Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#65: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: The Blunder Within

Last week, I began a series of retrospectives on the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Starting with the original Sands of Time, I mostly praised the game for the many, many things it did correctly, including its gameplay, narrative, and setting. However, despite the great reception of the game, all good things must one day come to an end. Of course, I am referring to the direct sequel to the game, Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within. Released in 2004 as the second game in a soon to be trilogy, The Warrior Within had a lot to live up to. Sadly, it failed to do so it many, painful ways. For very good reason, this second entry in the trilogy has been labeled a black sheep by fans. Allow me to elaborate.

The very first thing that people noticed about The Warrior Within was that the Prince had undergone a severe personality shift somewhere between the two games. In the previous entry, our protagonist was a bit of a snark, but otherwise went out of his way to help those in need when he had the chance. His demeanor added a degree of levity to the preceding, helping to maintain the original game's fairly light tone. In its sequel, this was flatly not the case. Though he was technically the same Prince players knew from The Sands of Time, he acted in a completely different manner. As an example, one of the earliest lines in the game has our dear Prince calling a female lieutenant of an unknown enemy a “Bitch.” Now, to our modern AAA sensibilities, that is hardly a blip on the radar, since “Bitch” is such a common word that it feels tame. However, the Prince and a much more regal speech pattern in the Sands of Time, so this new personality was simply jarring, and the new personality permeates the entire game. Ubisoft even went so far as to get a new voice actor, Robin Atkin Downes to replace Yuri Lowenthal, who had voiced the Prince in the previous game, to sell fans on the new Prince.
If I am being honest, though. That was only a symptom of a greater problem. Overall, the Warrior Within tried to go in a much darker direction than the Sands of Time. The level design and graphics look noticeably bleaker than the much more vibrant locales of the original game. The original game's bright yellow sands, blue waters, and green grass have been replaced by dark caves, dark ruins, dark towers, and dark green gardens. Even the relative cartoon-like graphics of the original game were replaced with a more “gritty, realistic, mature” style (about 4-5 years too early, guys). This was so bad that the earliest female enemy was wearing nothing but a leather bikini with gauntlets and iron leggings in an obvious case of pandering. While Farah's outfit in Sands of Time was a little skimpy, it fit with the setting and her origins as a princess from India. This dominatrix leather outfit looked completely ridiculous, like the game was trying too hard to be mature.
Even the plot suffered from this new tone. To avoid spoiling the game for those who have not yet played it and for some reason still intend to, I will paint in broad strokes. With that said, after the time-bending antics of the Sands of Time, the prince is being chased by a Guardian of Time, called the “Dahaka”, because he was supposed to die in the “true” timeline. In order to save his own skin, the Prince embarks on a quest to the Island of Time with the purpose of going back in time to stop the creation on the Sands of Time. This will resolve the temporal paradox because he could never have fiddled with time had the Sands of Time never been created... or something. This element of the plot does not bother me too much because to some degree all time-travel plots have an element of “Just go with it”, being innately vulnerable to plot holes or logical inconsistencies. What bothered me was how the plot took all the light-hardheartedness and humor of the first game and replaced it with grim-dark upon grim-dark, since the Prince does little else but brood over his likely demise and complain to others about how unfair his circumstances are. I suppose that on some level, I can applaud the designers for daring to do something comparatively different. However, this was a bit of a slap in the face for series fans.

Not everything the Warrior Within changed was for the worse. Some of the things they tweaked were actually genuine improvements. The most notable of these improvements was with the game's combat system, fitting for a game called “The Warrior Within.” Now, the Prince has the ability to pick up secondary weapons for use in his off-hand. Though these weapons will break after enough use, the new combat system allowed players to very their attacks and perform different combos with them. In addition, secondary weapons can be thrown at enemies, permanently discarding them, but adding extra attack options to deal with ranged foes. Though I enjoyed the combat of the Sands of Time, even I must admit that this was an improvement. The combat has gone from a fairly hack and slash fest to a more visceral experience that skilled players can excel at.
Furthermore, even in the original game, ranged enemies could be difficult because melee combat was really the only option in a fight, meaning players had to either wait for enemies to come to them or find a way to close the distance. My biggest criticism of the Sands of Time was also answered, because enemies in The Warrior Within rarely exceeded 4-5 enemies, although there were points where they slipped into old habits. And yet again my praise is tempered with a handful of other issues. For example, while the game rarely threw large waves of enemies at the player, foes often had a large amount of health. I was no longer tired by the overabundance of weak enemies. Now, I was tired by the overabundance of health each individual enemy had and the sheer amount of damage they would soak up before they died. The series had gone from one extreme to the other, and neither one of them were exactly pleasant.

Other changes to the gameplay were made as well, aside from the combat. The most notable of these changes was the semi-open world of the game. In the previous game, the layout of the world was decidedly linear. Players would enter an area where they would then solve a puzzle, undergo a platforming segment, or fight a group of enemies. This would unlock a save point and the entrance to the next location and so on. The beginning of The Warrior Within follows this for a while. Then, the Island of Time opens up a little. Players are able to, with some restrictions, explore the island almost completely. Through sand portals, it is also possible to travel between the past and present versions of the island. This allowed the game to give players multiple objectives that they could tackle in any order in certain points in the story.
While this was an interesting little experiment with game design in a platformer, ultimately it had a number of problems associated with it. For one, it resulted in a major design oversight such that it a certain area of the game was not arranged in a specific fashion before it is revisited in the story, it would literally be impossible to finish the game. Another problem is that due to the similarities between past and present areas and the need to go back to previously explored areas, the Warrior Within feels like it is wasting the player's by literally forcing them to repeat already completed areas two, maybe even three or more times in the story in nearly the exactly same way.
Hardware limitations also stifled this pseudo open-world concept. As a special guest for nidoking042's Let's Play of the game, one of the developers stated that the original intent was to give players a series of shortcuts that unlocked once they completed an area in order to return to the central section of the Island of Time, similar to the way Skyrim always gave player's a secret exit at the end of a dungeon. However, the hardware of the PS2, Gamecube, and original Xbox were unable to load quickly enough to make this possible. As a result, when a player clears an area, they need to go back through it in order to make their way to the central hub which connects all the areas in the game. Speaking from experience, this added needless frustration to the game.
By comparison, other changes to gameplay are minor. For one, the amount of the Sands of Time players will be able to store is much more limiting than it was in the original. Though both games started the player off with three tanks of sand, the Warrior Within gives only an additional three through progression of the story, as opposed to the gradual upgrading via absorption of sand clouds in the original. Furthermore, the tanks are used to both fuel time rewind and the other sand powers obtained throughout the game. Unlike the previous game, where the tanks for rewinding time and for using powers were separate resources. While on the subject of sands, the Prince no longer has to absorb sand from enemies to finish them off, as he no longer possesses the Dagger of Time. Instead, sand is semi-randomly obtained through breaking objects and defeating sand creatures. These factors combined give the player a significantly smaller margin of error for making mistakes in the game. With less sand, players (myself included) would see the game over screen much more frequently.

In the end, this is easily the worst game in the Sands of Time trilogy. Fans of The Warrior Within do exist, but they are vastly outnumbered by the group who preferred the original game over it. As for myself, I ragequit the game when I realized how tired I was growing of constantly fighting enemies and dying while backtracking in platforming sections. I only know about what happens in the game thanks to nidoking042's Let's Play. This game was an experiment as to how to improve the Prince of Persia franchise, and for the most part a failed one. Even Ubisoft's developers realized that by the time development of the final game in the trilogy began. As loathe as I am to admit it, the Warrior Within is likely an important stepping stone to the grand finale of the Sands of Time trilogy as without it, Ubisoft would not have learned the lessons that they did. But we will talk about that in greater detail next time.

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