What does the counter say about his emo level?

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 things 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 quite 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, they also decided that “less boring” meant “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 facial 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!

His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.