This 3D action sequel features the multi-talented title character of the previous year's Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, who is now imbued with even more skills and abilities, and faces an even greater threat. Pursued by an incarnation of his own deadly fate, the acrobatic Prince must platform-jump, puzzle-solve, and swordfight through a quest that leads him to the surreal island home of terrible monsters that represent humankind's greatest fears. One major enhancement to this sequel is in the fighting mechanics, which are designed to allow the Prince to string together jabs and slashes into customized combination attacks. Developing these skills will be crucial, as the hero faces even more combat in this adventure than in his last. Supernatural abilities will also play an important role, and the Prince can employ his influence over the "Ravages of Time" to give himself a fighting chance against otherwise overwhelming odds.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was one of the nicest surprises of 2003 -- especially coming as it did after a couple of abominable attempts to revive Jordan Mechner's classic Prince of Persia franchise. The Sands of Time's combination of enjoyable platforming and puzzle solving, combined with its luscious graphics, beautiful character animations, good storyline and great music and sound work had all the hallmarks of a classic. Unfortunately, there were a few hang-ups that kept the game from being as great as it could have been. The lackluster combat system that drew considerable criticism (though I didn't hate it as much as many other did), there was the problem with the game being a bit short and linear, and for PC users, there was the issue of only supporting one type of game pad.
Ubisoft and the Prince of Persia development team clearly took those criticisms to heart during the development of the Prince's latest adventure, The Warrior Within, because those areas have improved dramatically since the Sands of Time. Unfortunately, the developers apparently couldn't keep their mitts off of the rest of the game, because their attempts to "fix" what wasn't broken manage to set the game back as much as changes to things like the combat system have pushed it forward. The result is a game that's -- on balance -- as good as the previous edition, but feels more disappointing because our expectations were higher this time around.
Let's start with the best news. The one area that most people had a problem with in the previous game, the combat system, has undergone a serious overhaul. Now, instead of a tedious combat system that holds up the action, the prince has a brand-spankin' new series of combos and special moves that can be learned and pulled up with a fairly minimal learning curve. The moves include a very cool flip over an enemy resulting in a gory decapitation and a hostage grab that results in the Prince cutting an enemy in half at the waist. There are also a number of moves that play off the environment, such a whirling dervish thing in which he spins around standing columns and a horizontal leap off of walls.
The vast improvement in the combat system works really well and is most welcome. In the previous game, I often found myself groaning every time I saw enemies because I knew I'd have to butcher my way through a mindless teleporting horde to get to the fun part of the game -- the puzzle solving. This time, I found myself constantly trying to discover new combos or new ways to kill enemies. The Prince's ability to single or dual-wield weapons makes the combat system even better because each of the dozens of temporary second weapons you can arm yourself with (they break after a few uses) open up new moves to try. Even better, the variety of moves combined with the spectacular animation system meant that, no matter what I was doing, the combat always managed to look insanely cool. The combat is still secondary to the platforming elements of the game, and it's still not as rich as a pure action game, but it more than holds up throughout the experience.
Ubisoft has also improved its PC support this time around. While there's support for mouse and keyboard controls (which actually works pretty well), Warrior Within is clearly designed for a gamepad. After testing out the keyboard-mouse combo for a while, I eventually moved to my Logitech Dual Action gamepad (the one patterned after a PS2 controller). As you'd guess, playing with a gamepad is much more enjoyable experience. The game's controls are excellent. They've been tightened a bit since The Sands of Time and the tolerance for some of the Prince's moves has been made more generous, which means that some of his more difficult maneuvers will be easier to pull of this time around.
Prince of Persia has always been about platforming -- the jumping, diving, shimmying along ledges, and dodging fiendishly designed deathtraps that threaten to turn our nameless hero into shish-ka-bob, falafel, hummus or several other varieties of Middle Eastern food. Warrior Within not only upholds that tradition, but easily surpasses its predecessors with some of the best level design in the series so far. The game is no longer content to let the player slide by just using one or two of the Prince's incredible array of jumps, leaps and flips. This time the player faces puzzles that require a series of coordinated tricks to get past. Far from being annoying, though, the process of solving these puzzles left me exhilarated. I can't count the number of times when I blurted out "That was so cool!" after pulling off a seemingly impossible sequence of maneuvers.
The game also amps up the adrenaline factor by occasionally forcing you to do these sequences under incredible time pressure. There are a couple of exciting chase sequences where a wrong move means getting captured and killed by the game's big enemy, the Dahaka. I found these sequences very exciting the first few times they happened, although the precise timing demanded by them means that I inevitably did them 10 or 15 times before I got them right. Unfortunately, there were so many that by the end of the game, the amount of re-loading and repetition I was doing started getting tedious. Indeed, this seems to be a problem throughout the game. Warrior Within overcompensates for the shortness of The Sands of Time by repeating certain sequences until they lose their specialness.
All else being equal, the improvements to the combat could easily have rocketed Warrior Within to classic status. Unfortunately, all else is not equal, and a series of unfortunate decisions designed to "fix" what was never broken end up hurting the game. Those design decisions can be summed up in one word: "darkness". Perhaps Ubisoft felt that making the Prince's world darker and edgier might help widen the game's audience. Unfortunately, I don't think the results were worth it. Video gaming is already filled with dark, edgy heroes. It was the dream-like, fuzzy-edged Arabian Nights style of The Sands of Time that helped set that game apart in the sea of urban dystopias and dark fantasies that clog the shelves of your local EB. By "darkening" the Prince's world, Warrior Within ends up looking a little too generic for its own good.
Take the Prince himself. It's been ten years since the events of The Sands of Time and the years haven't been kind to our hero. He's spent most of the intervening years on the run from the Dahaka, a monster unleashed by the time paradox of the Prince's survival in the last game. Warrior Within is the chronicle of the Prince' attempt to travel to the Island of Time, defeat the Empress of Time, and stop the Sands of Time from ever being created, depriving the Dahaka of its reason to hunt him. Unfortunately, this storyline and the way it's presented really rob the player of a sympathetic main character to empathize with.
In The Sands of Time, the Prince was a naive youth who screwed up really badly and was trying to make good. Sure, he was a little arrogant and self-centered, but he had a good heart. The Prince in Warrior Within is a bitter, deeply angry man who's only out to save his own ass and he really doesn't care who he has to run over in the process. The result is that, rather than being a "dark" and "gritty" anti-hero, the Prince merely comes across as a self-pitying jackass who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. Other characters are treated even worse. The game's two main female characters are ciphers without enough characterization to even call them "cardboard".
It doesn't help that the storytelling is very muddled and dialogue is poorly written and often confusing. The over-acted voice-overs that pop up throughout the game are usually just observational and do little to drive the story forward or provide much context for the action. The result is that the storyline moves forwards in fits and starts, mostly in four or five big cut-scenes spaced very far apart. The major portion of the game is spent traveling through two huge towers trying to fix a mechanism that unlocks the door to a throne room. Unfortunately, between the time you're given this task and the time you walk through the door, the storyline doesn't move forward at all. By the time the player gets to the game's big "twist", you've probably forgotten just why you've been doing all this running and jumping in the first place.
The game's graphics are similarly affected by the need for "darkness". On the one hard, the game is gorgeous. The level design and art direction is stupendous. Of particular note is the way the Castle of Time changes when the Prince jumps back and forth between the ruined building of the present and the more complete castle in the past by jumping through time portals. This in itself is fun, as it lets the player explore different puzzles in two different versions of the castle, but it's seeing the ruined version of the room you just saw complete that really sells this gameplay dynamic. Each of the game's separate areas is also beautiful. The clockworks tower with its huge grinding gears and swinging pendulums is a beautiful steampunk nightmare straight out of Thief 3. The Garden Tower, on the other hand, looks like the kind of fantasyland Heaven you'd picture Jasmine waiting to be rescued by Aladdin.
Or maybe you wouldn't. You see, the problem is not with the design itself, but with the decision to make the game darker. Warrior Within fails to capture any "Arabian Nights" flavor because the design of the Castle of Time is such a mishmash of architectural influences that the whole thing comes off feeling fairly generic. Without any particular style or cultural influences to call its own, the Castle of Time never manages to feel like a real building. Instead it's just a pile of bricks, stone and wood; a giant puzzle-box with elements placed not because they fit the theme, but because they'd make a neat place for the Prince to leap from. The dream-like golden glow is gone as well, replaced by an ever-changing filter that, at its best (such as when the screen turns sepia during Dahaka chases) manages to heighten the tension, but often just makes the screen seem blurry, as if your monitor's gamma settings kept changing randomly.
The game's music is a similarly mixed bag and will doubtlessly be hotly debated by anyone who played the Sands of Time. Rather than the skirling, twirling drums and pipes of the previous game, Ubisoft instead gave the scoring chores to industrial metal band Godsmack. Now, I like Godsmack, and I think the soundtrack they've provided with its throbbing drums and feedback distorted power chords is awesome -- probably one of the best original videogame soundtracks of the year. The problem, as always, is that while the music is well-suited to the new "darker" feel of the game, it, more than anything else, kills the fable-like atmosphere that made The Sands of Time so enjoyable. The tracks are good, but there's very little Persian influence in the music of Warrior Within.
That, in the end, is what makes the game feel like its taken two steps forward and two steps back. Warrior Within is a really good game, one that I had a lot of fun playing. Indeed, taken from a pure gameplay angle (all the stuff that you do), fans of the franchise should enjoy this game about as much as the previous entry in the series. Unfortunately, Warrior Within proves that it takes more than just good combat and platforming to make a great game. Bottom line: The Warrior Within simply didn't have enough Prince of Persia.
People who downloaded Prince of Persia: Warrior Within have also downloaded:
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, Prince of Persia, Prince of Persia, Prince of Persia 3D, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, DOOM³
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