If you've ever wondered what Prince of Persia would have looked like as a PSone-era platformer, here's your chance to find out. Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles might borrow the setting and characters of last year's free-roaming, rooftop-climbing hit, but its deathtrap-filled levels and linear action are much closer to the series that Assassin's Creed evolved from. That might be disappointing if you're expecting another open-ended sneakfest, but for what Altair's Chronicles is - which, for the record, is a handheld console-game spinoff, created by a company best known for cell-phone games - it's actually not bad.
Taking place a year before Assassin's Creed, Altair's Chronicles opens with the white-robed hero Altair arriving in the Assassin village of Alep, only to find it in flames. The place is under attack from the Knights Templar, and once Altair fights his way through them, he's immediately given a new mission: find the Chalice, a sacred artifact that could swing the balance of the Crusades, and keep it from those who would possess it.
What follows is a mix of action and investigation that sends Altair through the streets of Damascus, Acre, Tyre and Jerusalem, where he'll pick pockets, interrogate persons of interest and - whether he's careful or not - get into lots of fights with guards. He'll also spend a lot of time running up the sides of buildings (an ability that you don't get until after the opening level), leaping fluidly between rooftops and dodging deathtraps. A lot of deathtraps, actually; citizens of the medieval Middle East apparently spent a lot of time covering their homes with spring-loaded axes, deadly cobras and spikes that retract at rhythmic intervals.
This is where the game is at its best. While you'll often have to slow down and tiptoe your way through hazards, the game's a lot of fun when Altair's tearing across rooftops and narrow catwalks at full blast, and when you can effortlessly dodge traps and swing across chasms with split-second timing, it's a rush.
The action all happens in 3D, but it's a constrained kind of 3D that moves to close-up during fights and stays at an isometric overhead angle the rest of the time. Generally, this works pretty well, although the angled view sometimes makes it tough to judge distances or to figure out where objects are in relation to one another. You might step onto what you think is a south-pointing walkway, for example, and then discover that it was just the wall of the building you were standing on, and you're now falling to the street below. And then you'll have to walk slowly back to the nearest ladder or low roof, hoping guards don't attack and civilians don’t start throwing rocks.
Altair also occasionally ducks into sewers and hazard-filled temples, but everywhere he goes, his goal is the same: follow the green arrow to the next shimmering waypoint, killing or dodging whatever dangers pop up along the way. Altair's also got a few tricks that he didn't have in the console Assassin's Creed, chief among them a grappling hook that can be used to swing across certain chasms or - later on - yank his enemies off their feet.
Using the touchscreen to switch between weapons, he'll also eventually have access to smoke bombs to stun attackers, real bombs to kill them (these can be thrown or planted as a timed explosive), poisoned throwing knives and - in one level - multiple disguises. He'll be able to stealth-kill unsuspecting enemies just by sneaking up on them, and he'll even get a crossbow, which can be aimed by tapping an enemy's icon on the touchscreen map.
Of course, Altair also carries a sword, which comes in handy against all the guards and Templars you'll be facing. The combat here is a little different from the console game; while you'll still fight enemies one at a time, like in a bad kung-fu movie, you can be a little more aggressive, busting out light and hard combos with two buttons instead of just one. As the game progresses, you'll earn new combos, as well as a few familiar moves, like a parry that can open your foes up for an instant kill. Finally, you can upgrade the sword to cartoonish proportions by spending the blue orbs that litter the world like coins in a Mario game.
Oddly, your sword won't always matter during the game's boss fights, most of which are really more about dodging and pushing buttons on cue than anything else. That goes double for the game's recurring/final boss, Lord Basilisk, who really only requires that you hit Y, then X, and then Y again, over and over, until he either gives up or dies. That is until you land the final, killing blow, at which point you'll hit X… and then hit X again before hitting Y! Did this game just blow your mind!?
Not all of Altair's talents are violent ones. He's also a master of picking pockets and interrogation, both of which are accomplished through timed, touchscreen-driven minigames. Picking pockets is pretty simple; you'll start with a black screen representing your target's purse, and then rub your stylus across the darkness to reveal its contents. You'll then need to grab the key (it's always a key) and carefully maneuver it to the purse's opening without bumping it into any of the purse's other contents, some of which tend to move around. Like, back and forth. In a straight line.
Interrogation, meanwhile, is lifted directly from Elite Beat Agents. Little dots, surrounded by contracting circles, will appear on a diagram of a human back, and you'll need to tap them as their circles turn green. Once you've accomplished that, it's time to twist your victim's arm, which you'll do by tracking a rolling ball from the bottom of the screen to the middle.
Oh, and you'll also sometimes stumble across chests buried in sand, at which point you'll have to blow what feels like a dozen lungfuls of air at the DS microphone to uncover them. That's actually kind of irritating.
Also irritating is the game's story, which bounces between "acceptable" and "indecipherably stupid." Although it's officially a prequel, it comes off more like awkward fanfiction; don't expect anything like the console game's narrative, with its subtle historical vibe and multi-culti development team. No, this is lumbering low fantasy, and aside from a few memorable snippets of dialogue, none of it is very interesting. The plot offers zero insight into its console cousin, it's disjointed, Altair himself comes off as bland and generic and there's a needless cliffhanger ending that abruptly halts the game midway through its climax.
On the other hand, Altair's Chronicles won't distract you with any near-future interludes, so that might be a plus for those of you who hated those parts of Assassin's Creed.
In spite of a host of nagging flaws, Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles still manages to be a pretty entertaining action-platformer. It's short, clocking in at around four to six hours long, but this isn't a slapdash effort - the plot might be lame, but the action, level design and graphics are all pretty impressive for a DS title. If you're fond of trap-filled, Prince of Persia-style platforming and you've got an afternoon to kill, you could do a lot worse than this.
Feb 12, 2008