When it first arrived, "Tomb Raider" was hailed as a spiritual successor to the original "Prince of Persia." The adventure title featuring Lara Croft was a breathtaking blend of platforming, puzzle solving and gunplay.

Since then, the series has clung close to its original formula. Croft still navigates buildings built like puzzle boxes. She still pulls on T-shaped switches and pushes nearly the exact same blocks.

On the other hand, the "Prince of Persia" has evolved by experimenting with new forms of play. While in the same genre, the two franchises are diametrically opposed when it comes to approach.

And nothing shows off this difference more than their latest offerings: "Tomb Raider: Underworld"; and "Prince of Persia," a new project using the old moniker.

With Crystal Dynamics' "Underworld," Croft's adventure is solid and familiar, almost to a fault. The game retains the feel of its predecessors as players jump across ravines and shoot enemies in sporadic encounters. But the problem with keeping things unchanged is that the same problems — slow control, uninspired combat and a wonky camera — are never fixed.

For all intents and purposes, "Underworld" is the same game players have been enjoying for more than a decade. This time around, Croft is searching for the mythical city of Avalon, where she suspects her mother may be trapped after being teleported there years ago. But to reach her destination, players will have to explore undersea temples, Thai jungles, a Norwegian island and Mexican tombs to gather clues on how to access the mythical city.

Most of the adventure is focused on Thor, the Norse god whose relics hold the key to Avalon, and Croft's journey is centered on gathering these four pieces. The rest of the story line is boilerplate "Tomb Raider" with characters such as Amanda Evert and Natla, the queen of Atlantis, returning.

Fans will encounter some annoying bugs, and there are some poorly designed puzzles that will have players double tracking, wandering aimlessly about or cursing the use of motorcycles in a video game.

But despite being as predictable as a Michael Bay movie, "Underworld" is oddly satisfying. It's a testament to Croft's lingering charm.

Bold risks

While Crystal Dynamics treads old territory, Ubisoft Montreal takes bold risks with "Prince of Persia." The game features an attention-grabbing cel-shaded style and an enormous world, but more important, it tackles the idea of romance in an adventure game.

As the Prince lost in a sandstorm, players bump into a runaway princess and end up tangled in a quest to save the world from the dark god Ahriman.

Admittedly, the plot is unoriginal, but what makes this game special is the introduction of Princess Elika, who becomes your partner during the journey. Together, the Prince and Elika have to heal the numerous Fertile Grounds sealing the dark god within the land of the Ahru. Over the course of the adventure, the team lets players speak and build a relationship between the characters.

Think of it as romantic adventure similar to "The Empire Strikes Back." The Prince has an uneasy relationship with Elika at the start, but by the end, the players build a bond with her character and artificial intelligence. They'll lean heavily on her in a game that actually doesn't let you die.

Instead, Elika will save players from errant jumps or death at the hands of the Corrupted, Ahriman's minions. But though the developer eliminates death, it doesn't make the game too easy. Although the Prince won't fall to his death, he will start over from the last place he stood on solid ground. He will be forced to traverse the walls and beams all over again.

Like other games in the franchise, battles are set-piece moments that break up the monotony of travel and puzzles. Even with Elika saving you, the battles can be challenging.

Clearly, influenced by "Ico" and "Shadows of the Colossus," Ubisoft Montreal does an excellent job of combining aspects of both titles. The game's structure and sense of scale are taken from the latter, and "Prince of Persia's" experimentation with relationships is a nod to the other PlayStation 2 classic.

It's a mix that works sublimely and leaves players stunned and exhilarated at the end.

Reach Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/videogames.

Video Game
Reviews
  • WHAT: "Tomb Raider: Underworld"
  • PLATFORM: Xbox 360 (reviewed), multiple systems
  • RATING: Teen
  • GRADE: B-
  • n n
  • WHAT: "Prince of Persia"
  • PLATFORM: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC
  • RATING: Teen
  • GRADE: A-