It might be unusual to mention The Competition in a review, but bear with me for a moment.
GameSpot’s Best and Worst of 2004 feature included a Dubious Honours category, under which they had a sub-category for ‘Most Baditude.’ Think of baditude as that fake brand of rebellion sold to fans of Linkin Park, or the kind for whom The Fast and the Furious is a docudrama.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within took home that ‘award,’ and rightfully so I think. In all their brilliance, Ubisoft decided to strip the series of the storybook tone found in The Sands of Time, and every other game in the series for that matter. In its place we were given a bitter, selfish and charmless prince warring with a universe where the ‘darkness’ was clearly forced. So despite great gameplay, the title didn’t have much draw.
I’m guessing there were plenty of discontent gamers out there because The Two Thrones makes the prince’s redemption a major theme. It’s still not Sands, but you can at least sympathize with the hero, and there is a faint hint of wonder. More importantly, the gameplay improves on both Sands and Warrior in some areas.
The plot of Thrones assumes you reached the alternate ending of Warrior. The prince has sailed back to Babylon with the Empress of Time, only to witness the city under siege by the vizier and his army. Since time has been rewound, of course, the vizier was never killed, and he’s been awfully busy during the prince’s voyage.
The enemy has the advantage in Babylon, so expect plenty of combat. Beyond general numbers, captains in the vizier’s army can also use ‘Sand Gates’ to call in reinforcements. If you fail to kill a captain within the first moments of a fight you may find yourself in a battle which could last several minutes.
Here fortunately, unlike Warrior, you have the opportunity to end combat very quickly. If you can sneak up on an enemy from behind - or a boss, from the right angle - the screen will haze around the edges, signaling that it’s time for a Speed Kill. Speed Kills borrow an idea from God of War: during critical moments in an ambush, the screen will flash for a split second. To continue the kill, the player has to hit the Attack key in perfect sync with the flashes. Speed Kills are a wonderful feature because you can take out multiple opponents in seconds, and the only penalty for failing is that you’ll have to go head-to-head.
The Two Thrones takes its title in part from the prince’s occasional transformation into (ahem) the ‘dark’ prince, a stronger incarnation equipped with a chain whip. Just swinging the whip around inflicts major pain, so imagine what can be done when combos and acrobatics are incorporated. There are two drawbacks to this form however. The change is involuntary, and as the dark prince, your health drains constantly unless you can collect more of the Sands of Time. Certain sequences are effectively time-limited. This gives them that much more frustration, though thankfully, never enough to induce keyboard smashing.
Series fans can rest easy knowing that environmental puzzles are still at the heart of the game. They’ve even found moves to include on top of those in Sands and Warrior, such as stabbing your dagger into wall ornaments or catapulting off of window shutters. The options can be daunting initially, but the levels are designed to combine the moves gradually until using them is effortless. Neither are the levels too reflex-heavy, or so mind-melting that they bring everything to a halt (with one possible exception). The balance of the whole game is almost perfect.
I can hardly find anything worth complaining about, although that won’t stop me from trying. For roughly a second after you’ve rewound time with the dagger, there’s a tendency for the game to ignore commands - making all the difference if you were running along a wall. Just be sure to hold down the button you’ll need before the rewind ends.
I’ve also experienced a couple of graphics glitches. One of them is texture tearing, likely associated with my driver and video card combination (Catalyst 5.12, Radeon X800 Pro). I’ve noticed that some characters clip on themselves though, which is an entirely preventable mistake.
Finally, the dialogue can be rather heavy-handed. Games aren’t known for terrific writing and Thrones isn’t the worst offender, but the characters and narrator are often explaining exactly how they feel, or what the audience should think. Most people aren’t that honest. Moreover this ignores rule number one of good fiction: show, don’t tell.
As a conclusion to the ‘Sands of Time trilogy’ (Ubisoft’s term), The Two Thrones is about as good as we could’ve wished for. It maintains the Prince of Persia feel of daring-do, while improving or adding variety in some areas, and discarding mistakes like excessive combat and marketing-spun attitude. I sincerely hope that another PoP game is in development, because it would be a shame to lose everything a sequel could offer.