The third title in the Prince of Persia series' 128-bit generation revival, The Two Thrones offers action gamers a chance to play two different personifications of the noble young Babylonian. In the role of the good Prince, familiar from recent adventures, players will use agility, speed, and cunning to outfight and outwit enemies across the expansive, freely roamed city. Through the great struggles he has faced, however, a more vicious, unforgiving side of the Prince has developed from deep within his psyche, and it may no longer be contained. Players will also control this "Dark Prince," a bitter warrior of deadly efficiency, with a completely different set of fighting moves and abilities.
Set after the events of Warrior Within, the game begins as the Prince returns home from his trying ordeal on the Island of Time, accompanied by his love, Kaileena. When the two arrive in their homeland they find it in turmoil, devastated by an ongoing war. The kingdom no longer looks to the Prince as its ruler. To the contrary, the people of the land now consider him a criminal, and arrest him almost immediately. In a last desperate act to save her betrothed, Kaileena sacrifices herself to release the mystical powers of the Sands of Time, allowing the Prince to use their magic to escape his captors, but also unleashing his vengeful Dark side.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time marked a comeback for Jordan Mechner's classic PC franchise that (save for one abortive revival attempt) had been languishing for years. The classic puzzle-solving gameplay of the original made a seamless transition to 3D, and if the game's combat wasn't all that great, it was more than made up for by the fun of running up walls, sliding along ledges, dodging fiendish deathtraps, and solving room-sized conundrums.
The series seemed to lose its way a bit with the sequel, The Warrior Within. While the combat had been improved and the puzzles were even tougher, the Prince's new 80's hair-band-reject look and nu-metal musical soundtrack from Godsmack felt too out of place to many critics and players. If you were in that group, you'll be glad to hear that Ubisoft brought our Middle Eastern hero back to his roots in his latest adventure, The Two Thrones. The result is a return to grace for our troubled royal acrobat.
The game begins with the Prince returning to his home city of Babylon from the Island of Time, the location of the second game, with his new love Kaileena in tow. Unfortunately, all isn't well in the city. In fact, the whole place is essentially on fire thanks to an assault by an army from India that has brought the Prince's kingdom low.
Never being one to stand around when there are heads to be cut off and death-defying leaps to be made, the Prince wades into the fray, scimitar at the ready. As always when the Prince's sword overrules his head, however, things go horribly wrong, an old enemy returns, and the Sands of Time are again released.
The return to Babylon is more than a mere story element. It marks the series' return to the beautiful Middle Eastern art and design the so enriched the first title. The Two Thrones' environments range from the streets and rooftops of Babylon to underground caves, long buried tombs, to the famous Hanging Gardens.
All of these settings, without exception, are stunning. As might be expected, the sharper, more detailed graphics for the PC version of the game are the clear winner when compared with the consoles, especially at higher resolutions (Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones supports resolutions up to 1600x1200; there's no widescreen, but the game ran smoothly on our test machines.) More than the detail, though, what stands out is the game's art design, things like the blowing curtains that festoon the royal palace, the mysterious glowing blue torches in a forgotten crypt, or the lovely geometric patterns, arched doors, and latticework screens used as architectural highlights.
The game also makes heavy use of light bloom to create the golden, dreamlike glow fans of the series remember from the first game. Unlike the ever-changing colored filter from The Warrior Within, though, this effect never gets annoying, it merely serves to transport the player into what feels like a new tale from The Arabian Nights. Ultimately, the one area where the graphics suffer is during the game's few FMV scenes. These scenes are a typical example of something that looks fine on a television screen looking grainy and washed out when ported over to a PC monitor.
The Two Thrones also marks a returns to the original style of level design, although that's not necessarily for the better. The Sands of Time was fairly linear; once the prince made his way past an area, the player would never see it again. The Warrior Within, on the other hand, took more of a "puzzle-box" approach to level design, creating areas that the player would have to cross and re-cross numerous times in order to advance. While there are a few set-pieces like that in The Two Thrones, most levels have more in common with the first game. It's not that the new levels aren't a lot of fun -- they are (and the design certainly makes the game more accessible to new players) -- it's just that in many ways this feels like a step back for the series. Anyone who's bulled their way through some of the intricate clockwork levels of Warrior Within simply isn't going to be challenged much by The Two Thrones.
Level design aside, one of the great appeals of this series has always been the sheer joy of controlling the insanely agile prince as he jumps and leaps through an ever-escalating series of ledges, cliffs, broken columns, and spinning blades sprouting from bizarre portions of the architecture. Naturally, with precise control being so important, this is the element that will make or break the game. The default keyboard and mouse control system is usable -- no mean trick for a console platformer -- but is still far from the best way to control the game. Using this system feels a bit awkward, can require finger-twisting gyrations in certain areas, and the mouselook often seem to fight with the camera, making camera movement kind of jerky.
The good news is that the gamepad support is excellent. I tried the game with both a Logitech Dual Action control pad and a Nyko Air-Flo for PC, both with button layouts similar to the PlayStation 2 controller, and both gamepads worked fine. The silky smooth control system found in the console versions has made the trip to PC completely intact. This was a relief, since the gamepad control system for The Two Thones is easily the best in the series to date.
This time around, the prince sports a couple of new moves, including using his dagger to dangle from conveniently placed wall decorations and the ability to shimmy up narrow columns. These new abilities are seamlessly integrated into the game's controls, making the connection between the player and the prince almost telepathic at times. The game's camera is also amazing, easily one of the most powerful and flexible camera systems I've ever seen in a third-person game. There was never a moment during play where the camera got stuck in an awkward position or refused to move where I needed it to go.
This level of control also carries over into the game's combat, traditionally one of the series' weakest points. The Two Thrones' combat is built on The Warrior Within's system, itself a vast improvement over The Sands of Time. The good news is, since the incredibly good controls carry over into the combat system, it's not difficult to get the prince to move and fight in exactly the way the gamer wants. The bad news is that the game's combat is still the simplified button-mashing system of overpowered combos it was in the previous game. It's not awful, and it always looks cool on the screen, but it's really just something to kill time between the more interesting climbing and jumping sequences.
Perhaps realizing this, Ubisoft addressed weaknesses in combat with the introduction of stealth kills (or "speed kills" as they're called in the game). The latter designation is actually more accurate as they aren't "stealth" kills in the Splinter Cell sense. There's no hiding in shadows or long bouts waiting around for patrollers. Rather, the position of the guards is sensibly integrated into the puzzle-solving aspect of the game. If the player can figure out the proper position (there's usually a conveniently placed ledge or drop point, the player just has to look for it), the prince can get the drop on guards. Then all that's required is hitting a controller button (or the left mouse button) whenever the screen flashes. Given how secondary combat is to the running, jumping, and puzzle-solving, offering players the option to not only avoid combat, but to do it in a way that actually enhances the puzzle-solving aspect of the game is a stroke of genius.
The Two Thrones also introduces a couple of racing sections; a first for the series. The less said about these, the better. Put simply, they're a bad idea, badly implemented. The two sections in which the prince controls a chariot as it careens through the streets of Babylon are incredible exercises in frustration, and the one in which the prince must steer a monster through a wooden door is only interesting for novelty's sake. The chariots steer like aircraft carriers and the wide back end of the chariot makes it incredibly easy to overestimate the amount they're turning and underestimate the amount of clearance needed. Tolerance for mistakes is also very low, so players should be prepared to use up a lot of sand rewinding time or get used to seeing the load screen.
The biggest new addition to the game, however, is the prince's dark half. Thanks to his latest exposure to the sands of time, the Prince has developed something of a split personality. At various points in the game, the prince will be transformed into the "Dark Prince," a charred husk of a man covered with glowing veins. This dark prince has enhanced combat capabilities (including different combos); an extendible sword called a "daggertail" that can be used to fight with, as a garrote for stealth kills, or as a rope to swing across to various areas the regular prince can't reach. As a gameplay dynamic, the dark prince is great, and works on multiple levels.
First, fighting as the dark prince is way more fun than fighting as the prince. True, he is a bit overpowered, with devastating combos able to take out three or four enemies at a time, but this is balanced out by the fact that the dark prince's life is constantly ebbing away, necessitating the need for a constant stream of victims just to stay alive. The levels where the player uses the dark prince are loaded up with foes for just this reason. Adding to this is the dark prince's animation. The daggertail looks insanely cool in combat and whipping that thing around and chopping enemies in half or beheading two or three at a time just never gets old. Given that combat in this game is already a secondary gameplay aspect, all else being equal, I'd always choose the cooler visuals of the dark prince over the prince any day of the week.
Second, the dark prince's constantly ebbing life force creates levels that need to be completed via a specific sequence of moves under incredible time pressure. This is similar in spirit to the Dahaka levels in The Warrior Within that started out enjoyable but ultimately became frustrating. The difference is that the tolerances for error in the dark prince levels are far more generous than they were in the previous game. They're still tough, make no mistake, but most players will be able to get through the dark prince sections in just a few tries. That's a far cry from the 15 or so re-loads that were commonplace in The Warrior Within.
Finally, the introduction of the dark prince is a necessary element to bring the story of the prince of Persia to a satisfactory conclusion. Players who have played through the first two games will note the evolution of the character from a naive youth who had screwed up and was trying to make good into a bitter and deeply angry man who was only trying to save his own ass no matter who he had to screw over in the process. The self-centered, self-pitying, unlikable prince of the second game makes his return appearance here as the dark prince and much of the game's story is played out in an excellent series of voice-over arguments between the two halves of the prince's personality.
Kudos go out to Yuri Lowenthal and Rick Miller as (respectively) the prince and the dark prince for creating a vivid character study of a man struggling with the consequences of his own mistakes and learning what it actually means to be hero. Unlike the previous game, here the presence of the dark prince is less whiny and annoying and more truly dark and ugly. Through Downes' performance we get to hear the voice of that brutal, selfish, animal half of ourselves we don't often like to think about. The well-written dialogue also does double duty as a subtle but ever present meta-textual commentary (and tweak on the nose to critics) about the argument between fans of the style of The Sands of Time and those of The Warrior Within. It does make the storyline a bit confusing to the uninitiated, but the dynamic between the two halves of the prince is so good, it almost makes the personality and art style of the previous game worthwhile.
In the end, it's really terrific to once again play a Prince of Persia that brings the series back to the remarkably enjoyable surprise we remember from 2003. Even unnecessary additions like the execrable racing sections didn't truly mar my enjoyment of the game. Indeed, The Two Thrones makes such an enjoyable capstone for the series, it's difficult to see where it's going to from here.
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