Battles of Prince of Persia | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: Ubisoft | Publisher: Ubisoft | Genre: Strategy | Year: 2005
The nice thing about unearthing an entire library of old games – especially when they belong to an iconic console like the Nintendo DS – is the sheer amount of choice on offer. Every third party developer was making games for this handheld once upon a time, so nowadays you can discover some delightful (and reasonably priced) curios.
Take this obscure spin-off in the famous Prince of Persia series. Have you heard its clunky name mentioned somewhere? It’s difficult to imagine anybody knowing this game existed because Battles of Prince of Persia doesn’t just fail to roll off the tongue, it also fails to make a statement about itself.
The cover art apes its console counterpart, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, and yet the two games are very different. Neither is this a generic platformer nor another slice of “touch generation” dreck, it’s actually a tactics game, with the usual acrobatic antics replaced by cerebral turn-based action.
That’s where the “delightful” part of my original statement comes in. Ubisoft certainly deserves credit for trying something different with Battles of Prince of Persia, even if the end product is kind of awful in spite of its promising ideas.
Set during Ubisoft’s new trilogy, we join the titular Prince as he unwittingly opens a mysterious box that will release demons upon the world. Trying to fix matters only makes things worse, however, as Persia is next drawn into a conflict with its former allies. Players serve under Persia, India, or the demonic “Deava”, as each civilization sends their generals to fight in the ensuing war.
Battles of Prince of Persia has all the trimmings you’d expect from a turn-based strategy game. Marching units must observe rules for flanking and zone of control, and the sprawling battlefields also put a big emphasis on facing. Attacking enemies from the side or rear will confer big bonuses, which means it’s usually a bad idea to leave troops unguarded. Lone units with exposed arcs don’t normally benefit from allied cover, so expect them to be promptly broken by ambushes or an uncontested pelting from hostile archers. They may even flee the battlefield altogether if their morale gets too low.
Scenarios in the story mode often come with unique victory conditions. Sometimes a player must attack or defend a key unit or position, and other times the goal will be more specific, like the mission where your forces must break down a city gate within a certain number of turns. Whilst these objectives add colour to an otherwise routine experience, you’ll find that defeating the enemy general usually results in an instant win anyway.
Nevertheless, the tactical mechanics create a solid enough starting point with which to overlay something more interesting. Battles of Prince of Persia attempts this with its other major gameplay feature involving collectible cards.
This isn’t your typical Magic: The Gathering-inspired affair either. The cards in this game represent tactics which the player can use in two different ways; either you resolve the ability text listed on the touch screen, or pitch the card to instead activate a number of troops equal to the card’s Order Value. This mechanic does present some meaningful choices because every turn you’ll need to strike a balance between accepting magical aid or actually activating the troops at your disposal.
Ultimately though, there are too many problems with the card system for it to really enhance anything. The default deck you start with feels thrown together, and the clumsy editor screen makes your future tweaking an annoyance when it should be a focal point. The little cards that make up each deck don’t look too bad considering the limited heft of the console, and it is nice that the artists could avoid the compressed look that has sullied other mobile card games belonging to this era. Sadly, for every rare card that glistens with sparkly animations, there are at least another two that feature indistinct artwork or lame theming.
Another quibble has to do with the card effects. Consider the “Fog of War” card whose text reads something like this:
Target: Any 1 unit (Resist-20%)
Effect: Aura 3 / all units in aura Melee=1 / Missile=0 / become used
This shorthand style is technically fine, and probably necessary considering the limited screen space, but it makes the card effects hard to understand at a glance. Sometimes unit statistics can be modified by a flat number (e.g. HP-6) whereas other times that might be via a percentage instead (e.g. Att+10%). That lack of consistency makes the system even harder to intuit, and it doesn’t get any better when the cards make references to things like “Charge Attacks”, whose functions aren’t explained anywhere in the game’s instructions.
Some cards are restricted to one of the three factions, and so you can see where the developers have tried to inject some nuance into the deck-building process. The mechanical design in this sense is spread between what the cards can do and what each faction can do. Persian units are fast and have excellent archers, India enjoys flooding the map with cheap conscripts, and the Deava can sacrifice their own health for savage attack buffs.
But whilst some cards can play up to these unit qualities quite well, there are many others whose playability seems questionable because of a mechanism called “Resist”. Attempt to play a debuff on an enemy unit, for example, and quite often you’ll be subjected to a Resist check that determines whether the card actually resolves or not. This element of randomness isn’t fun, and that factor of unreliability makes such cards extremely unattractive when deck-building.
Again, even with those concerns, modifying a unit’s health or movement values just isn’t very interesting. Some of the ultra rare cards have more exciting effects like giving your commander a unique weapon or allowing them to enslave enemy units, but these are an exception to the norm. Ultra rare cards are also extremely hard to acquire because cards are randomly awarded for completing new missions.
This means that once you’ve completed the main story mode, it’s no longer possible to earn new cards for your deck! It’s a suspect mechanic designed to promote a wireless multiplayer mode featuring card trading and custom skirmishes, but the idea of multiple players getting involved in such a tedious game in the first instance is sort of hilarious.
And make no mistake: Battles of Prince of Persia can be agonisingly tedious. As is typical of the genre, scenarios drag on due to the amount of troop movement required. And even though the combat vignettes are supported by nice music and animations, you’ll want to disable them to improve the pace of play.
The storyline attempts to incorporate plot points from Ubisoft’s core trilogy of Prince of Persia games, yet the simplistic text-based cutscenes don’t offer much incentive for you to pay attention. Elsewhere the presentation is similarly sparse, most notably in the deck editor that has poorly filtered lists and non-customisable deck labels that read “Deck 1”, “Deck 2”, and so on.
Really though, the single biggest problem with Battles of Prince of Persia is the worthlessness of its AI opponents. Their overenthusiasm for attacking has them practically offering up their troops to your front lines, and they’re not much better when it comes to defending their general either.
One mission asked me to kidnap the family of my rival ruler. Rather than endure another slog of marching troops through rough terrain, however, I decided to experiment by ordering my unaccompanied Vizier general towards the objective. My bumbling AI adversary somehow failed to notice this, and after a brief jaunt over the outer edges of the map, my Vizier landed on the objective unmolested and proceeded to kidnap those brats by himself!
This uneven difficulty is the kiss of death for anyone who is normally fond of the genre, as with no real challenge comes no real point to continue playing.
Battles of Prince of Persia had its heart in the right place, but it’s a video game that fundamentally fails to satisfy its target audience. It’s too heavy an experience for the casual crowd, and yet still not multifaceted enough for card gamers nor fans of hardcore strategy.
Oh, well. At least we have that acronym!