"Every once in a great while, I get the feeling developers are actually listening to us. "
Every once in a great while, I get the feeling developers are actually listening to us.
I played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and considered it a thing of beauty amidst a sea of thoughtless, generic games. You know their type – the futuristic shooters, the turn-based RPGs, the relentless hack-and-slash action titles with wave after wave of identical enemy. Sands felt like something DIFFERENT. Yet while its turgid sequel, Warrior Within, offered a faint resemblance to its predecessor, it had all the markings of a “me too” action title. The angsty hero, the excessive gore, the cheesy heavy metal, the lame one-liners, the chicks in metal thongs… THIS CRAP DOES NOT BELONG IN THE PRINCE OF PERSIA UNIVERSE!
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones is a good enough conclusion to the trilogy that we can safely put Within behind us and at least be thankful the series ended on a positive note. Its “edgy, mature” attitude is mercifully gone and replaced by… well, by a Prince who actually looks and acts a lot like he did in the first game, which is to say he’s back to his calm, likeable self.
How fitting it is, then, that Thrones is a tale of redemption not unlike the one Ubisoft created for itself in the development of this game. The adventure begins just as the Prince and some woman from Within (who also serves as the occasional narrator) are journeying back from the Island of Time. They arrive in Babylon to find it under attack; the Vizier, the Prince’s old enemy from the first game, is to blame. The woman in question is captured and killed rather quickly (yet still somehow manages to narrate – huh), and the resulting scene leaves the Prince with a peculiar chain/whip embedded in his arm. (Ew!) This development brings about the Dark Prince, a wicked alternate personality who serves as the Prince’s shoulder devil if you will, whose voiceovers sound like they were recorded in a tin can, and who occasionally takes over the Prince’s body and wreaks havoc. (More on that later.) The Prince, desperate to restore both his name and his throne, battles not just the Vizier’s army but his own dark, inner self.
Thrones in its entirety takes place within the walls of Babylon, and if there’s one thing this series can consistently get right, it’s tackling the scope and scale of its settings with the kind of vastness and beauty that would make most other games blush. Very little of Thrones is set on ground level. Most of your adventure takes you through balconies and rooftops, which is fitting not only to increase the stakes of the many brilliant platforming segments but to frequently give you a breathtaking view of the city you’re traversing. I’d never have guessed that the artists at Ubisoft would be able to generate such distinction and variety in a game that predominantly consists of shades of brown, but there you go.
The game is at its best when it does the things that have made the series work over the last few years. I enjoyed Thrones the most when there were no enemies in sight, because any series fan knows that the real enemy is the environment, and that the real thrill is in studying your surroundings and utilizing your abilities to their fullest. Babylon is one big puzzle, a vast maze of narrow ledges and out-of-reach platforms, and finding your way to the end of this maze is as satisfying as ever. It goes without saying that the Prince can still leap great distances and run along walls, and that even the most complicated-looking maneuvers can be pulled off with the greatest of ease. In addition, the Prince can now cling to wall-mounted plates or use shutters to angle his jumps, and these new techniques increase the depth of the platforming challenges you encounter. The Dark Prince’s whip also makes a few contributions in those occasional moments in which you’re forced to transform into him.
Stealth has been introduced as well and leads to a quick, easy solution to the series’ biggest flaw. When you’re unseen by your enemies, you can perform stealth kills. These tricky maneuvers are quiet and efficient, and save a lot of time and energy that would regularly go into battling countless waves of boring monsters. As you approach an enemy that has yet to notice you, the Prince will draw his dagger. When you’re close to your target, the screen will blur, and pressing Y will initiate the kill. The move is always rather cinematic-looking, but relies on the player making well-timed presses of the X button to be pulled off properly. Messing up alerts other guards, but a properly executed stealth kill leaves the death of your target unnoticed by the surrounding opposition.
What surprises me the most is that Ubisoft was able to combine these two strengths – acrobatics and stealth kills – and create what are certainly the most entertaining boss battles the series has ever seen. Your first boss is a homely, overweight chap with a dangly tongue and a sword the size of a cafeteria table. To kill him, you must first use the obstacles placed around the outer edge of the arena to work your way up to the level of your adversary’s head, and then pull off a long, complicated stealth kill to take out each of his eyes. It’s a sequence that rivals something you'd find in a great action movie, and it’s every bit as fun to play as it is to watch. I never thought I’d say this, but the bosses in Thrones are awesome.
The smaller, more impersonal fights? Not so much. Battling has always been the series’ weak point, and in those occasional moments when you’ll be forced to break out the blades and cut some fools in half, I was reminded of some of the less fortunate instances in Prince of Persia’s history. Like Within, this game introduces you to a wide variety of combos and special moves to mask what is really just a whole lot of button mashing. The battle controls are slow and clunky, which provides a stark contrast to your enemies, who are relentless, harsh, and unyielding. You’re fighting enemies, but the real fight is against the controls, you see. Far too often the Prince will target the wrong enemy or fail to react to your control input in time. I don’t want to have to contend with this kind of crap in what is otherwise such a polished experience.
The good news is that, if you’re good, you won’t have to fight too much in Thrones. I vastly preferred the quick, efficient stealth kills over head-to-head battles, and Ubisoft sets you up for such kills as often as possible. If an enemy is guarding a hall, for example, you may have options. If you choose, you can run up the wall, grab onto a high ledge, shimmy across the room, tiptoe over a thin beam lining the ceiling, and wait patiently for your enemy to pass underneath you before jamming on the Y button and initiating the kill. That, or you could trot down the hallway in plain sight like a douche and engage in just another one-on-one battle. Guess which method I usually went with?
It only really gets frustrating when you transform into the Dark Prince. This guy feeds off sand (his health is constantly draining, and sand restores it), and the best source of sand is – yep – sand monsters. The Dark Prince’s segments are usually fairly frantic as you struggle to kill enough enemies to stay alive. The slow, clunky combat controls are further dampened by your slow, clunky whip. It’s something of a mess and I’m glad the Dark Prince’s levels are as infrequent as they are.
What the Dark Prince adds to the experience is a surprising source of comic relief. Most of the talking in Thrones is between the Prince and his evil alter ego, which leads to some hilarious Gollum-like conversations that really carry the bulk of the plot. You’ll recall that the Prince narrated the first game, and that his soothing voice would often chime in and give valuable insights. Whenever he does this in Thrones, the Dark Prince is always there to provide a counterpoint. Ubisoft has finally figured out a way to give the series a “dark” edge without going overboard – it’s like Thrones is the Prince of Persia we know and love, but with a sinister twist. Not only that, but the exchanges often had me laughing, which means Ubisoft has added a new element to the series: A sense of humor.
Humor? In Prince of Persia? It seems Ubisoft is finally beginning to understand what to do (and what not to do) with this series. Even if a well-rounded package such as this one is only the result of trial-and-error, it’s still a well-rounded package nonetheless. But I’m hoping that one day, Ubisoft will make a Prince of Persia game that contains NO combat, as that’s the one thing they never seem to get right. Hey, they listened to us once. Maybe they’ll do it again.
Of course, I’ll take an eight out of ten over this shit any day.
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