Xbox | GameCube | PC | PlayStation 2[/c]
I want to tell you right now, it was really hard to call this one.
Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within (which shall be simply Warrior Within from here on out) is the sequel to 2003's Sands of Time. In a way, though, it's making callbacks that stretch all the way back to 1993, with the original Prince of Persia 2, The Shadow and the Flame. Like that much older game, it goes in for a different style and a refocusing of atmosphere from the game previous. Warrior Within's focus is on combat, and on holding a darker and more violent tone.
As a side note, if you've never played a Prince of Persia game before, you might not want to read this review, as I make heavy comparisons between this year's version and the prequel. (On the other hand, if you've never played Sands of Time, you're missing something special. This can wait.)
Now, for a couple of reasons this focal shift comes off as a little strange. Fan opinion hasn't been kind to this game at all, with the oft-quoted "I smolder with generic rage." line from Penny Arcade summing up the vocal majority's feelings on the Prince's new look. I'm not here just to quote web comic lines at you, though. I'm here to review.
Our Prince has been walking a long, hard road since we last saw him at the culmination of Sands of Time. Having parted ways with Farah, his competent sidekick-slash-love interest during that adventure, he resealed the Sands of Time and went on his merry way. The problem there is that he wasn't supposed to walk away from his experience with the Sands at all. At some point, most likely when he unleashed them and doomed everyone in the castle, he was supposed to die as well.
Fate really doesn't like it when you pull the low card and win anyway. It upsets things.
The Prince finds out just what the consequences of winning a no-win situation are when he comes up against the Dahaka. The Dahaka is sort of the guardian of the timeline, like reality's Antivirus program. Huge, unstoppable, and equipped with way more tentacles than any creature would need for any useful purpose, the Dahaka has a single mission to carry out: track down and kill the Prince, putting chronology as it should be.
When you have a dark and hungry beast pursuing you, giving you little pause for food or rest (but apparently plenty of time to get tattooed), one can perhaps be excused for going over a little dark and gothy. Rugged, scarred, tattooed, and in desperate need of a shave and maybe some moisturizing shampoo, the Prince is in full-on butt kicking mode. (From the gravelly and rolling sound of his voice, he sounds as if he's taken up smoking as well.) Having learned from a generic Wise Old Man that he is indeed fated to die, the Prince rolls over and allows himself to be disemboweled for the greater good.
Wait, no. He decides to run, and to fight, and to seek out the Island of Time, where the Empress of Time lives, and defeat her Army of Time so he can go back in time and destroy the Sands of Time before they were created. (Perhaps he could take a thesaurus with him. The Empress needs a Creative Naming 101 course.) The idea that this might simply cause an even more major breech in history doesn't really seem to bother him. On the way to the Island, his ship is ambushed by an army of sand zombies, led by leather-clad warrior woman Shandee, who appears to be a long-lost sister of SoulCalibur's Ivy. The Prince's crew and hers clash and the next thing you know our hero's been tossed overboard, where he manages to wash up on the Island itself. It's off to undo history.
This involves unleashing one-man war on the castle's inhabitants, chopping and hacking through them with any weapon that comes to hand. That's one of the new features of Warrior Within, the ability to set upon an unsuspecting enemy, bodily fling him to the ground, chop his limbs and head off, and take whatever he was holding. Now you have two swords and you can start doing the really violent stuff. Alternately, you can keep one hand free for grabs and throws, because it's amazing how much fight you can take out of someone by pitching them over a railing and off a thirty foot drop.
(Because this is still Prince of Persia, there's even odds that there will also be spikes at the bottom of that drop. Y'know, just to be really sure.)
This new combat system is Warrior Within's most highly touted feature. In a way it deserves the praise heaped upon it, it can shorten battles quite a lot. Part of the shortening is that, with rare exceptions, enemies no longer teleport in nigh-endlessly until you're sick of fighting them. The problem comes when battles drag on and on anyway, simply because certain enemies are almost more agile than you are, or because it's very difficult to land a hit through the blocking. You've almost always got other options though, from hanging back and hucking your secondary weapon at them for a stun attempt to the aforementioned tactic of giving the sand zombies a hand with their cliff diving skills.
Largely, though, you win via one of three methods: Either you hammer the attack buttons like a frenzied weasel, you use the Prince's vast acrobatic skill to fling yourself from wall to wall and enemy to enemy too fast to be hit often, or you develop actual skill and start chaining combos together. None of these is inherently better in a fight than any of the other methods, and they can be combined, but gosh, aside from the combos, that's what we were doing last game too.
Also, boss battles in this game are absurd block-fests full of counters and tedious crab-walking around, trying to get an angle to actually score a hit from. I'm not amused. Boss fights should be challenging, but even the tutorial boss battle opening the game is a slaughter unless you're dead on.
Prince of Persia isn't a game about combat, though. (Well. Until this one anyway.) What the series has always done first and best is provide a roomy area for the Prince to fling himself around like a hyperactive kangaroo on really impressive amounts of caffeine. The prior game added interesting little tricks like pole-swinging and wall-running. (It did these well enough that suddenly almost every action-adventure game with a reasonably agile hero has wall-running in it. Y'notice that?)
Warrior Within adds some more fun tricks. The ability to balance-beam walk alone adds a new dimension to really precarious thirty-first story hijinks, but then you add in the ability to grab a hold of a rope and use it to extend your wall-running distance, or the even-more-fun ability to jam your sword through a banner and slide down it swashbuckler style and it's hard not to perk up. These are Right and Good skills and they belong here. There are puzzles built around them and they are good ones.
There are also a number of sequences where the Dahaka catches up to the Prince, and at that point all bets are off. The challenge of these scenes is simply to get from where the Dahaka is, to anywhere else at all where he isn't, as fast as humanly possible. If you slow down, or whiff a jump, you're very likely to die twitching at the end of a tentacle. The Dahaka also doesn't seem to care much about rewinds, although you can slow down time to get away from him a little faster. These are either the best or worst sequences in the game, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, these are rapid-fire sequences of jumps and wall runs and frantic escape moves, strung together at a madcap pace. On the other hand, if you're not real clear on what to do next, you die. There's a little bit of forgiveness room, but if you can't nail a sequence of moves at high speed, you're hosed. Simple as that.
(For the record, a lot of this game's charm is lost when you play this game with a keyboard. Playing this game on a keyboard is like Twister Night at the retirement home: It's gonna be awkward, it's gonna be stiff, you're gonna miss your mark and stumble a lot, and if you're really unlucky you're gonna snap something in half. Get a gamepad for this one.)
There's this thing that bothers me, actually. Warrior Within sometimes starts to feel like it's warring against itself. I'm gonna pluck an example from the game to illustrate my point.
There's a giant, gear-studded mechanical tower you have to scale to activate a door-opening mechanism. I'm keeping it vague, no spoilers. The thing is that it's a classic clock tower, more or less. A clock tower! In a Prince of Persia game! "They will not possibly fulfill the potential of this scenario." I said to myself. Then they did. It was incredible. The only thing they didn't do was the old swinging on a pendulum routine. Shock. Awe. I have no words.
The effect of this sequence was almost entirely spoiled for me. The mechanized tower is also where the developers chose to introduce a new type of enemy, and there were a number of set piece battles illustrating what this enemy could do, making it a constant struggle against these creatures as I scaled the tower. Often I would complete a jump and they would ambush me, making me fight them off before I took the next jump.
In fact, the enemies were so prevalent I have to wonder if I was perhaps meant to say "These new monsters are tough and challenging, I am glad this game has such a robust combat engine!" instead of "Why am I having to stop and have a tedious fight every three feet instead of doing this excellent jumping puzzle?" It's entirely possible this is just me, and the combat works for other people. I don't mean to harp on it. It's just that the game itself harps on it, and it's clear that it was a deliberate shift in focus.
Right. So this does turn into a Prince of Persia game eventually, if you were wondering. It just gets bogged down sometimes. There's more than one ending, there's a lot of secrets -- my personal favorite being the fuzzy teddy bear it's possible to give the Prince in lieu of a second weapon, that counted for an awful lot right there -- and in the end it really isn't all that bad. It takes a long time to get there, though.
It's lovely, by the way. The game's graphics do show a lot of variety past the introductory few first areas. There are a few of the trademark long hazy vistas, areas bright and rich with color and light and vivid beauty. This was rare, and it wasn't really enough, but the game does look pretty good in spite of the dark atmosphere. The water effects feel grainier than they did in Sands of Time, but everything's a little grittier in this game. Part of the atmosphere is the shift as the Prince shuttles back and forth through time, the palace goes from ruined piles of rock to nicely decorated richness and back again. All the really cool stuff seems to be in the past, mind you, when the machines work and the world is golden.
Audio was not quite so good. The voice actors spend most of their time growling or mumbling their lines. The Prince himself might be well voice acted. He sounds like he hasn't been getting any sleep and is incredibly irritable as a result. It's hard to tell. The other characters are just kind of phoning it in. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is done by Godsmack. Lots of chunky guitar riffs and vaguely moaned lyrics, stuff to headbang along to. The gorgeous, dreamy music from Sands of Time is all gone.
That's not all that's missing, as you might've gathered, but some of the cleverest touches from the previous game are missing as well. The clever flash-forward visions at save points are missing, replaced with simply saving at any drinking fountain you come across. You gain new time-shifting powers at seemingly arbitrary times, as you shuttle back and forth between past and present, and much like the rest of the game, your new abilities are largely combat-centric. There's little dialogue and what there is isn't really worth listening to. All of the stock features of the genre that were made interesting are now back to stock features again.
So this is Warrior Within. It's kind of like what you'd get if you took Dungeons and Dragons-styled fantasy metal band ManOWar and told them to do something with an Arabian Nights feel. I'm not going to tell you it's a bad game. It isn't. It's just that all of its priorities and focus seem bent on pushing the worst qualities to the forefront proudly. It shows off the dragged-out combat and its new 'rougher, meaner' attitude like a four year old happily waving around what it found in the cat's litter box, and all of the really good parts seem to go right under the radar. You have to actively work to get to the fun parts, in other words. It doesn't always feel like it's worth it to do that, to dig through what they thought would be fun in order to get to what you're really playing the game for, and that's just too bad. It's a hollowed out version of the last game.
Still, there's likely to be another sequel. Sixth time's the charm, eh?
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