The Parable of the Three Princes: A Review of Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

A spunky and roguish hero cuts his way through a mythical Middle-Eastern landscape, confronting all manner of scimitar-wielding villains and dust-ridden monstrosities—oh, and he possesses the ability to manipulate time itself. 

Such an image is no doubt familiar to fans of the long-running Prince of Persia series, which returns to gaming platforms with a vengeance in 2024’s first bona fide gem, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown. An accessible but tough Metroidvania, The Lost Crown takes the franchise back to its side-scrolling roots while remixing the concepts that have come to define the revered series since its inception. With a new protagonist and new story set in a mythological version of the Persian Empire, the latest chapter proves to be one of the best—and already a serious contender for Game of the Year.

The game received critical acclaim, winning numerous awards, and continues to be recognized as one of gaming’s greatest achievements.

The series began with the original game, Prince of Persia, designed by Jordan Mechner and released in 1989. With fluid character animations and challenging two-dimensional platforming gameplay, Prince of Persia was a commercial hit when it was released in Japan and Europe. Writing for Computer Gaming World, Charles Ardai commented that the game’s animation was groundbreaking, comparing its technical achievements to that of Star Wars (1977), and that it perfectly emulated the old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure films that inspired it, like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Originally released for the Apple II and later ported to a wide range of platforms, Prince of Persia is frequently listed as one of the greatest and most important video games ever developed. Set in medieval Persia, players took on the role of the titular nameless Prince and were given an hour to escape the dungeons of sultan’s palace, rescue his cherished princess, and defeat the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar, all the while hindered by palace guards, traps, and the Prince’s own conjured doppelgänger.

The game’s success led to a sequel in 1993, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, which offered more complex level design and enhanced graphics. The storyline ended on a cliffhanger that Mechner, the game’s designer, never got the chance to resolve. A third game was released in 1999, titled Prince of Persia 3D (later ported in North America as Prince of Persia: Arabian Nights), and largely ignored the cliffhanger ending of the previous game. By this point, the brand had changed ownership multiple times, and Mechner was less involved in the development. Reception was decidedly less positive, and the game’s poor performance led Mechner to distance himself from the video game industry.

Soon after, gaming giant Ubisoft acquired the franchise assets. Mechner retained intellectual property rights and was brought in to work on a series reboot. The first of a new trilogy, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released in 2003. The story featured a reimagined Prince, alongside an updated version of the princess named Farah, going up against another corrupt Vizier, this time wielding an artifact known as the Dagger of Time. Incorporating limited time-travel mechanics, players could effectively “rewind” platforming mistakes and attempt them again. The game received critical acclaim, winning numerous awards, and continues to be recognized as one of gaming’s greatest achievements, effectively bringing the original’s two-dimensional platforming concept into well-rendered, three-dimensional environments.

On the heels of the game’s success came a direct sequel, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, released in 2004. Taking place seven years after the events of the previous game, the Prince is hunted by an entity called the Dahaka, a consequence of his previous meddling with the Sands of Time. Mechner, who was preoccupied with writing a screenplay in hopes of taking the franchise to the big screen, was isolated from the production of the game, which took on a darker tone and emphasized upgraded combat mechanics. The game was a critical success; however, longtime fans of the series were divided over the tonal shift and grittier aesthetics. Another sequel, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, released in 2005 to critical acclaim and commercial success. With his actions in Warrior Within having undone the events of The Sands of Time, the Prince returns home to battle the Vizier once again and finally reunite with Farah, closing the book on one of modern gaming’s most beloved trilogies.

The series received another reboot in 2008 simply titled Prince of Persia. Set in ancient Persia, the Prince (still unnamed) here is a vagabond who finds himself stranded in a mysterious land after a sandstorm and battling a dark entity named Ahriman alongside a new princess, Elika. The game is notable for taking inspiration from Zoroastrianism and for playing like an acoustic rendition of the series up to that point, with more simplistic one-on-one combat encounters and a renewed emphasis on platforming.

By this time, production was nearing completion on a loose film adaptation of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. With Jerry Bruckheimer producing and Jake Gyllenhaal taking on the role of the Prince (now named Dastan), the film was pegged to be Disney’s next “mega-franchise,” similar to the Bruckheimer-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. The final version of the movie was a departure from Mechner’s original 2005 screenplay, and reviews were mixed. Despite being the highest-grossing video game adaptation at the time, a disappointing box office return (about $340 million against a $200 million budget), coupled with poor casting decisions and middling reviews, ensured that any anticipated sequels would remain shelved.

To capitalize on the film’s release, Ubisoft developed a new video game, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. Though set during the seven year period between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, the Prince’s new look bore more than a passing resemblance to the version portrayed by Gyllenhaal. Like the film, the game was met with lukewarm reception, and the emergence of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series as a spiritual successor to Prince of Persia found the studio shifting priorities and leaving the franchise lying dormant.

A decade came and went with no news of Prince of Persia. The series quietly faded into the annals of video game history, remembered primarily as a beloved franchise, but one that would likely never see the light of day again. A remake of The Sands of Time was announced at Ubisoft Forward 2020, but multiple delays have cast doubts over the game’s release. As the years went on, it began to look like the iconic Prince was truly lost to the sands of time—that is, until Summer Game Fest 2023.

The decision to shake up the usual template and make Persia’s prince the character in need of rescue is but one of the clever little twists that The Lost Crown applies to the staid formula.

Ubisoft announced Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown at the annual event in June, and it was about as radical a reinvention as one could imagine. With a story unrelated to those that came before, players learned that they would not even take on the role of the titular Prince. Instead, they would be dropped into the shoes of Sargon (Tommy Sim’aan), a young member of the Persian Immortals; historically, an elite heavy infantry unit from the First Persian Empire in the sixth century BC, but here reenvisioned as a kind of warrior clan, something not too unlike a group of ancient Persian superheroes. 

The announcement trailer showed that the days of the three-dimensional platformer were gone, as well, previewing a side-scrolling adventure that returned the series to its two-dimensional platforming origins. Accompanied by an original and kinetic hip hop track recorded by 2WEI, Joznez, and Kataem, The Lost Crown appeared to be a sleek genre throwback title with modern flair and a flashy visual edge. Yet, initial reactions to the reveal were quite negative. Criticisms were aimed at everything from the decision to move away from photorealistic graphics, to the choice of trailer song, to the appearance of Sargon himself. It became more common to refer to the title as the “Fresh” Prince of Persia game, and general audiences seemed less-than-enthused with the game’s overall direction.

But to the surprise of many, when the game dropped in January 2024, it was a runaway hit with gaming critics. Players were met with a finely-tuned and demanding platformer, complete with punishing boss fights and an unusually sincere story that somehow managed to incorporate the usual timey-wimey shenanigans the series is known for, along with a healthy dose of Persian mythology, memorable characters, and moving personal journeys for both protagonist and antagonist. Supported by a banger of a soundtrack by Gareth Coker and Mentrix, the culmination of these ingredients is a heartfelt narrative that Levi Winslow of Kotaku writes is “about ambition, duplicity, regret, and the lengths one will go for power, which culminates in some impressive—and even heartbreaking—revelations.”

The plot kicks off in suitably epic fashion with the Immortals rushing into the heat of battle. An invasion by the Kushan Empire (yes, it’s anachronistic, as the Persian Empire predated the Kushan Empire by about 500 years—don’t try to do the math) threatens to decimate a failing Persia already crippled by thirty years of inexplicable famine and drought. After fending off the invaders and returning to the capital of Persepolis, Sargon is warmly received by Queen Thomyris (Sirine Saba) and her son, Prince Ghassan (Adam El Hagar). Yet Ghassan is quickly abducted by Sargon’s mentor, General Anahita (Nadia Albina), and Thomyris charges the Immortals with retrieving him. Their pursuit of Anahita and Ghassan carries them to the legendary Mount Qaf, which is said to be under a curse that distorts the natural flow of time. The decision to shake up the usual template and make Persia’s prince the character in need of rescue is but one of the clever little twists that The Lost Crown applies to the staid formula.

But to call Ghassan the “titular” Prince is not entirely accurate. One would be forgiven for thinking that a game called Prince of Persia would follow said prince; however, The Lost Crown sees the title as a kind of “thematic lynchpin.” The very notion of a “prince of Persia” becomes the central concept around which the entire narrative is built. Every twist—of which there are quite a few—serves to further unravel and complicate the identity of the title character.

At first glance, Prince Ghassan is the obvious candidate. But when he is shockingly murdered quite early in the game by Vahram (Stewart Scudamore), the noble “White Lion of Persepolis” and leader of the Immortals, Sargon finds himself at odds with his former allies and trying to understand Vahram’s motivations. The truth is gradually revealed: Thomyris assassinated the former King Darius (Pezh Maan)—yes, that Darius—and Vahram, it turns out, is Darius’s son. By usurping the throne of Persia without the blessing of the Simurgh (a divine bird-like entity in Persian mythology), Thomyris is responsible for causing the Empire’s decades-long decline. Vahram sees himself as the true prince of Persia, a title that is his by divine right, and seeks to attain the status of a god by taking the powers of the Simurgh to fix what he perceives to be wrong with the world. The story thus becomes one of two princes, with the legitimate prince becoming the antagonist of the game.

As Sargon, players must search Mount Qaf to find Simurgh feathers, allowing him to manipulate time itself, in hopes of turning back the clock to prevent Ghassan’s death and stop Vahram. While Sargon succeeds in saving Ghassan, Vahram ultimately claims the powers of the Simurgh for himself, ascends to something close to godhood, and actually destroys the world with the intent of recreating it, and indeed the entire cosmos, to suit his own ideals. Only Sargon is spared by the Simurgh, which has identified him across all the multiple fractured timelines as the only one capable of stopping Vahram. Granted the powers of the Simurgh, Sargon finally faces Vahram in the void of uncreation, looking to save him from his own twisted motivations, with quite literally the fate of all reality at stake.

Should players manage to defeat Vahram, Sargon appeals to his better nature and helps him to see the futility of his ways—mortals should not wield the power of a god. In a moment of lucidity, Vahram sacrifices himself to recreate the world and return power to the Simurgh. With Ghassan saved, Sargon returns to Persepolis and confronts Thomyris. Though she urges him to silence, Sargon accuses her before the royal court while Ghassan abdicates his position and relinquishes his crown (adding another layer of meaning to the game’s subtitle). The careful admixture of resolution and irresolution means the game ends on an uncommonly poignant note, with Sargon striking out on his own, leaving Persepolis behind.

Yet, for those invested enough to see the game through to 100% completion, there are a few interesting things that players might notice. For example, players are tasked with uncovering jars of sand used to reveal a prophecy on Mount Qaf—one that speaks of three princes. As the prophecy is gradually filled in, so too is a carved relief to accompany it. The relief clearly depicts Ghassan, Vahram… and Sargon.

During an optional side quest, Sargon encounters a strange hermit who claims to recognize his eyes. Upon completing the hermit’s grueling test, players uncover a piece of lore titled “The Third Son,” penned by the hand of a doctor charged with overseeing the well-being of Thomyris’s children. The document reveals the doctor’s suspicions that Thomyris swapped her infant son (whom the doctor describes as having the makings of a future king) for another child. The telling difference between the babies, he notes, lay in the eyes, and his inquiries into this matter led to his banishment from Persepolis (by this point, it is implied the hermit is this doctor). The scene involving the swapping of children, by the way, seemingly unfolds in the lower corner of the carved relief accompanying the prophecy.

For those paying attention, these findings all but confirm that Sargon is indeed the third prince, completely unaware of his true lineage. The fact that these details are folded into the warp and woof of the game’s world so that players can only stumble upon them creates a sense of cohesion and mysticism that does not feel forced. It does not overload the narrative, and provides substantial fodder for future stories. As it stands, players are required to think and explore, not to mention master their button-mashing skills in tough platforming sequences, to accomplish the tasks that reward them with these cryptic clues.

Where other games deconstruct or recontextualize mythological tales, The Lost Crown instead embraces the ethos and narrative structure of traditional mythology, delivering a story that feels like a legend straight out of ancient scriptures. 

Though it hardly receives more than a passing mention in most mainstream reviews, there is much to be said about the way The Lost Crown (like the 2008 title before it) incorporates aspects of Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian mythology. As a system of belief, Zoroastrianism is dwindling, with only an estimated 125,000 adherents worldwide. Yet its roots run deep, extending back 3,000 years and based on the teachings of the Persian-born “prophet,” Zoroaster (the Greek name for Zarathustra). Often credited with being one of the oldest monotheistic belief systems, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the First Persian Empire. 

Adherents, including Darius I, maintained belief in the fundamentally good Ahura Mazda (from the Avestan language, meaning “Wise Lord”), who did battle with the evil Ahriman (“Destructive Spirit”). Together with his six amesha spentas (“beneficent immortals”), it was believed that Ahura Mazda would eventually vanquish Ahriman and his daevas (evil spirits), bringing an end to the cosmic and ethical dualism that permeates Zoroastrian thought. Fire and fire temples also play key roles in this religious system, and the concept of “divine fire” is incorporated into The Lost Crown as athra, a type of energy source that allows Sargon and the Immortals to perform immense, physics-defying physical feats and attacks animated in an anime-influenced style.

The game also pulls in aspects of Persian mythology. Central to this is Mount Qaf, a mythical location usually described as a mountain encircling the world. Its portrayal in the game as a land cursed to distort time pays homage to the series’ time manipulation mechanics, offering players a chance to navigate a world that feels both ethereal and grounded in ancient myth. In the game’s lore, the mountain is home to the Simurgh. Traditionally depicted as a large, winged bird, the Simurgh is seen as a symbol of both wisdom and purity. In The Lost Crown, the Simurgh serves as a narrative catalyst. Its feathers, scattered across Mount Qaf, are key to further empowering Sargon’s ability to manipulate time, another clever integration of a hallmark Prince of Persia feature. This added layer of narrative depth to the time-travel mechanics make them integral to the game’s mythic setting.

While many games today approach mythological elements with a blend of historical reconstruction and creative interpretation, The Lost Crown weaves its mythological components into the very fabric of its gameplay and story in a way that feels organic and deeply respectful of the source material. In the popular God of War series, for example, mythological figures often appear as larger-than-life adversaries in epic battles, central to the action-focused narrative. Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed series tends to use mythology to embellish its historical settings and service its own much-maligned mythological revision.

The Lost Crown, on the other hand, adopts a subtler approach, choosing to build its world around the mythological elements. The narrative does not simply reference Mount Qaf or the Simurgh; both are integral to the plot and gameplay mechanics. Avoiding the sensationalism frequently seen in myth-based action titles and opting instead for a tone that feels reverent and mystical elevates the narrative to something akin to a contemporary digital parable. Where other games deconstruct or recontextualize mythological tales, The Lost Crown instead embraces the ethos and narrative structure of traditional mythology, delivering a story that feels like a legend straight out of ancient scriptures. 

This is exactly what the developers set out to do, according to cinematic lead Joseph-Antoine Clavet. In an interview with Prima Games, Clavet remarked, “Always understanding that we didn’t want to make a history book, our goal was to make a Legend. A Myth.” In this regard, the game has succeeded admirably. The journey of Sargon, his trials and tribulations, and the moral and ethical dilemmas he faces are reminiscent of the classical hero’s journey, imparting wisdom and insight in a way that is characteristic of the most enduring myths.

And this level of reverential care and nuance is extended to the actual story, specifically with the character of Vahram, who is portrayed with a depth that evokes sympathy rather than outright enmity. Instead of presenting a straightforward conflict where the hero vanquishes an evil adversary, The Lost Crown offers a more complex resolution, fitting with the parabolic nature of its story.

This is a kind of cautionary tale that warns against the folly of trying to impose one’s will upon the world, no matter how noble the intentions might seem.

Vahram’s character is a study in contrasts, embodying both the righteous indignation of a prince wronged and the tragic hubris of a man consumed by a quest for power. His actions, though catastrophic, stem from a desire to right perceived wrongs and restore a lost legacy. “I’ve lost too much to trust the Simurgh again,” he confesses to Sargon when finally confronted. “I can’t believe in such a cruel god anymore.” His words are affecting and encapsulate the crisis of faith that many people experience in the face of apparent psychological and emotional wounds, especially those sustained in childhood, as his were. It is a deeply relatable sentiment, reflecting the anger and sense of despair that can arise from feeling abandoned or punished by a higher power. Vahram’s rejection of the Simurgh is the thing that sets him upon the path of trying to reshape the world according to his own standards, reflecting the human tendency to assert control over our own circumstances, especially when faith in one’s god or a perceived natural order is lost.

This aspect of his character adds an existential dimension to the game’s narrative. Vahram’s journey becomes a lesson in the dangers of losing faith and the hubris of attempting to play god. This is a kind of cautionary tale that warns against the folly of trying to impose one’s will upon the world, no matter how noble the intentions might seem. The game smartly reframes the typical video game narrative of good versus evil not as a deconstruction—this is a crucial point, because so many video game sequels do this—but as a story about understanding (without compromise), empathy, and redemption. The final “boss fight” is less a battle and more a rescue mission, where Sargon’s goal is not to destroy Vahram, but to save him from his own destructive path.

True heroism, the game teaches, often lies in compassion without capitulation (Sargon does not waver from what is right) and sympathy, not just in conquest and victory. Indeed, the lesson the Simurgh imparts to Sargon is, “The wise man does not need an enemy to prove his strength,” which sort of becomes the thesis of the game and sounds remarkably like something that could have been lifted straight from Proverbs 24. By choosing to save Vahram, Sargon embodies the qualities of a wise hero and a compassionate human being. The message is a powerful one that challenges the player to consider the nature of power, responsibility, and the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions. 

In essence, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown does not simply tell a story about defeating a villain; it tells a story about saving a soul. And its thoughtful integration of deeply human themes and an important moral lesson makes the game akin to a contemporary digital parable rooted in ancient Near East legends and mythology. The Lost Crown sets a high standard for video games in 2024. Even if it marks players’ sole foray into gaming this year, its thirty-hour odyssey is worth every second.

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