Game designer Jordan Mechner’s early titles are experiencing something of an App Store renaissance. The release of Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame, Ubisoft’s reworking of the original Prince of Persia 2, will complete your set of Mechner-iana and it also lives up to the high standards set by previous iOS ports of his stuff. Ubisoft’s tampering only improves the appeal of what was a prickly and demanding original with a generous health scheme and shiny new visuals.
The Shadow and The Flame’s story is as old as time, or at least as old as platforming games: the Princess is in trouble and it’s up to you, shirtless athletic young lad, to run, leap, and climb your way through hazardous traps and puzzling environments on your way to the level exit. Sounds familiar, yeah? Add beautiful 2.5D backgrounds, tons of alternate pathways to explore, and environmental challenges that gently tax but never over-exert your brain and you’ve got the brawny, good-looking sibling to the carefree and universally adored Mario Brothers.
The original Prince of Persia made a name for itself in the 1980s as a sort of anti-Mario, with controls that seemed awkward to players used to the run-and-jump ease of other contemporary platformers. Success then required both pinpoint reflexes and mastery over the more involved control system. In this remake, the control scheme is equally front-and-center and will do the most out of any other component to affect your opinion of the game.
The Shadow and the Flame’s default control setting is entirely swipe-based, but if that doesn’t suit you may enable a D-pad and action buttons that can be positioned to your liking. Dragging Left or Right on this D-pad runs, while pushing Up causes you to grab on to any nearby platform. The three buttons let you duck, tiptoe, or jump. Combat uses Sword and Block buttons and adds a combo system triggered by blocking at the correct moment, but battles feel slow and cumbersome and interrupt the game’s flow.
The controls work, most of the time, although in panicked moments of combat it’s easy to miss a button’s sweet spot and take damage because of it. This isn’t Ubisoft’s fault—the controls are well-programmed but the game’s play style is simply better suited to the tactile, binary nature of a physical controller. It’s awkward at first but our facility with this system improved over time and it works well with the climb-heavy gameplay.
While playing The Shadow and the Flame you can almost hear the design meetings that went into its creation. It’s clear they decided to mitigate the original’s brutal difficulty in order to appeal to a wider audience. Ubisoft wisely nixed the three-hit kill scheme of the 1989 release and substituted a substantial life bar supplemented with easily-acquired continue and revive potions. You can use IAP to purchase more, but we always had enough in-game currency to pay for what we wanted. Some will inevitably see this kind of hand-holding as selling out, but we assert that easy restarts place emphasis on the innate pleasures contained in exploration and will allow more to experience what the game has to offer.
Although controlling the Prince takes practice, The Shadow and the Flame rewards players with a pleasing balance of challenge and discovery. It’s a fine tribute to a decades-old classic and an excellent example of how to adapt a traditionally hardcore game to a changing audience without losing what made the original property so special.