Saturday, July 22, 2006

One of the little pleasures I’ve had over the past year has been discovering Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia trilogy. For those of you who are more gaming-literate than I am, this is a new trilogy of games that bears no narrative relation to the original. I suppose if you’re a certain kind of fan that means they’re an abomination. I am not one of those kinds of people, and if you yourself are you’re missing out.

The new Prince of Persia titles (Sands of Time, Warrior Within, and The Two Thrones, in that order) have a number of things to recommend them. At the time Sands of Time came out, I think they were primarily touting the … er, well, the sands of time. You may remember them from the cautionary Penny Arcade comic—not to be abused. The sands give the Prince a number of amusing tricks, which can be categorized as rewinding time, slowing time, and slaying enemies in various ways the specifics of which depend upon the title you’re playing. Do not be fooled. As cool as it is to rewind time in the middle of a fight (and I won’t lie, on occasion that’s ridiculously cool), the sands of time are not the best thing about these games.

The best thing about these games is the movement system. For those of you who were enamored of the Aladdin game for the SNES, I might say it’s like that only better. These games are about running along this wall so you can leap to that column and climb to that pole so you can swing to that ledge so you can run up this wall so you can reach the switch. The movement is fast, fluid, and incredibly fun (nor have I found any problems using WASD and a mouse instead of a joystick, so don’t worry about that even though these were originally console games). There are lots of good things about these games but I think the movement is the most unique.

The other good things these games feature are their character interaction, their fighting system, their aesthetic, and their puzzles (the story is a coming-of-age, so I lump that in with character). You can get them pretty cheap and if you’re the sort of person who takes these kinds of recommendations I recommend you get all three and play through them in order, so as to get the maximum story benefit. If you aren’t, or if you just like reading my game posts, here’s a quick breakdown of the three titles:

Sands of Time is the first of the games and a stand-alone title I’m not sure they ever expected to support a franchise. Sands of Time is heavy on character interaction, aesthetic, movement, and puzzles. Well, none of these games is heavy on puzzles, but Sands of Time is heaviest of the three and its puzzles are most like real puzzles that require spatial visualization and the like. Character is one of the game’s charms, both in the Prince’s voiceover narration (which surprisingly I would rank high on the list of the game’s virtues) and in his Han-and-Leia bickering with his love interest. The love interest is a big part of the story here, and I think they do that whole bit with rather greater skill than video games normally do. The environments are creamy, alabaster-and-sandstone Arabian Nights, which I think works well with the whole tone of the game. The movement system, as noted before, is a lot of fun. It is not a big challenge, which can be both good and bad. On the good side, you don’t have to have mad twitch skillz to make the Prince do cool things; the actual gymnastics are pretty hard to screw up unless you’ve got time pressure or traps to avoid or the like. On the bad side, in my opinion at times the movement puzzles get a little too easy. The worst part of the game, in my opinion, is the fighting system. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s not. It’s just not as clever as the rest of the game, which in my opinion is highly clever. The Prince can use his environment in a fight somewhat (e.g., he can run up an enemy’s face and vault over him to attack from behind) but not as much as you’d expect from the range of movement options he has with his environment.

The Warrior Within is kind of the redheaded stepchild of the series in my opinion. I agree with the Penny Arcade assessment: there’s a good game under there, but it’s obscured by some bad design decisions. For one thing, the aesthetic has gotten much darker and Castlevanian, which they have a good excuse for but can still wear thin after a while. Character is the big weak point in this game, as the Prince has no love interest to have witty banter with and the narration is inexplicably gone. The Prince himself, meanwhile, is either a generic tough guy (“I smolder with generic rage”) or a petulant child with a sword, depending on how you look at it. If you want to see the secret (and most interesting) ending, the one The Two Thrones assumes happened, you have to pick up all nine life upgrades hidden away throughout the game. Personally I had no patience for that, and consulted the internet. On the plus side, the already excellent movement system is essentially the same (with one or two minor upgrades), which is a huge part of the game’s appeal, so I can’t stress that enough. The movement puzzles are significantly more demanding, which I personally think is a good thing given that most of the movement puzzles in Sands of Time looked awesome but were virtually impossible to screw up. And the fighting system has been completely revamped, which is all to the good. Fighting in Warrior Within is much more on par with movement now in terms of fun and is about five times as fun as fighting in the previous title. Largely this stems from the fact that the Prince can interact with his enemies in many more ways. Two flaws in the fighting system remain: the Prince has an “I win now” move in one-on-one duels, and the most efficient way of slaying your foes is frequently dual-wielding. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like dual-wielding as much as the next guy. But given the choice between a six hit handstand combo and manhandling my enemies, my preference is for manhandling every time. One just wishes that hitting a guy six times with a sword wasn’t so darn effective. And then there’s the boss battles. As Archimedes has pungently observed on more than one occasion, giving a boss more hit points does not make it more interesting. Unfortunately, that’s essentially all there is to the boss battles in Warrior Within—more hit points. For a game that’s built on kineticism, you’d think their boss battles would be … I don’t know, clever. But they aren’t, and there’s just no way around that.

The Two Thrones is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch for a number of reasons. The aesthetic isn’t quite back to the dreamland of Sands of Time, but it’s gotten interesting again after the Temple of Doom drear of Warrior Within. And the character interaction is back, in the form of both narration (not as good as in Sands of Time) and banter (better than in Sands of Time). I also admit to being very impressed at the aplomb with which they managed to take the generic rage that suffused Warrior Within and turned it from crass marketing ploy to a genuine step on an integrated coming-of-age story arc that explores the Prince’s descent into and redemption from childish hubris. The fighting has more depth to it, and the automatic win move has been changed so it isn’t an automatic win anymore. In a stand-up fight dual-wielding is still the way to go, but they’ve added a “speed kill” mechanic that allows you to manhandle your enemies in satisfying, highly effective ways if you can sneak up on them. The movement system has been expanded in ways that make it less automatic but not more difficult (translating into more fun), and the lethality of the movement puzzles has been scaled back a bit to what I consider pretty much the optimum level. Spatial reasoning puzzles feature a bit more strongly than in Warrior Within, although I will admit the game could probably do with a bit more of those. Most satisfying from a design standpoint is that they’ve crafted boss battles that actually fit with the game’s overall feel. That is to say, the boss battles are actually interesting, as opposed to requiring mere staying power. While the final boss battle in Warrior Within was the most tedious, the final fight in The Two Thrones is the most satisfying in the game. In fact, it may be the best designed boss battle I’ve ever seen in any game of any genre.

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