Returning to the Prince of Persia canon was not an easy thing for me. My first attempts to play Sands of Time failed, and I remembered feeling very sour about the game franchise. It wasn’t until I could grapple with the controls on the Gamecube that I felt the edges of the game that was there, this lovely charming experience of pressing the right buttons at the right time, and of seeing linear, tidy paths that needed to be executed smoothly and with grace. When I had that under my belt, though, the next urge was to try and play the other games in its franchise.
The next I tried was The Two Thrones, which I picked up in a bargain store for a few dollars, because, and this I don’t understand, everyone in Australia seems to own a second hand copy of a PS2 game that was the third game in its franchise. I have to assume it was part of a well-distributed, successful bundle. Either way, after Sands of Time, I played Two Thrones – a game that was trying to repair the damage done to a complicated franchise by The Warrior Within.
The Missing Middle
If there’s one thing I can do to improve the presentation of The Warrior Within it’s to do what I did with these games. Skip the game entirely, and only imagine the structure of it, the ideas that must be present in it, as implied by the shape of The Two Thrones. After all, The Two Thrones does hint at what’s happened, yes?
The story between games that I understood was that following Sands of Time, the Prince had done something with time, incurred some debt that had to be paid. It was a payment that had to be made in blood, and he’d left on a journey to try, somehow, to fix it. Time had splintered under his hands, and some great debt had been paid, some punishment had been averted – but that had been done at another cost. The punishment had been delayed, not averted… and in The Two Thrones, that punishment returned, to be meted out in full, against the Prince and everything he represented. A city, collapsed under that time-travelling curse of sand, ruined in hours, with great and dreadful monsters reared from the dark past.
That’s the story that I found when I didn’t play Warrior Within.
I’ll spare you the truth of it. That’s a better interpretation of the story of Warrior Within and features a lot less gloomy misery. Without seeing the Prince’ descent into self-pity and self-loathing, you’re actually better off to recognise it in this game. It looks less like a petulant teenager, and you don’t know what he’s been through to bring it about. In Two Thrones, you know the Prince is struggling with a plural self, a voice in his head he blames for everything, and that other self does not take him very seriously.
Of Character And Story
In Sands of Time, the Prince was able to define and shape characters along with his deuteragonist, Farah. In Two Thrones, Farah is unfortunately reduced to a tertiary role, and she’s a weaker character overall (which is very sad, considering this is a game franchise with an awful lot of dudes in it).
I could write a lot, I fear, about why it’s disappointing for Farah to turn from a character with many dimensions to a two-dimensional action girl in this story, but you know how it works. You know what it means. It’s disappointing. The role of an interesting female character – the lone female character in her story – was replaced by that of a guy. I’d rather this not happen.
Knowing that, and accepting that, the Dark Prince, the replacement character, is a very fun character for me. You know the old meme that game characters work best when they’re able to say what the player is thinking just before they say it? The Dark Prince does that – though usually, by saying Oh Shut Up, and shouldering the Prince into some sort of action or silence.
The Dark Prince and Prince have a dichotomy that… well, let’s call it basic. It’s not bad, it’s not badly executed, and there is conflict of meaning between them… but it’s not as clever, nor as subtle as the narrative with Farah in the first game. Just like the Farah narrative of Sands of Time, this story is the narrative that arcs throughout the entire game – a tale of conflict between two halves of the Prince, as solved and expressed through stabbing people and jumping off things. Since the conflict that drives the Prince’s action is internal, I can certainly see why they wanted to choose this internal character.
The story’s weaker, really. There’s less of the storybook style, there’s not the same light charm and almost childlike horror presented by sand zombies. It’s more hard-edged, more adolescent, and unfortunately, in that transition, it loses some of its depth.
The Meat That Moves
I wish the game had just been a straight-up write-off though, where the weaker story was part of a weaker work and I could simply say go play Sands of Time instead. Lord knows I enjoy being able to kick at Warrior Within for its failings. Not so, though! No, because while the narrative team responsible for The Two Thrones clearly messed up, the people who were honing the mechanics and adding to them were clearly amazing.
While Two Thrones uses the basic formula of Sands of Time of parkour, combat, and puzzles, it adds to the mix puzzle-style boss monsters where you have to use the terrain, and time trial sequences where you take on the form of the Dark Prince. The Dark Prince isn’t just bad for the Prince’s mind, he’s bad for his body, as well, and he slowly bleeds to death. This means parkour tracks where you’re stuck as the Dark Prince have to be executed with a ticking timer over your head – and it’s not a forgiving one! While I was dreadfully frustrated with these while I played, and found the loading times grating, the experience was still wonderful when I clocked it, that elated spiral of sensation as I realised how many times I’d failed, and how now I had not.
The other major addition to the game is the stealth kill system. In the same way Dishonored combined a blink with stealth mechanics, the stealth kill system connects perfectly with Two Thrones’ pre-existing mechanics. Parkour is about finding routes through areas normally not considered, and stealth kills are about attacking enemies from an unexpected angle. This makes for beautiful integration of combat into parkour sequences, without duplicating the failure state of the parkour. When you fail the timing on a stealth kill, you just have to kill the target manually. When you do it properly an enemy that normally represents a major hindrance to the flow of your trial becomes part of it. Parkour courses are about timing and direction – and stealth kills allow you to integrate combat into that. In their best moments, you will find your fingers twitching deftly into the patterns such as running off a wall, leaping the gap, grabbing a flagpole, swinging around to land behind one guard, stealth-kill them, run forwards, up the wall, leap sideways to land behind the next, stealth-kill him, and then keep running to the next part of the course. They’re even expanded well, where some stealth kills become the quicktime events that define boss battles. Even better, the time-sensitive parts with the Dark Prince allow them, and he has interesting uses of his chains in combat.
The stealth kills also add some cinema to a game that, mostly, is about doing something amazing without taking the time to stand around looking at how cool you are. It’s a moment of decompression in a series that’s otherwise frantic, and I really wish they’d been employed in other, later games in the series.
Finally, there are chariot race sequences in this game. They are awful. You will play them for a few minutes and realise that they are awful. Knowing why they are awful will not diminish their awfulness. Just understand that they are the unfortunate price of entry – this fun game has some really, really naff bits, even if you can ignore the story weaknesses.
Buy it if:
- You enjoyed Sands of Time and want some refined combat mechanics and parkour.
Avoid it if:
- You’re looking for another Sands of Time styled narrative with a developed female character.
- You want an experience more like The Warrior Within.