Within its long history, Prince of Persia has always been better at leading than following. Its original trailblazing release in 1989 set a new standard for fluid animation and death-defying platforming, and the acclaimed Sands of Time was deservedly praised for its innovative parkour-inspired 3D traversal. Series entries that attempt to chase trends like the gritty Warrior Within, on the other hand, have been less than successful. Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is the series’ first attempt at a modernized metroidvania, which could have easily fallen into the category of competent imitators. But with impactful combat, silky platforming, and innovative exploration mechanics, this latest Prince of Persia makes the series a leader in its class once again.
Breaking with tradition, the eponymous prince in this case is not actually the player-character himself. Instead you play as Sargon, the youngest member of the Immortals–a sort of Persian royal guard by way of Avengers-like superheroes. When a member of your clan betrays the order by kidnapping the Prince and taking him to the mysterious and cursed Mount Qaf, the Immortals give chase to rescue him. The setting allows the story to pay homage to Persian mythology like the benevolent god Simurgh, but this is a very stylized take that doesn’t seem concerned with meticulously setting itself at any specific point in history. It’s a pastiche that blends history and mythology with hyper-stylized visual flourishes inspired by anime and comic books.
Mount Qaf is an elaborate setting for The Lost Crown, encompassing ancient temples, catacombs, royal libraries, caverns, and more. It was once the heart of the kingdom but has fallen into disrepair following the death of the wise King Darius. And as a cursed mountain, the few remaining inhabitants talk as if they are living outside of the sequential flow of time, frequently referencing things that happened either too long ago, or not yet.
This narrative supports the three main pillars of gameplay: combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving. Mount Qaf is rife with monsters and the shambling remains of guards, and the lore establishes that it was built with death traps and puzzles to keep out invaders and protect the king. What’s most striking about these pillars is that, while each of them are refined and essential pieces in themselves, the blend of all three together lets you flex different gameplay muscles as you switch from combat to platforming to puzzles at a brisk pace.
Combat is snappy and challenging, giving you a suite of attacks, dodges, and parries and then slowly peppering in new combat abilities, letting you find inventive ways to incorporate your traversal skills into your ever-expanding arsenal. The ability to create a shadow-copy that you can teleport to has obvious traversal implications, for example, but it also gets specialized combat functions as well. What begins as a fairly simple 1-2-3 timed combo system with some light parrying quickly turns into an acrobatic tour de force as you manage the battlefield with deadly grace. Boss battles are massive spectacles, ranging from chipping at enormous beasts to dueling formidable human foes with anime-inspired finishers to your special attacks. And hitting a perfect counter rewards you with not just damage, but the satisfaction of seeing a unique cinematic flourish that is tailored to each enemy.
Combat factors heavily into the equipment system, a necklace of amulets that let you customize Sargon to your liking in various ways, but primarily in the context of combat. You can expand the necklace with collectibles to equip more amulets, and I found it flexible enough to accommodate a wide array of playstyles, accenting your strengths and smoothing over your weaknesses. My own loadout ended up leaning heavily into maintaining a high health total with life regain through parries, and a bonus for attacking at full health. But another could focus on successful dodges, or getting bonuses out of special moves like a time bubble or shockwave.
Movement is similarly nuanced and natural. As you increase your abilities, you become more acrobatic and airborne until the point that you can clear a room while barely touching the ground. The platforming feels so natural, in fact, that it finds the elusive sweet spot of metroidvanias where you sometimes aren’t sure if you need another ability, or if you can just get good enough to pull off a platforming challenge already.
The challenges rise to meet your newfound agility, with the regular appearance of breathless platforming rooms that require pitch-perfect timing to every nimble leap and dodge. I say the word “breathless” literally, as I would often find myself realizing I had unconsciously held my breath while making my way through one. Many of these are optional, with a hidden piece of specialized currency tucked in the toughest part of an area. That currency, called Xerxes, will fly back to its original location if you die and only becomes yours to keep if you make it through the challenge and successfully touch safe ground again, similar to the tough-as-nails platformer Celeste. It’s too bad that these challenge coins have fairly limited utility in the game’s economy, as they’re mostly reserved for a single vendor with only a few appealing baubles.
The puzzles are the weakest of the three pillars, but only barely. They are primarily an extension of the platforming, because even once you know the solution, you’ll often need to rely on precise timing and nimble reflexes to solve them. I never struggled with a solution enough to feel frustrated by not understanding it, but I did occasionally get annoyed when I had to repeatedly attempt to execute the solution I had already figured out.
All of this would be for nothing if exploring the location–the heart of any metroidvania–weren’t fun and engaging on its own terms. But the setting is fantastic, with imaginative, varied biomes that look gorgeous and vibrant. From majestic man-made structures to earthy caverns accented with bright crystalline patterns and even a wrecked shipyard frozen in time, it’s a constant joy to explore a new area, discover new powers, and re-explore to find hidden pockets that you left behind before. One section even seems directly inspired by Metroid Dread, introducing a looming, invincible enemy that hunts you.
And it’s in this facet–the metroidvania exploration–that Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown finds the most room for innovation. Chief among these is Memory Shards, a reusable resource that maps a single button press to taking a screenshot of your current location and marking its location on your map. In a genre defined by constantly presenting you with areas you can’t yet reach, this is an absolute game-changer. It emulates the feeling of drawing your own maps in the back of a game manual and taking notes on the symbols you see, but modernized and automated in a way that is clean and intuitive. You can expand your stock of Memory Shards by finding collectibles in the open world, letting the exploration aspect feed back into itself.
The Memory Shards system is helpful without feeling over-generous, which is true of many of The Lost Crown’s quality-of-life features. Save points are marked by Wak-Wak trees, and you can see their ethereal, glowing trails as you get close to help subtly guide you toward them. A Guided option will point you in the right direction of your next story objective or let you know if a gate is closed off with your current abilities, but it doesn’t hold your hand, so you still feel the joy of exploring. You can buy maps of new areas for a token price, but you can also simply abstain and explore to fill out the map yourself. The combat difficulty is similarly flexible, composed of recommended Rookie, Warrior, Hero, and Immortal difficulty settings, along with sliders for various combat elements. You can turn enemy damage or your own up or down, extend your parry and dodge timing, and more to your liking. All of it seems made to meet you where you are without compromising what makes it feel engaging and active.
All of this is in service of a story that has compelling characters and some interesting ideas, but often becomes too muddied for its own good. The supernatural setting of Mount Qaf lets the story imply a lot of mysterious questions without many clear answers about how time works here and what exactly is happening, so it often feels as if magic is being treated like a crutch. Sargon is a dynamic and relatable hero and the ultimate villain is sympathetic, but many of the tertiary characters are barely developed or even disappear almost entirely. And the writing is best in the moments when it’s as hyper-stylized as the action, as opposed to those where it ventures into over-seriousness. I cared about these characters and I’d like to see more of them, but the plot itself was less compelling.
Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is a sea change for the long-running series, and almost as dramatic a shift as Sands of Time was when it took the classic platformer series into 3D. This new genre debut is so confident and impeccably crafted that this should simply be the identity of Prince of Persia for the foreseeable future. Nearly every part of Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown works so well, and the parts connect so seamlessly, that it feels as if the series has found its new genre home.