The sequel to Jordan Mechner's pivotal platformer, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame (Prince 2 hereafter) succeeds in the primary aspects a sequel must: it addresses a few of the original game's problematic aspects while preserving the heart and soul of what made Prince of Persia so beloved.
Mechner studied video footage of the human body running, jumping, and climbing as the basis for the original game's animation, and the result was drastically more immersive than the experience of manipulating your avatar in Mario or Pitfall. Gamers of that era no doubt remember cringing at the shocking realism of the Prince's bloody impalements and dismemberments, while successfully completing a death-defying leap or following a well-timed parry with a devastating sword thrust upon a foe seemed all the more rewarding.
Playing second fiddle to the jaw-dropping physics were the environments: though the original Prince of Persia provided a well-constructed labyrinth through which the player navigated, the artwork with which it was rendered quickly grew repetitive. Even the efforts to vary said environment seemed token afterthoughts, such as a mere change of hue to the same brick construct. That said, the occasional flourishes in color stood out with greater vibrancy due to this repetition, and seemed to throw into relief the gloominess of the Prince's extended dungeon delve. In the end, for me, they had the effect of an unfulfilled promise: Prince 1's occasional magnificence in art and ambience hinted toward the game I really wanted to play, and too much time was spent in the same mundane grid.
It is in this aspect that Prince 2 most acutely evolves beyond its predecessor. You find yourself in dungeons, but also in a populace city, on a deserted beach, in a cave, in mystic ruins, and even in another dimension. Prince 2 provides a rich and beautiful world with which to contend. In navigating these environments, you notice subtle enhancements in the physics. The platforms aren't necessarily flat anymore: as you run along the beach you experience a sleight gradation in elevation, and a rope bridge rattles dubiously beneath your feet.
You encounter a variety of foes instead of simply living or skeletal swordsmen, including snakes and the infamous disembodied heads. Added to the increase health, decrease health, and slowed descent potions is a potion that flips the screen into a vertical mirror image of itself, forcing you to navigate upside down until you find another concoction that reverses the effect. The various labyrinths are rife deadly traps that will behead a less careful Prince, boil him in molten lava, or lob pellets from floor plate-triggered launchers. Like the original, Prince 2 is as much a puzzle game as it is a platformer/action adventure game, with convoluted systems of opening and closing gates, and loose floor panelling that must be prudently manipulated. Of dire importance to the game's success is the fact that you experience the game's world through the same realistic, responsive, and rewarding motion engine as the original adventure.
With greater variety comes greater responsibility, and too often does Prince 2 frustrate the player with a lack of balance. Many of the labyrinthine levels require much trial and error to successfully pass. There are a number of reasons for this that could have perhaps been addressed. There often is no clear indication of what a floor trigger effects, and stepping on these triggers in the incorrect order can render a level impassable and force you to start over. This is certainly a valid method by which to challenge the player, but given the number of triggers that do the same thing as each other or don't seem to do anything at all, and given the extraordinarily complicated arrangement of certain trigger/gate puzzles, succeeding can often feel more a chance victory than having rewardingly outwitted a well-designed challenge. Compounding the difficulty is the return of the original game's time limit: if you don't finish the game in 90 minutes, you lose, and the clock keeps ticking however many times you have to restart a level. The forced strategy of trial-and-error makes for a challenge dubious in its fairness when faced with this time limit. A simple graphical addition, such as matching hieroglyphics linking a trigger with the device it operates, would reward the observant player while still preserving the challenge of deducing the order in which triggers must be pressed and the completing the acrobatics needed to move among them. It should be noted that Prince 2 includes a save game feature, but reverting to your saved game every time you restart a level might strike some players as a cheap way of cheating the time limit.
The other source of the game's imbalance stems from the inordinate difficulty of some of the enemies. The most dreaded of these are the floating heads that begin to appear in the temple ruins. It seems that these heads were programmed out of genuine malice against fans of the Prince of Persia franchise. The game features poisonous snakes that kill you in one strike, but combating these reptiles effectively is possible by developing a sense of the snakes' coil-and-strike rhythm. The heads, on the other hand, seem immune to nearly all normal sword thrusts, though the occasional parry will skewer them for a half point (!) of damage. The heads fly at you and chomp your health bars down one by one, but herein lies the rub: sometimes they will float away after a bite, but often they circle you endlessly and visit any number of successive hits against you without affording the player opportunity of rebuttal. It's reminiscent of poorly designed attack moves in Street Fighter-era fighting games that allowed players to "cheese" their opponents to death: a rhythm of attack that can't be countered regardless of skill or strategy. This is the sort of unforgivable design flaw that causes players to give up and shelve a game permanently, since victory and defeat are no longer factors of the player's skill and therefore not worth pursuing.
I would encourage this hypothetical player to break out their dust-gathering disc, however, because Prince 2 holds allure in other departments that should outweigh these admittedly significant issues for connoisseurs of the franchise. Though primarily known for running-and-jumping acrobatics, a few other factors unify the Prince of Persia games. I don't imagine I would have been as tickled by the Shadow Prince's reappearance in the Sands of Time trilogy had I not experienced the crucial role the doppelganger plays in Prince 2. A brilliant indulgence of the original game's most mysterious conceit, you have the ability to literally shuffle off your mortal coil and travel as an invincible ghost, albeit at great and irrevocable cost to your constitution once you reconvene with your body. It's a memorably artistic development to the game's mythology; a less ambitious project would have contented itself ogling the body language that made Prince of Persia revolutionary in the first place. Another unifying factor is the role of time in the series: in the first two games, it simply provides an alternative to having lives or "continues," whereas the later games would actually weave the manipulation of time into the gameplay itself. Still, the effectiveness of the in-game time limit should not be underestimated, either for the immersive quality of dire immediacy it lends to the proceedings, or for the beautifully melancholy gesture of watching a tree, linked to the Princess's mortality, die in 90 minutes. It's a bold departure from the standard "2 Up!" screen you normally see upon failing a level in games of this era. The Prince of Persia series consistently married its in-game statistics to its emotionally resonant mythology, and this alone cements The Shadow and the Flame as one of the crucial episodes.