The Rogue Prince of Persia is a promising start with unfavorable odds

The time-traveling prince, protagonist of The Rogue Prince of Persia, flies across the screen from the left side towards a massive bull-like enemy on the right side of the screen
Image: Evil Empire/Ubisoft

Time sensitive

For a story about someone who can cheat time, the timing of The Rogue Prince of Persia could not be more unfortunate.

Amid the release of Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown in January of this year, as well as the much more recent surprise launch of roguelite phenomenon Hades 2 in Steam Early Access — the latter of which actually resulted in developer Evil Empire delaying this game’s original May 14 release — Rogue finds itself on uneven ground. What could have been a fresh and promising spinoff for a franchise that had been dormant for years now has to unfairly share the spotlight, facing sky-high expectations and inevitable comparisons to not only its surrounding peers, but the studio’s own legacy as the support team for Dead Cells.

Released in Steam Early Access on May 27, The Rogue Prince of Persia marries Ubisoft’s popular franchise with the institutional knowledge of Evil Empire around the roguelite genre. In the 2D roguelite, Persia is attacked by a Hun army, a nomadic group wielding dark magic. Thanks to an artifact in his possession, the Prince can travel back in time whenever he’s about to meet his demise, ready to dash through another attempt to stop the invasion.

The prince, star of The Rogue Prince of Persia, leaps in the air to punch downwards on encroaching enemies
Image: Evil Empire/Ubisoft

During the tutorial, it doesn’t take long to see how Evil Empire is sprinkling Prince of Persia flair into a scaled-down action platformer. As you navigate a series of procedurally generated 2D biomes, you’re free to wall-run horizontally and vertically on any suitable structure in the background. You can also vault over enemies (yes, this was inspired by The Sands of Time), perform a kick, and do a dive attack from midair — which isn’t as aggressively snappy as Dead Cells’ ground pound, but it still feels quite satisfactory.

Each of these actions has a simple mechanical purpose with some additional benefits if used in the right scenario. The kick is great for interrupting attacks or just throwing somebody toward the nearest trap or cliff. It can also stun enemies if they hit a wall or a fellow Hun, producing a ripple effect. If the second target has a shield and gets hit, this action automatically removes that shield; the same can be accomplished with the dive attack. Once you get used to the Prince’s acrobatic actions, getting from point A to B in a biome feels like speedrunning an obstacle course.

It’s unfortunate, then, that The Rogue Prince of Persia doesn’t offer much of a challenge once you’ve mastered these movements. There are platforming sections reminiscent of the franchise’s roots, but they don’t require perfect precision. Enemies seem often at a disadvantage around the Prince’s traversal. Toward the end of my playthrough of the current build, I was able to remain untouched for almost the entirety of a run. Getting to this point does feel rewarding. The current early access build, however, makes that thrill short-lived.

The prince from The Rogue Prince of Persia slides down an inclined plane towards a bed of spikes
Image: Evil Empire/Ubisoft

During the first week of release, there are six biomes and two bosses available. It took me six hours to reach the “end” of the current build, and everything basically stopped in its tracks once I did. The oasis to which the Prince returns after each death serves as a hub to unlock items for subsequent runs, as well as the occasional chat with characters. Once I defeated the second boss, they all ceased offering conversations. There’s a so-called Mind Map that registers key story details, gradually mapping a detective board of sorts. First impressions of this mechanic seem promising, especially when a “clue” leads you to take a different route just to talk to a specific NPC and unlock an item to progress — an interesting method of providing story-led structure to a roguelite. But with only a few events available at the moment, it still feels like a first draft.

The same sentiment encapsulates my experience with The Rogue Prince of Persia as a whole. Even Evil Empire has acknowledged this within 24 hours of the launch, in response to the community’s feedback. “We’re not here to do a final sense check on a 90% finished game and replace some placeholder art,” reads a Steam post by the studio, “nor are we a finished game with years of post-1.0 support. Our plan is to at least double the amount of content in the game, by providing weekly content updates where we work closely with the community.”

When I reviewed No Rest for the Wicked earlier this year, I was surprised at what is considered a “work in progress” in Steam Early Access, as the build was big enough to be its own thing already. Rogue is much smaller in scope and had a significantly shorter development time. But the foundation is there already. I just can’t help but wonder if, aside from the model it’s being built around, Rogue was released earlier than it should have been. I don’t see how churning out weekly updates, which Evil Empire sees as an “experiment,” is the answer to keep up with expectations.

The prince from The Rogue Prince of Persia stands inside of a strange contraption, saying to himself, “I smell something burning!”
Image: Evil Empire/Ubisoft

The second Prince of Persia spinoff of 2024 is riddled with phantoms. In an interview with Edge Magazine, reposted by GamesRadar, game director Lucie Dewagnier said Evil Empire “needed to change things” due to The Lost Crown. According to Game Informer, both teams were in touch from the beginning to avoid “making the same decision and making the same game” along the course of development.

Despite that open line of communication between the teams, there are still some undeniable similarities between Rogue and The Lost Crown. Both games shared the same conceptual mission — a spinoff that would awaken the Prince of Persia name from slumber, especially with the Sands of Time remake still MIA. They also happen to be 2D action platformers in a year that has a glut of them (Ultros, Pepper Grinder, Nine Sols, and more). It’s a different scenario than the one surrounding Cadence of Hyrule, for example, a spinoff by the Crypt of the NecroDancer studio that still managed to stand out and have a spotlight period before The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was released three months later.

Likewise, pitting Rogue against Hades 2 — a sequel that already has more environments, enemies, and voiced characters in early access than the full version of the first game did when its 1.0 version launched — is an uneven comparison, to say the least. And yet Evil Empire delayed its game in the light of Hades 2’s release.

The prince from The Rogue Prince of Persia leaps backwards away from an enemy, brandishing his spear
Image: Evil Empire/Ubisoft

Then there’s Evil Empire’s legacy as a studio. Few people will remember the start of Dead Cells in early access back in 2017, with only a handful of biomes and mechanics still in the conception phase. Instead, the expectations for The Rogue Prince of Persia are clouded by the present, with Dead Cells fans picturing the fully formed roguelite hit that sold over 10 million copies. Seven years later, the roguelite genre as a whole seems to be at a saturation point, which doesn’t help. Three Sony first-party games — Returnal, God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla, and The Last of Us Part 2 Remastered — did their own spin on the genre, while an increasing number of studios are betting on sequels (see Slay the Spire, Darkest Dungeon, and Spelunky, to name a few) rather than new games altogether.

Saying that Evil Empire is dealing with unfavorable odds would be an understatement. After my short time with its new roguelite, however, I still can’t wait to see where Rogue goes from here. I’m intrigued to see how its promising ideas are developed, regardless of how many more of its genre come out prior to the release of its 1.0 version. Let’s just hope Ubisoft doesn’t launch another Prince of Persia game that same year.

The Rogue Prince of Persia was released in Early Access on May 27 on Windows PC. The game was played on PC using a download code provided by Evil Empire. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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