Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: The Two Thrones

Saving the best for last.

We all make mistakes. Some are small, some are large. But his mistake, born of innocence, fueled by pride, was the greatest and most terrible of them all.

"The Two Thrones", in many ways, brings Ubisoft's "Prince of Persia" trilogy full circle. If the previous two games can be categorized as polar opposites - "Sands of Time" being more story-driven than gameplay-driven, and vice versa for "Warrior Within" - "The Two Thrones" achieves a perfect synthesis, combining the best aspects of its predecessors. It's also a rewarding experience for those players who've been around since the beginning: old friends and enemies return, destinies are fulfilled, and it all comes to an excellent finale.

The story begins immediately after the conclusion of "Warrior Within". Or rather, one of its conclusions. As I mentioned in the previous review, "Warrior Within" has two endings. If you play through the game without finding all the secrets, the Prince kills Empress Kaileena. If you unlock all the hidden stuff, the Prince and Kaileena ship off to Babylon together. The introduction to "The Two Thrones" follows the latter ending, and reconciles the conflicting accounts by pointing out the lack of witnesses - for reasons that become clear once you progress a bit, no one but the Prince can verify Kaileena's presence, so when his story is repeated, some will simply say he returned from the Island of Time alone.

In any event, after four weeks at sea the Prince and Kaileena return to Babylon, only to find his city besieged by an invading Scythian army. Their ship is spotted and destroyed; Kaileena is knocked unconscious and the current carries her away from the Prince, to another part of the beach. Meanwhile, the Prince drags himself out of the wreckage and the game gets underway.

Creatively, "The Two Thrones" not only returns to the first game's paradigm in terms of storytelling and characterization, but it improves upon them. Better yet, it doesn't apologize for the mess caused by "Warrior Within" but rather grows from that mess. The story acknowledges that yes, the Prince has become a self-absorbed, vainglorious twit - but that this is his chance to redeem himself, to become a true hero. It retroactively casts "Warrior Within" as a fall from grace, which really draws the whole trilogy closer together.

In "The Sands of Time" we had two voices, the Prince's and Farah's. In "Warrior Within" we had none. "The Two Thrones" gives us no less than four voices for the four main characters in the game: Kaileena narrates, the Prince has an internal monologue which soon becomes a dialogue, and another old friend accompanies the Prince at certain points in the game. Even bit players from past games like the Old Man and King Sharaman appear.

Let's start with Kaileena. Her powerlessness still annoys me, but at least here there's a thematic reason for it: she's being juxtaposed with Farah (the princess from "Sands of Time"). These are the two women in the Prince's life - Kaileena sees all timelines while Farah is subject to whatever changes the Prince makes. Kaileena is outside the story, narrating without participating, while Farah is right in the thick of things, she inspires the Prince to heroism. It's nice that Kaileena is more or less redeemed in this game, which manages to give her the tragic dimension "Warrior Within" didn't quite pull off; it's clear now that she sees it all coming, she knows there's nothing she can do, and so she just lets everything play out.

The internal dialogue I mentioned involves perhaps the most compelling character in the game: the Dark Prince. At an early point in the story, the Prince becomes partially infected by the Sands of Time. This has both a physical and a psychological effect on him: as the infection spreads, he undergoes periodic transformations into a Sand Demon which give him increased strength but also saps his vitality. To make things worse, his mind becomes inhabited by an unnamed second entity (formally known as the Dark Prince), whose voice the Prince cannot escape. And while this entity can't exert any control over his host's transformed body, the Dark Prince is subtle, witty, and extremely manipulative, and his true nature isn't revealed until it's almost too late.

The Prince himself develops very nicely in this game - he starts off with single-minded intent to wreak bloody vengeance on the Scythians and their leader, to the point where he actually ignores his people's cries and pleas for help. But a face from his past awakens something inside him, and cracks the hardened shell formed by seven years fleeing the Dahaka. Time travel is much less prominent this time, perhaps a lesson learned from the almost-incoherent movement back and forth in "Warrior Within"; on a thematic level, it's all about the Prince learning to accept the consequences of his actions rather than rush off and find a way to wipe the slate clean again.

Moving onto gameplay: as I said, the system is rather consistent with "Warrior Within", with a few new moves added to the Prince's repetoire. The most important innovation is the "speed kill" system - there are many moments in the game where you're able to sneak up on an enemy and perform a series of timing-based moves to kill them without having to go hand-to-hand. It's rather helpful, though the split-second intervals can take quite a while to get used to.

There's not much choice, though, because with one exception, every boss fight in the game requires use of multiple speed-kills rather than regular combat. Unlike "Warrior Within", where boss fights were just extended versions of ordinary fights, you battle the mutated Scythian generals in phases, each one culminating in a speed kill. It's quite fun, and you can rewind time to redo a speed kill if you messed it up, but it's very, very reflex-oriented.

At certain pre-scripted points in the game, the Prince transforms into the Dark Prince. These sequences revive the urgency of the Dahaka Chases, as you need to move much more quickly due to your decreasing vitality. The catch with the Dark Prince is that a single sand cloud, gained from shattered objects or slain enemies, completely restores his health, so you'll always be looking out for possible sources while proceeding. Despite this, the Dark Prince is very fun: his secondary weapon is a chain-whip which allows him to strike multiple enemies, strangle them from behind, swing across very large gaps and so on. And because he's so dependent on sand, the Dark Prince sections have a much greater emphasis on combat, sometimes taking on fifteen to twenty enemies at a time.

A final new addition are the chariot races, where the Prince must ride a horse-driven chariot at breakneck speeds across vast distances, avoiding walls, boulders and other chariots trying to run you off the road. It's a huge surprise at first, and I'm sure most players will require a good two or three tries to maneuver through the lengthy sequences.

"The Two Thrones" is an exhilarating game, delivering satisfaction on all levels. New players shouldn't have much trouble learning the ropes, since the game begins with a helpful tutorial, but longtime fans of "Prince of Persia" will get the payoff they've been waiting for.