As rampant holiday sequel-mania rages on, it can be tough to sort the good from the bad. Such is the case with Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, where there’s a mix of familiar controls, physics, and some sharp puzzles and level designs butting heads with a greater emphasis on combat that throws off the delicate play balance perfected in The Sands of Time. Everything’s bigger and more complicated, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.
The story in The Sands of Time kept me hooked throughout, and the drive to be reunited, keep up with, or occasionally save your damsel companion created an emotional investment in seeing the story to its conclusion (another very good part of the game). Take everything that worked in The Sands of Time and create a negative image of it, the polar opposite if you will. Now you’ve got an idea of what Warrior Within‘s like. It’s darker, the Prince is uglier, and instead of trying to save the girl and fall in love, he focuses squarely on chasing down and killing a couple girls and assorted monstrosities while being chased himself by the seemingly invincible Dahaka, who has come to kill the Prince for meddling with the Sands in the last game. Everyone repeatedly beats the Prince down, which is supposed to inspire rage and make me hate them, but instead I ended up resenting myself (and the game) for having to constantly enter twitchy fights with endless peons and punishing chase scenes with Dahaka.
I liked the first game just fine, and it sucks to see Ubisoft tailor Warrior Within to the whims of critics rather than the fans. Apparently there’s a book somewhere that says in an action adventure, you need clearly defined boss characters and countless critters to poke with a sword. Nevermind that the environment itself was supposed to be your adversary, as demonstrated so well in The Sands of Time. I also never really cared about any of the characters this time around, even the hero himself. Between the thin storyline and some technical problems (the sound kept cutting out during cut scenes), it was hard to forget I was on the outside looking in instead of feeling immersed in the game world. This whole game feels too different, too sculpted by the marketing department rather than creative vision, and the only pieces of continuity are the Prince and the Sands. I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d have skipped the Prince’s last outing, where I saw how great this series can be. As Tycho of Penny Arcade pointed out, “The wry voiceovers and endearing progression of The Sands of Time’s rude royal son charmed me completely. I oversaw his redemption in the first game, apparently so (Ubisoft) could take what I had done and negate it.” I couldn’t have said it better.
Despite all the time, care, and development that went into this new combat scheme, I found myself having more success simply mashing buttons, an approach that never entered my mind in The Sands of Time. The dual-weapon system and new uses for the environment in battle add some moves, but you can get through the game just as well without them. Besides, memorizing and implementing a move/combo list akin to Tekken or Virtua Fighter is a lot more possible in one-on-one fights, but here on the Island of Time (in the Castle of Time, where you’re seeking the Empress of Time to stop her from creating the Sands of?.yep, Time), they’re having a fire sale on gang-bangs for foreigners. There’s an odd disparity, too, in that your secondary weapon (lifted off an enemy) breaks after only a few strikes, though your primary weapon can be banged against a stone wall for hours on end and never so much as dull an edge. For you action fans, enjoy yourselves. This game was made for you. For fans of the original, I hope you didn’t trade in your copy of The Sands of Time. If so, you can still go get it back for less than $20, and with the original Splinter Cell packed in, to boot!
There are still some good environmental puzzles here that will bend your brain a bit, and if you never played the last game, it’ll feel fresh and new to you. If you did play The Sands of Time, you know pretty much what to expect in Warrior Within. The Prince has been redefined visually, but he still has about the same bag of tricks acrobatically and navigationally. The problem is, if you’re only here for the puzzles and slick environments (with past and present versions of them all), you’ll have to wade through a multitude of twitchy, cheap battles where you’ll die and/or rewind time a lot just to get to those puzzles. Before, the combat was a strategically placed brain-drain between puzzles so you didn’t burn out from constantly using your gray matter. Even having to use the Dagger of Time and building your sand capacity has been replaced with bad guys who bleed blood (for the edgy M-rating) and release sand. It’s as if the blood was just tacked on to make it look gory and thus attract more potential buyers.
Praise-worthy are the capable environmental navigation (same as before), no falling off ledges without catching yourself (same as before), and the characteristic acrobatics (wall running, banner sliding, backflipping, etc.). In case you didn’t notice, they kept what worked and just added more crap. Getting in the way of your progression is the sometimes sluggish and uncooperative camera. I understand that things in the game, real things, should have solid collision detection and physics. The camera is not really there, and as such should not get hung up on pillars, in corners, and be generally unruly and erratic even when I’m trying to pivot it into place using the C-stick. Being able to switch to first-person view and the wide-angle camera help, but it should be up to the developer, not me, to make the game playable. Some other minor gripes are occasional frame rate stuttering, some backtracking, and the absence of the flash-forwards from the last game. They might have made things a smidge more linear, but I liked them. It was nice not having to wander aimlessly, hoping to stumble onto the one tiny article I didn’t see the first 10 times I looked around the room, or because every camera angle obscured the needed switch or rope or ladder from my sight. There are camera pans that are meant to help you out, but being able to watch those flash-forwards a second or third time was better.
Some parts look great, while others seem to have lost their luster. The foliage in the Hanging Gardens area looked fantastic, but look into a dank moldy corner and you’ll see icky 16- or even 8-bit textures sans alpha-blending. While some may have found the Aladdin-esque look of Sands of Time too cartoony, I found it refreshing and vibrant, matching the tale it told perfectly. The horror of seeing your own friends and family turned to sand and monsters that you must in turn slay was enough edginess for me. The whole game didn’t have to go goth, as you’ll find in Warrior Within. Being in the past offers some prettier environments, but everything in the present is darker and in ruins and all the enemies have a distinct goth/S&M flair to them. I guess if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s cool. Even I wouldn’t have minded a game with that sort of focus, but not this game. If Ubi wanted to do an edgy, M-rated game, they could have taken the Prince/Splinter Cell engine and done that in a different franchise. However, with the pedigree and history of this franchise, the gothness that governs nearly every facet of design makes it about as much fun to watch as staring out the window at the rain. At night.
The little details – dust falling from ledges, feathers falling from crows, rippling water – are still accounted for, but we could have done without the push for M-rated content. If you have 42 body piercings and wear all black under a black trench coat in 90F heat, or are just a moron who couldn’t appreciate what The Sands of Time was doing, have a blast with Warrior Within. Meanwhile, I’ll be shaking my head in disconcert.
You get a fairly repetitive mix of rock/metal music interspersed with some ear-splitting shrieks (did they have to be so high-pitched?) and idiotic one-liners from everyone you see. The standard issue grunts in the game are pretty undead-looking, but make taunts to the Prince in a voice that sounds totally out of place for the meekness they present. The bad guys often tell you they don’t have time for your antics, curse you for coming to their island, and ask why you don’t just give up. I had to grit my teeth and pretend it wasn’t Warrior Within‘s creators talking directly to me, since all I wanted to do was shut the game off.
Environmental sounds play just fine (flowing water, clanking metal on stone, footsteps, etc.), but many were lifted right off the original game’s soundtrack. That’s okay since they were great before; just don’t expect to hear anything new.
In many instances, the halfway decent voice acting wasn’t in synch with the lip movement; they worked hard enough to make the mouths move correctly, but didn’t bother to make sure they aligned with the words coming out. Maybe it’s because of all the time traveling, but I doubt it. Sometimes the voices cut out altogether and I had no idea what to do next as I didn’t have subtitles turned on. The situational music also seemed to have no persistent cues. If I died fighting a big goliath with the rock music pumping in the background, the next time I would fight the same guy in total silence. Heck, sometimes the music stopped suddenly in the middle of the fight.
Sequels aren’t an easy thing to do right, provided the developer is really trying to excel. In the case of the yearly sports game regurgitation, the only ones who really try to improve and innovate are the underdogs. Story-driven games that continue a tale need more care when handling. Games like Halo 2, Devil May Cry 2, Metroid Prime 2, and now Prince of Persia 2 either tried to fix things that weren’t broken, ignored existing problems, or overlooked the fact that they had a good thing already going in favor of some new experiment at retail.
Some technical problems with graphics, sound, and the camera/controls apparently exist on all platforms, according to the other reviews out there, but while Gamespot says the GameCube iteration of Warrior Within is bug free, I beg to differ. Both my GC and my copy of the game are brand new, so it can’t be the hardware.
Given the time-traveling theme in Warrior Within and the past/present versions of the same areas (not unlike Raziel’s phase-shifting in Soul Reaver, a game where the angry goth theme fit just fine), there’s hope that the Prince will return to his roots and give us a better third entry in this series.