Friday, February 24, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: Warrior Within

Arguably the most controversial segment in the trilogy, and certainly one I had mixed reactions to.

Your journey will not end well. You cannot change your fate. No man can.

Spoiler alert: this review gives away a major plot point in the game. There's no real way around it, especially when I get to "The Two Thrones".

Though "Sands of Time" was considered a major critical success, for all the reasons noted in the previous review, it wasn't exactly a top seller. I'm not very well-acquainted with the rules of the video game market, but I'd hazard a guess that the most common complaint was "Not enough blood" or "Not enough boobies."

Ubisoft, ever so obliging, promptly ensured that the sequel, "Warrior Within", would appeal to the lowest common denominators. The result is a game where the technical aspects are greatly improved while the creative aspects take a nosedive. And the most infuriating part? I'm almost positive it sold more than "Sands of Time".

So... "Warrior Within". On the creative level, this is a game that allows two mindsets. If you're viewing it with a practical, objective eye, it's pretty shallow: the Prince goes from being a charming, naive adventurer to a tattooed, gravel-voiced, Wolverine-esque tough guy, shouting things like "You should be honored to die by my sword!" The internal monologue barely exists here, and when it does turn up it's always "I have to hurry" or "I have to pull that switch." Basically, the Prince becomes a cipher.

However, if you're willing to be a little generous, you can argue that the Prince's transformation actually is a product of an ellipsis, and of the plot itself. Basically, the second game begins seven years after the first. The Prince, having changed history, is being hunted by an invincible creature called the Dahaka, a manifestation of Fate that wants him dead. Those seven years on the run are ostensibly what leads to the Prince's personality shift, as he's become hardened and frightened. When an old man tells him about the birthplace of the Sands of Time - created on the Island of Time by the Empress of Time (note the creative titling) - the Prince decides to go on the offensive, travel back to the past and prevent the Empress from completing her task, rewriting history to the point where he'll never have dealt with the Sands at all.

While this would seem to answer the major issue, it does give the plot a bit too much credit. In reality, the game's story is nowhere near as intricate as "Sands of Time" - the majority of it is given over to jumping back and forth through two time periods, running from the Dahaka, and trying to stop the Sands of Time from being created. Except... well, you see the problem, don't you? There's an in-game contradiction - every time you rewind time, the Prince is changing his fate. Also, stopping the Sands from being created is just another way of altering what happened to the Prince - so why is it a solution to the Dahaka problem? And leaving all that aside, I don't recall a particular moment (in the story, not in gameplay) where the Prince should have died in "Sands of Time", and didn't. So the whole thing is riddled with plotholes, and frankly, is an example of dumbing down a game so people don't have to think about it.

There are only two other characters in "Warrior Within". Both are women, both are villains, and both are ridiculously over the top in the T&A department. The first is Shahdee, lieutenant to the Empress of Time, who fights literally butt-naked. The second is Empress Kaileena, a CGI sex doll who - in the game's alternate (and canon) ending, pulls a Monica Lewinsky on the man who tried to kill her, and whose brain is inversely proportionate to her breasts (she's a demigod, with an army at her command, and the best plan she's got is to sit around like an idiot and make the Prince think she's a servant?). It's blatantly commercial, but it also means there isn't much dialogue in the game either; aside from a lack of narration, Shahdee dies early in the game, and the Prince only has two or three conversations with Kaileena throughout the whole thing. So most of the game is spent in complete silence.

So that's the creative side. But the game's redeeming feature is that, having thrown story and characters overboard, the developers have put the rest of their efforts into improving the gameplay. And it is much improved. For starters, you now absorb sand automatically, thanks to Farah's medallion (the only tangible connection to "Sands of Time"), which means you get to concentrate on killing your opponents. And with the ability to wield two swords, your range of attack combos is greatly increased. I admit, it's fun to set off such wildly varied combat moves.

"Warrior Within" also introduces something "Sands of Time" didn't have - boss fights. Oh, I suppose that last duel with the Vizier counts, but really, it's not that different from regular battles. Here you have five major boss fights: two against Shahdee, one against the Empress, one against a Griffin, and the last fight depends on whether you've found all nine life upgrades and found the secret Water Sword (most powerful weapon in the game). If you haven't, you fight the Empress again and get an abbreviated ending movie. If you have, you fight the Dahaka itself and get a longer "secret" ending, which was used as the basis for the sequel, "The Two Thrones". It's a nice break from your run-of-the-mill combat sessions.

Additionally, there are several sequences scattered throughout the game called "Dahaka Chases". It's self-explanatory, really - at various points in the game, you come across the Dahaka, and it chases you. It can't be fought or slowed down, so you basically have to run for your life and navigate all sorts of traps and pits and obstacles without letting it catch you (which means instant death).

It's a mixed bag, really. As I said, the major imbalance in "Warrior Within" is between the creative and technical sides: it's an entertaining game if you don't think about it, but it doesn't hold up if you stop to think about what the hell is going on.