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The Rogue Prince Of Persia Hands-On Preview – Wall Run, Don’t Walk

Evil Empire’s Dead Cells DNA infuses Prince of Persia with new life.

Prince of Persia fans are in such a weird state of flux right now. Having watched their favourite franchise rise and fall in popularity over the past couple of decades, it seemed as if the pendulum was finally swaying back in their direction with a hotly-anticipated Sands of Time remake on the horizon. Then comes The Lost Crown, a 2D Metroidvania series revival that understands the assignment to the core and stakes a claim as one of the best titles of 2024 in its opening month. Cool, they say, but surely the next game in the franchise must be the remake though, right? Right?

Following the mammoth success of its rogue-lite 2D platformer Dead Cells, developer Motion Twin formed an internal team dedicated to continued support of the hit game. Evil Empire would then go on to craft a whole world of DLC experiences for Dead Cells, but earlier this year, the team announced it would be moving onto new projects. I’m not sure anyone would have guessed that that project would be a collaboration with mega-publisher Ubisoft, let alone the next Prince of Persia title.

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Last week I had the chance to spend about half an hour with The Rogue Prince of Persia, Evil Empire’s new baby. In this 2D rogue-lite, the Prince is tossed against time and death itself, embarking on a one-man war against the Huns, whose blades and arrows are no match for his magic bola, a mysterious gift that rips the Prince backward in time upon death. Having listened to the team talk up the project and dabbling in its opening levels and systems, I’ll say that it’s hard to care that this isn’t Sands of Time.

It’s impossible not to notice The Rogue Prince of Persia’s heavily stylised art direction and overall tone; this thing moves like a Genndy Tartakovsky creation meshed with the charming tones of a Cartoon Network outing. Deliberately simplified but expressive models paired with sharp action animations and a unique colour palette to tie it all together. The invading Huns are draped in purple hues, contrasting with the rich warmth of the gold and blue Persia into which they’re marching. The transition from cutscene to gameplay plays with all these elements beautifully too, shifting to an even more abstract art style that allows the game’s core systems the fluidity to truly shine.

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Which, given the genre and pedigree of the developer, is kind of essential to nail down. The Rogue Prince of Persia, maybe unsurprisingly, moves with unparalleled ease and responsiveness. Across randomly generated levels, replete with spiky floor puzzles and a small army of Hun warriors to cut down, the Prince will effortlessly duck, weave, jump, and slide across the game’s distinctive use of 2D level design. Essentially if you take Todd Howard’s famous “You see that mountain? You can climb it” approach and apply it to the backdrops of The Rogue Prince of Persia’s levels. With the press of a button, the Prince can wall run up and across what in any other game would be background textures, adding a whole new layer to the concept of a 2D platformer.

This has obvious applications, like traversing gaps or reaching tight vertical spaces, but ultimately what matters right now is that it feels cool as shit. And it’s just the first of many tools available to the young royal, Evil Empire’s genre DNA and Ubisoft’s franchise seamlessly blend to give you a bounty of movement and combat abilities that all manage to feel both good and necessary for level completion. You’ll begin each run with the Prince’s baseline twin swords and bow, deploying basic attacks and dodges to get through basic foes. But as things ramp up, you’ll need to use the game’s incredible kick mechanic to stun-lock targets, the divebomb attack to thin crowds, and special combo moves that vary based on your current loadout.

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Being a rogue-lite, the game isn’t shy about giving you new tools, abilities, and currencies on the regular – some that are run-specific, others that persist, and all of which fit the overall tone and flow nicely. While our demo was short, we did get a chance to test multiple weapon types and a good handful of passive and active combat abilities. Early on we nabbed a heavy hammer that changed the baseline swift special attack into a lumbering, powerful charged blow. Later this was swapped out for a target-seeking spear that combined rapid attacks with ranged capabilities.

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Throughout a run, the Prince can stumble onto chests, merchants, and shrines that each have the chance of offering up a new power to be used throughout his current adventure. These will undoubtedly take countless forms, but in my time, I found an ability that infused my kicks with a short burst of fire damage, another that spewed a tar-like substance onto enemies to slow them down, and a passive buff to dropped currencies. These have three levels of potential strength, multipliers often tucked away in hard-to-reach spots or discrete platform challenge rooms that take the flow and risks of a standard level and crank up the difficulty for short, controlled bursts.

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These tools all hang together in a combat flow that feels sharply responsive but rarely punishing. In a very (say the line James…) Soulslike fashion (yay!), The Rogue Prince of Persia requires your focus and patience more than your raw skill at times, though the boss included in the demo kicked my arse within roughly 45 seconds. Health is treasured and the Prince, for all his wily ways, is a tender lad, only able to take a few hits before being punted back to basecamp to try it all again. But the game knows you know all of this, so it tests your patience not with raw difficulty but pulse pounding momentum. Much like the art direction, the score to the game is this immediately infectious dubstep-dripped South Asian banger gallery that courses through your veins and pushes you, constantly, to keep flow, keep swinging, keep going.

It’s a killer bit of style and substance synergy, and the perfect ribbon to wrap around the core loop. Elsewhere, you’ve got a standard array of rogue-lite trappings and Ubisoft building blocks. A base camp location, The Oasis, teases a blacksmith who can upgrade your gear between runs, empty stalls and corners clearly begging for smart-mouthed NPCs to sell you nick-nacks and the like. The pause menu also drops a surprise Assassin’s Creed-style narrative mystery map with targets and lore tidbits, all of which may prove interesting but barely register above the electric hum of the game’s music and momentum.

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It’s very early and very short days yet, but the only raised eyebrows around The Rogue Prince of Persia so far have nothing to do with the game itself. Its proximity to The Lost Crown is a little confusing – Prince of Persia fans currently clamouring for the elusive Sands of Time remake might find the timing of yet another game in the franchise that distinctly isn’t what they want to be confusing. Though the quality of the work done by Evil Empire should quickly dispel any notions that this thing isn’t a worthy entry in the franchise.

But the Early Access tag is probably the strangest part of the game’s rapidly approaching release. A short media presentation talked about how using the Early Access program to ensure the game could be adaptive to player feedback would be an invaluable tool in its development and given how well that approach worked out for Dead Cells, it’s hard to argue with the logic. It’s just strange to see a publisher with Ubisoft’s resources wading into an indie-sized resource pool.

Still, Evil Empire has more than earned its swing at such a storied franchise and for a short demo to leave such a clear impression, there’s evidently some juice here. The Rogue Prince of Persia will likely go through about as many iterations as the Prince through lives but the baseline flow is already impeccable and with nowhere to go but up, it’ll be a treat to see how high the crown’s latest claimant will rise.

The Rogue Prince of Persia is launching as an Early Access product on PC on May 14, 2024.