud of how this one turned out in “version 1.0.7” form—most major publishers do better in their first releases, let alone ones that have already seen updates—and there’s no doubt in our minds that this could easily have been an A-caliber game with the additional polish it needed. Yet there’s a chance that a subsequent update may bring the refinements such a bold title really deserves, and if that happens, it’ll be worth turning back the clock to reconsider this game’s value.
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Compatible: iPod touch, iPhone/3G/3GS, iPad*