There have been many princes of Persia since the original game was released nearly 20 years ago, and although they've ranged from noble romantics to angst-ridden bad boys, they've all shared a gift of tremendous agility. In conjunction with its new console reboot of the Prince of Persia series, Ubisoft has brought the graceful monarch to the DS in a side-scrolling adventure that can be thrilling when the intuitive touch-screen controls work as they should. Regrettably, for every thrilling moment the controls deliver there's a frustrating one, too, and this normally agile prince takes a few too many clumsy steps.
The Fallen King takes place after the new console game, but you don't need any knowledge of that adventure to dive into this one. The prince is continuing his quest to defeat the evil god Ahriman and do away with the icky substance known as corruption that has emerged across the land since Ahriman's escape. For most of this journey, he is joined by the magus Zal, whose powers are vital for overcoming the countless obstacles that impede our hero. There's a decent, if cliche, narrative here, as secrets about Zal's past and the prince's reasons for fighting are slowly brought to light, but the storytelling's lack of flair doesn't do it any favors. Some cutscenes or voice acting could have made the tale more compelling, but as it is, the story here is told all in text, with still images. At least the writing conveys some personality, and the prince, here a squat, cartoonish version of his console counterpart, comes across as a good deal more likable than he does in the console game. His attempts at jokey banter with the dead-serious Zal lead to a few funny moments, and you also get the sense that, despite his constant wisecracks, he's fighting for something he cares about deeply.
This is a side-scrolling action game in which you must make your way through level after trap-filled level, frequently rolling under spinning blades, leaping over spike-filled pits, and swinging out of the way of crushing boulders. All of the moves are performed with the stylus, though you hold down a button to indicate you want to use one of Zal's powers rather than control the prince. You rarely control Zal directly; he typically just hovers along behind the prince, apparently impervious to all the dangers the prince must work so hard to avoid. To make the prince walk, you hold the stylus near him, and to run, you put it farther away. To roll, you double-tap to the prince's left or right, and to leap, you tap the platform you want the prince to leap for, and he obliges. You can also scurry up walls a short distance and jump back and forth from wall to wall to ascend to higher areas.
For the most part, the controls are very intuitive, and the implementation of touch-screen controls is the game's greatest asset. There's an almost tactile pleasure in using Zal's magic to maneuver a dangerous orb of corruption through narrow passageways to destroy a wall that's blocking your path, and it can be thrilling to pinpoint some elastic corrupted goo with your stylus and grab onto it as you fall, narrowly avoiding a spiky demise. The game is filled with engaging experiences like these, and they just couldn't have been delivered so effectively with a more traditional control scheme. When things come together in moments like this, the controls and the gameplay can be a delight.
But sadly, there are moments that spoil the magic, and the game's greatest asset is also its greatest liability. Too often the controls are imprecise, which is an especially damaging issue in a game that's all about precise, death-defying leaps and rolls. There may be times, for instance, when you will tap a platform that you want the prince to jump to, only to see him leap to it and then run right off of it, plummeting to his death. The generous smattering of checkpoints throughout each area means that when the prince behaves with a suicidal mind of his own, you're never set back very far, but it's nonetheless maddening to have the game misinterpret your inputs with disastrous results.
The level design is quite good, starting out simple but steadily introducing new elements and ratcheting up the challenge at a pace that keeps things interesting across the game's 50-odd stages. Zal periodically acquires new powers, like the ability to manipulate various types of corruption to serve as grappling hooks or to form walls for the prince to climb, and each new ability changes up the gameplay in small but important ways. He also eventually becomes capable of activating portals that the prince or just about anything else can pass through, allowing for some light but engaging puzzle-solving. And the later stages, while not exactly difficult, have intricate traps that require more precise timing to survive.
There's combat, too, of course, and though it's very simple, your swordfights with hulking guards are still enjoyable, requiring you to hold the stylus on the prince to guard against attacks and then tap or slash across your enemies to strike when the time is right. The few boss battles are not so enjoyable, though, relying as they do on predictable, easily discerned patterns. You can even locate a treasure called the revival orb that instantly replenishes your health each and every time a boss defeats you, removing all the challenge from these confrontations.
The graphics are a bit simple, but what they lack in richness of detail, they make up for in smoothness of animation. This prince runs, rolls, and leaps with a grace that recalls the movement of the prince in the original 1989 side-scroller. The three-dimensional backgrounds provide a great sense of depth, and like the prince himself, the towns, ports and palaces you'll pass through have a stylized look that lends the action a lighthearted vibe. Unfortunately, frequent bouts of slowdown, while far from crippling, do drag the action down a bit. The absence of any voice acting makes the audio feel a bit lacking, but the clashing of swords, the whine of spinning blades, and all the other deadly sounds you'll hear are convincing. The percussion-heavy music, though repetitive, can be thrilling and sounds especially good on a decent pair of headphones.
The Fallen King will take most players around seven hours to complete. Perfectionists may find a bit of replay value in going back and finding all of the treasure chests hidden throughout the levels, though, unfortunately, there's no option to journey back to previous regions, so you'll have to create a new game if you want to replay earlier stages. Ultimately, there is magic in this adventure, if you're willing to overlook some frustrations to find it. It's a real shame that the accessible, enjoyable touch-screen controls can be imprecise enough to result in the occasional deadly misstep, because this makes The Fallen King as maddening as it is enchanting.