The culprit: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 (as part of the Prince of Persia Trilogy), PlayStation Portable, PC via Steam)
You know how superhero film reboots sometimes think that grittier is better (e.g. Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman)? Well, video games sometimes fall prey to the same misconception. Case in point: Warrior Within, the second game in the Prince of Persia trilogy. It’s like Ubisoft looked at The Sands of Time and went “You know what this charming Middle Eastern fairytale is missing? Heavy metal, blood and boobs, YEAH!”. Excuse me while I roll my eyes. Even the introductory logo forms from a trickle of blood.
The game is set seven years after the end of The Sands of Time. The Prince is now being pursued by a large demon called the Dahaka and is told by an old man that this is because whoever unleashes the Sands of Time must die. As the Prince conspicuously failed to do so, it’s now the Dahaka’s job as guardian of the timeline to rectify that and erase him from existence. The old man also tells the Prince about the Island of Time, where the Empress of Time created the Sands (of Time), and where it is said that it’s possible to travel back through…time. So the Prince decides to go there to prevent the Sands from ever being created. Along the way, his ship is caught in a storm and attacked by what can only be described as a dominatrix in a metal harness with giant knives (Shahdee, although no one ever calls her by name in the game) and her crew of sand monsters, hellbent on preventing the Prince from reaching his destination. He tries to fend her off, but she kicks him into the sea and sinks the ship, leaving him stranded…on the Island of Time. Talk about being counterproductive.
The Island of Time is home to a Fortress, which features a locked central chamber, where the Empress presumably resides. The Prince’s goal is to unlock said chamber, but that’s much easier said than done. You see, the locking mechanism is controlled from two large towers situated at opposite ends of the Fortress. To make matters worse, the Fortress is currently in a rather dilapidated state, meaning that parts of the mechanism are broken or otherwise inaccessible. Fortunately, the Fortress also contains several Time Portals, which allow the Prince to travel back in time to the period where the Sands were created (again, how convenient!). Unfortunately, the Dahaka has followed him and will chase him several times over the course of the story. These sequences are easily the most exciting part of the game. They only stop because the Dahaka is apparently afraid of water, and the Fortress conveniently (…) features curtains of water falling over several doorways…Which begs the question of how the Dahaka ever made it to the Island, given that it is, y’know, an island. Is it only afraid of fresh water? Did any of the writers think this through?
Anyway, let’s try to find something positive here. The combat has been spruced up and is often considered to be the best out of all Prince of Persia games. Some gameplay elements have been kept from The Sands of Time, such as the Prince drinking water to replenish his health, water fountains as save points or health upgrades in hidden locations. Although the latter are now obtained from wall panels, rather than a fountain, and are guarded by a plethora of traps. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat, and he now has two new moves: sliding down walls by planting his sword into a tapestry (and he can do this repeatedly, even when the tapestry is already shredded…) and using ropes hanging from walls to gain momentum. He no longer has the Dagger of Time, but is wearing Farah’s Medallion, which has similar sand-related properties. Thus, he can still use time-manipulating powers, such as the ever-useful Rewind ability, or Eye of the Storm, which slows down time around him. These abilities are learned by opening Time Portals and require full sand tanks to use. The Prince starts out with three and will eventually unlock three more, also by opening the aforementioned Time Portals. He also no longer needs to absorb sand from fallen enemies: the Medallion will automatically do that for him, which helps to streamline combat.
Speaking of streamlining, the Prince now has flashier, more fluid moves and more creative ways of killing stuff, such as spinning around pillars or launching himself from walls. His main weapon is a sword, but he can also use various other types of weapons in his off hand by picking them up from slain enemies or weapon racks. These weapons will deteriorate quickly, however, so he will constantly need to find replacements, which is rather annoying. A good way of getting rid of a badly damaged secondary weapon is to throw it at an enemy. The Prince can also block attacks and vault over enemies while attacking them, which results in shiny acrobatic combos, the game sometimes going into slow motion of its own accord to showcase them. This is probably the developers addressing the criticism that the combat in The Sands of Time was boring. Apparently, “less boring” also means “more blood”, so enemies will now bleed when struck. Despite the fact that most, if not all, of them are supposed to be made of sand. You’ll also get to see decapitations and the Prince literally slicing creatures in half, either vertically or horizontally. Can you feel the grittiness yet?
In case your answer was no, the game’s soundtrack has also undergone a radical change. Gone are the Arabic-inspired melodies of The Sands of Time, replaced by thumping heavy metal. Enemies yell and screech like hyenas (Shahdee is a particularly notorious offender in this category), and some of the Prince’s battle cries are really annoying as well. The game’s overall look is darker too, and there are semi-hidden breakable chests containing official artwork strewn about the Fortress, just to hammer that in. Talk about a lame, self-congratulatory collectible. Mind you, this probably fits the fact that the Prince has devolved from a jerk with a heart of gold into an angry, floppy-haired emo loner, out to save his own skin. Instead of having a partner to interact and grow with, like in The Sands of Time, he is now on his own and stewing in his misery (and probably hitting the comfort food, given that he looks distinctly…pudgier than before in cutscenes). Granted, the Dahaka has, presumably, been chasing him for several years (inexplicably, but conveniently waiting until The Forgotten Sands happened), which would make anyone a little grumpy. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s now a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, and the game makes a big deal of him using the word “bitch”. Oooh, the grittiness!
Let me qualify my statement about the Prince having no partner: he does get some assistance from a mysterious woman wearing strips of cloth meant to resemble a dress named Kaileena (modelled after Monica Bellucci), whom he saves from a stomping by Shahdee (but only after she asks him to). However, her aid is perfunctory at best, she never actually accompanies the Prince and has no personality or character development to speak of either. Come to think of it, neither does Shahdee, who gets dispatched very early on. What they do have are massive, gravity-defying racks and minimal clothing. Because that’s gritty and grown-up too, right? This lack of character development really becomes jarring come the true ending of the game. Because yes, there are two different endings. One where the Prince defeats the Empress of Time, and one where he defeats the Dahaka. Only the latter is canon, and you need to obtain the Prince’s best sword (after getting all health upgrades) to trigger it, but what happens after the battle felt really forced and awkward, bordering on the uncomfortable. Not to mention that the developers either have some very weird notions about biology, or the Prince has some…interesting tastes. Or Kaileena is not what she seems.
The game is also plagued by sloppiness. The graphics are less cartoonish than in The Sands of Time, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s a lot of clipping, whether it be hair through faces or clothing through limbs. Kaileena is a big offender in this department, her dress often going straight through her legs. Some of the textures are also bad: the Prince sometimes gets a black patch at the corner of his mouth, while Kaileena’s green irises bleed over her eyelids. The controls are also sometimes sloppy, especially when the camera decides to change angles mid-jump, and I had several instances where the Prince launched off a wall to his death into a bottomless pit because the game’s engine misinterpreted my commands. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a lot of backtracking, which just smacks of sloppy level design. What’s more, the game features several major, game-breaking glitches. The cherry on the cake? One of them can happen if the Prince has to reuse a Time Portal that he’s already used before…and the game forces you to do this to escape the Dahaka for the first time.
Ultimately, there’s little more I can say about this debacle. The impression I get is that the developers completely misunderstood what made The Sands of Time successful and focussed excessively on the one major point of criticism it received. Yes, the combat is better. But when everything else is worse, you’ve kinda shot yourself in the foot. Or even both feet. And the kneecaps too, while we’re at it. The pain, so gritty!