Wednesday, October 2, 2013

#66: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: The Two Thrones of Compromise

(Spoiler Alert for the entire Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy)
And so we have reached the end of this little series. The Two Thrones, released in 2005, had a major problem from the get go. While most fans of the franchise vastly preferred The Sands of Time, there was enough of a positive reception to some aspects of The Warrior Within that its fans also needed to be catered to. This new game needed to walk a fine line between calling back to what fans enjoyed about the first game while taking in the improvements and knowledge gained from work on The Warrior Within, a challenging prospect to be sure. The end result was a carefully balanced compromise that works surprisingly well, more than making up for its lackluster predecessor.

The Prince himself is one of the biggest symbols of this compromise that the Two Thrones embodies. Yuri Lowenthal reprised his role as the titular Prince, with a harder edge than in the Sands of Time. This is the Prince people knew from the Sands of Time, as he still uses his old regal speech pattern and rarely resorts to simply uttering curse words. He also has a fair degree of snark, self-awareness, and snide confidence. However, experience has made him a colder and harsher individual than he used to be. This is a man who is significantly less likely to go out of his way to assist others unless he has made some form of vow to them in the past. However, gradually as the story progresses, he learns the error of his ways and slowly, but surely, returns to who he used to be, going so far as to literally combat his darker self, appropriately referred to as the Dark Prince. It is as if the game is performing a sort of meta-commentary on how the Warrior Within's take on the character was so reviled compared to the Sand of Time's take, which I found to be truly fascinating.

The other thing that the story did right was bringing back the premise of being a retelling a story that has already played out. However, instead of the Prince himself telling the story to the player, who is revealed to be Farah, the sidekick from the same game (due to the Prince's complete rewind of time, she has no memory of the events that transpired). Rather, the story is told by Kaileena, the Empress of Time from The Warrior Within. Though this does give the game all the advantages that it gave the Sands of Time, it does not make as much sense. The Prince never dies in the series and is known to be a bit of a braggart, so it makes sense that he would be the one to tell the story even before the reveal that Farah is the audience. In The Two Thrones, Kaileena dies very early on in the game, so it is weird to have her tell anyone a story. Even though she is brought back to life by the end, she leaves to go to a different world so that the Sands of Time cannot be abused again, making it implausible that she is telling the tale to anyone. Though I appreciate the return to form, I wish that the conceit of a retelling of the story, like it was in the first game, was more plausible in the game's narrative context.

One last criticism that I would make towards the plot to the Two Thrones is that is it completely necessary to know the plot of the previous games in order to fully understand what is going on before playing. This is something that even The Warrior Within did better. One of the early cutscenes in the The Warrior Within took a few minutes at the most to explain why the Prince was on his quest and what happened not just in the Sands of Time, but in the time between the two games. The Two Thrones explains some of what happened purely through the implications of what characters say, but without any outside knowledge I am fairly sure it would be hard to follow. There is no attempt to summarize or explain what happened in the previous two games to catch new players up. I weep for the poor fools who went into the game with no prior experience with the trilogy.

The underlying compromise between the Sands of Time and the Warrior Within also extended to the gameplay in a number of ways, the biggest of which is the combat. Combat in the Two Thrones is taken wholesale from the Warrior Within, taking the systems of that game and refining them a bit more. However, the game included a very interesting addition not present in either of the other two games. In the Two Thrones, it was possible to sneak up to an enemy and silently dispatch them without them ever noticing you. Though it is technically a stealth system, in reality it is a method for allowing players to bypass combat sections by utilizing their platforming skills to keep out of sight of enemy groups, picking them off one by one. This accomplished several things. One, it forced enemy encounters to be in small groups of 3-4 enemies to avoid making any one section of the game last too long. Two, it gave fans who enjoyed platforming more than combat a way to either avoid the combat or make it a little bit easier by removing a few enemies from the equation.

The platforming also got an few notable additions. The most visceral of these was the springboard. While wall-running, the Prince will occasionally end up on a springboard, which he can use to leap off of in order to change direction and land in otherwise inaccessible places. The Prince is also now able to brace himself in narrow wall spaces, allowing to climb up and down them. Lastly, the prince is now capable of sticking his weapon into groves in the wall, keeping himself from falling. Like most of the returning platforming features, all of these additions also have stealth kills associated with them, allowing players to ambush enemies from many different positions. Including all of these new methods of transportation made the platforming feel much more interesting than it did before.

The game also ditched the open-world elements of the Warrior Within, opting to return to the linearity of the Sands of Time. This prevents the repetition that was present in the previous entry. Also, it allowed the developers to better focus and improve upon each area rather than worry about how a given area connects to the world at large. Linearity is not a bad thing, especially in the context of a platformer. Furthermore, since the Two Thrones had the same 6 sand tank limit that the Warrior Within had, there was still a lessened amount of wiggle room for players. However, the improved level layout and camera positioning made it so that the game was rarely impacted by it.

The big gimmick included in the Two Thrones is the Dark Prince. Due to the Vizier from the first game releasing the Sands of Time, the Prince became corrupted by the sands. Fortunately, he was able to grasp the Dagger of Time quickly enough that he did not completely succumb. Unfortunately, he was left partially corrupted, giving him a new, dark persona that manifests itself as both a voice in his head and a new, occasionally emerging corrupted form. Counter to what one would initially suspect, this is not some form that the Prince needs to gather rage to enter and gain a temporary boost to combat ability in. Rather, the Dark Prince will manifest itself at certain points in the story. Once the Dark Prince emerges, the Prince can only return to his normal form once he enters a body of water at the end of the segment.

While at first this seems like an odd choice for a super-powered dark side, it works in the context of the game. The Dark Prince has his own completely different move-set and gameplay style, separate from the Prince, and since the game has discreet sections of the story where he manifests, levels that include him are allowed to cater to his strengths. The biggest change that occurs in the Dark Prince's gameplay sections is that his health gradually drops as time goes on, which is lethal if left unchecked. However, he recovers full health if he defeats an enemy or acquires a portion of the Sands of Time. In that way, players have to work quickly in order to make sure that they get to their next fix of enemies or sand before they die. Although this could be a recipe for disaster, the Dark Prince levels space out enemies and sand just well enough so that getting to them can be a challenge, but hardly impossible.

The other thing that only the Dark Prince has is a chain attached to his left arm. Thanks to that chain, the Dark Prince does not have access to other secondary weapons like he normally would. However, the chain in and of itself more than makes up for it. Having a weapon with good range really changes combat by given players much more options on how to take down enemies. Furthermore, the chain is also useful when platforming. When making leaps across wide gaps, the Dark Prince can use the chain to latch onto hanging structure and gain enough extra distance to make it to the other side. This can also be done while wall-running to keep up momentum and stay on the wall for longer periods of time. It is only one small addition, but it does change the way players think about the area when going through platforming sections.

The Two Thrones had a lot to accomplish, bridging together its two radically different predecessor. Overall, it succeeded in that respect. I do not know if I would call it superior to the Sands of Time, but it is at least comparable in my opinion. Someone could make a case for it being the best in the franchise and I would be open to hearing it. There is a lot to like about the grand finale to the Sands of Time trilogy. It represents the combined lessons from the first and second games. If you guys out there were like I used to be, and avoided the trilogy for whatever reason, I would recommend that you play the Sands of Time, watch someone else play the Warrior Within, and then play the Two Thrones. If you enjoy platforms with light combat elements, you will enjoy this series.

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