“You will die.” Keep this one sentence in mind, because you’ll hear it, and the sentiment it conveys quite a bit throughout the sequel to one of the best games from last year. When the Prince of Persia made its return to gaming after more than a decade’s absence, its presentation was a magnificent mix of old school platforming that paid tribute to its roots with new jack technology, manipulating time and space thanks to the Sands of Time. What’s more, the story was an exciting journey of growth and redemption, as the prince attempted to restore balance to the world by returning the mystical particles to the hourglass of time. What a difference a year makes…Ubisoft’s sequel takes a completely different turn in our hero’s saga with Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.
“You will die.” Warrior Within is a much darker saga than the first story. In the time between successfully defeating the evil Vizier and saving Farah, our hero has fallen upon hard times. You see, by unleashing the Sands of Time upon the earth and using his acquired powers to repair the damage caused, the Prince created a number of anomalies, chief amongst them the fact that a normal human could control time. The Empress of Time, creator of the Sands, cannot let these abnormalities exist, and dispatches her most fearsome enforcer, the Dahaka, to destroy the offender. A shadowy creature that practically vaporizes anything it touches out of existence by erasing it from time and space, the Dahaka has chased the Prince around the world a number of times, forcing him to undertake drastic measures and even harsher means to survive. He decides that the only way to potentially save him from this hounding fate is to infiltrate the island fortress of the Empress of Time, and, via time travel, prevent the creation of the Sands of Time and thereby his fate. It’s a creative concept for a plot, drawn out with a palpable fear that the story imparts of an unstoppable enemy.
“You will die.” Thanks to the near constant state of survival, the prince has developed many more attacks and maneuvers to quickly and brutally dispatch opponents that cross his path. While there are still a number of acrobatic and evasive moves that the Prince can pull off from enemy to enemy, he now places much more of a premium on combos. These are highly dependent upon whether he’s wielding one or two weapons at one time. If he’s holding one sword, he’ll have the ability to grab opponents, performing throws, close range attacks and even strangulations. If the Prince picks up a second weapon, he loses the ability to grapple foes, but he’ll double his damage potential, creating a number of destructive one-two hits with both hands. These secondary items will degrade over time, however, forcing you to discard them or throw them at enemies as a set up for other attacks. Regardless of the choice or number of weapons in your hands, the Prince will perform a number of deadly blows, including decapitations, impalements and completely hacking targets in two in graphic detail. Considering that you’ll often be surrounded by 4 or more opponents at a time, it’s possible to cut a large bloody swath through your foes with effective strikes.
“You will die.” Sheer swordsmanship alone won’t get you through the dangers of the Empress’ fortress. You’ll need to enact the abilities of slowing down, rewinding and journeying through time to name your way through her island. However, this isn’t a mindless hack and slash through the Empress’ minions; no Prince of Persia title is that simplistic. You’ll have to face off against plenty of traps, bottomless pits and other dangers that will test your agility and your reflexes. Many of the navigable rooms will require you to wall run, bounce off platforms, swing from bars or ledges, and triggering switches, amongst other moves to make your way through the snare laden rooms. Perhaps the most impressive addition to the Prince’s moves is the inclusion of an Errol Flynn-like slicing through tapestries as you fall with a sword, slowing your descent until you can propel yourself from the makeshift ladder. Some of these areas will also force you to activate mechanisms as well to activate machines, open doors or raise and lower platforms, giving an additional level of puzzle depth to the game.
“You will die.” You will…ok, is anyone else tired of hearing this catchphrase? Personally, I know I am, and I’ve been writing this review. Unfortunately, this is how Warrior Within handles the subject matter of the game. It’s not cleverly brought up to players, but instead repeatedly hammered into your skull until you almost wish the damn Prince would hurry up and die. The entire dark tone, from the environments to the acting to the plot itself, feels almost ham-handedly delivered and extremely forced, making you not particularly care about any of the characters, especially our “hero.” This guy isn’t exactly the best person to know in this game world; in fact, fans of the first game may find that they don’t like this protagonist at all, thanks to his personality.
Now that I’ve moved away from the freaking tone of the game, I can address some of the facets of play. First of all, people that were critical of how short the first title was will be pleased by the duration of the second game. Warrior Within is easily twice the adventure of the first game in its new series, which provides gamers with a much richer experience in the Prince’s boots. However, there is a significant issue with the length and reason to play the game. In Sands of Time, there was a desire to potentially unlock the original titles in the POP franchise. Aside from an alternate ending and some hidden weaponry, there isn’t much to entice players to return to this game once completed. There also seems to be much more emphasis placed on fighting battles than the environment itself. This feels like it gets away from the initial thrust of the Prince of Persia franchise, which focused more upon the deciphering of complex level designs than destroying enemies, especially since the included puzzles aren’t particularly difficult. This malaise of environmental exploration can also be traced to the repetitive and often confusing backtracking you’ll go through, including the number of transitions back and forth through time that make you continually traverse the same ground. I’d almost rather the previous title’s linear path than the unclear open-ended nature of play.
You may also find that the battle system relies too much on button pounding and specific combos that the game suggests instead of “creating” your own style of combat. Many of the Prince’s abilities are super powered attack strikes, and you’ll often find yourself relying on a few attacks that are more effective than other moves. What’s more, you’ll also stumble upon a number of boss battles, a welcome change from the first title; however, the number of times that you’ll face off against certain foes is just uncalled for, since it’s practically the same fight over and over again.
These issues aren’t to degrade the impressive design of the game; to the contrary, Warrior Within is an extremely beautiful title. Many of the stages, once you get past the oppressively dark and palpable atmosphere of the game, have amazing level architecture and scale, so you really get a sense of maneuvering through a massive fortress. There are plenty of nice graphical touches, such as the subtle lighting in some corridors, heavy shadows and sepia tones, especially when the Dahaka is near. Water transparency textures and its flowing animations are very nicely handled, as are character animations. The animations for the Prince have been dramatically increased, and the number of fatal blows he strikes are incredibly gruesome. The visual look of our hero has changed as well, resulting in a much more shadowy, conflicted character. In fact, the lone issue you’ll have with the graphics are the unavoidable blind jumps that sometimes occur no matter how many times you manipulate the camera, which can be incredibly infuriating when it contributes to you falling to your death.
Sound, however, doesn’t fare as well. Actually, cutscene dialogue is well acted, and comes across as solid as the movies they support. However, the in-game comments that the Prince and his enemies will throw out are just annoying. Case in point -- the “ninja”-like female opponents sound like bad C-Movie dominatrix imitations trying way to hard to sound naughty. It doesn’t work at all, just as the “toughness” that the Prince tries to throw out sounds extremely uncharacteristic. In fact, most of his dialogue really makes him an unlikeable character, and unless you’re really in the mood to play an anti-hero, you probably won’t care if he lives, dies or even returns if they make a PoP3. What’s more, I think we could deal without the heavy metal chords that seem to permeate the game. It’s fine if it’s used as an internal design team choice when you’re planning the game, even more appropriate for a more modern title, but the guitar riffs just feel like they come out of nowhere and simply don’t belong.
“You will die.” Of course you will – that’s the nature of action game characters. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within goes a long way towards trying to entrench this idea into gamer’s minds, approaching the story and action of the game from a distinctly darker angle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does seem extremely forced and overdone in some areas, potentially to cover up some of the other issues of gameplay. While the game does address previous game issues and is a worthy successor to the previous title in its own way, it does make you wonder what the game could’ve been if it’d straddled the line between light and dark. Perhaps the second titles should’ve been a morally neutral game, with any potential PoP3 being the darker title, effectively creating an overall storyline that made players overtly care for the Prince’s descent into darkness.