Games 12/16/08: Prince of Persia (2008), WordJong

Prince of Persia
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

The last time a game simply called itself “Prince of Persia,” nothing about it was difficult to understand. You were a prince, you ran and jumped from left to right, and you died a lot because it was really hard.

Nineteen years later, the new “Persia” — which marks the second series reboot in barely five years — is exponentially easier to play but not quite so easy to understand.

Like the subtitled “Persia” games that appeared on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube, the new “Persia” takes place in 3D and stars you as an acrobatic hero who can leap ledges, run along walls and scale impossible heights without hesitation. If you played any of those games, the base fundamentals of this game — which stars you as a new character in a new universe — will make sense on some level.

From here, though, things get a little weird, and your understanding and acceptance of this weirdness will dictate whether you adore “Persia” or get it at all.

For starters? You can’t die. “Persia’s” enjoyable and surprisingly bubbly story satisfactorily explains (a) why you’re paired up with a princess and (b) why she possesses a brand of magic that rescues you whenever you miss a jump or lose a fight, but it’s an unusual design choice all the same. Failure still begets consequence, but it’s minimal, and anyone with any kind of drive ultimately will see “Persia” all the way through. (Those hungry for some real consequence, don’t fret: “Persia” doles out a reward for beating the game without failing more than 99 times.)

On the other end of the coin: the controls, which simply have to be practiced to be appreciated. “Persia” explains what each button does, but doesn’t satisfactory explain how best to use them in relation to the environment, and you might find yourself fighting the game early on while the prince continually disobeys your intentions and takes a dive. The sooner you learn not to overdo it, the sooner the game’s magic shines through, and once you finally “get” it, “Persia’s” beautiful, non-linear levels become a serious joy to traverse.

“Persia’s” combat, while not nearly as exhilarating, is similarly nuanced: Every fight is a one-on-one encounter, and good rhythmic skills will get you farther than button-mashing and brute force. Some greater enemy variety would’ve done wonders for making these fights more intriguing, but “Persia” at least is smart about spacing them out. Most encounters are brief, and then it’s back to running through the world, which is precisely the way it should be.

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WordJong
For: Nintendo DS
From: Gameblend/Destineer
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s been a down year for the Nintendo DS’ puzzle library, which has seen only a trickle of great additions after a few years in which gems practically rained from the sky.

How savvy, then, of Destineer to send reviewers fresh copies of one of those games that got lost in the shuffle of 2007’s downpour. “WordJong” combines two dependable concepts — Mahjong and Scrabble — into one sleek game that’s simple enough to sell itself, and if you never played or even noticed it last year, it’s as good an addition to your DS library as anything that actually came out this fall.

If you’ve played Mahjong — and between the tidal wave of Flash, mobile and other iterations, you’ve likely played or at least seen it — “WordJong” immediately makes sense. Like Mahjong, the object is to match titles and score as many points as possible while ultimately clearing all titles from the board.

The difference, in case you don’t see it coming, is that instead of matching symbols, you’re spelling words from the selectable tiles on the board. As with Scrabble, larger words and words that incorporate uncommon letters yield more points.

Merging the two games makes as much sense in practice as it appears to make on paper, and “WordJong” does nothing to get in that concept’s way. The controls — whether you prefer the touch screen, buttons or both — work exactly as expected, and the game’s interface is pleasantly simple. Destineer throws in a few wrinkles, including an undo button and the ability to occasionally destroy a stray tile, but they’re optional and only serve to enhance the game’s user-friendliness.

Destineer also takes a page from Nintendo, with exceptional results, in the features department. “WordJong” features a daily puzzle to solve (complete with high score to overcome), and the calendar stretches back from present day to December 2006. Collectable rewards and a RPG-like Temple Challenge further sweeten the single-player experience, and “WordJong’s” multiplayer component accommodates local (single/multi-card wireless or pass-the-DS play) and online (two players) competition, as well as demo sharing with friends who wish to sample the game.

Destineer’s shrewd reminder of “WordJong’s” existence had more to do with promoting the all-new “WordJong Party” for Wii than anything else, but in a year in which the best puzzle system around is hurting for new puzzle games, it doubles as a smart reminder of overlooked gems worth a second look. Given all this one contains — and taking into account the extremely inviting $20 price tag — it’s a smart reminder that not every game worth playing in 2008 actually came out in 2008.