Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
PlayStation 2 version
For This Sequel, Time Was Not Rewound Quite Far Enough
Change is often necessary for the continuation of a game series. Once-fresh ideas become stagnant and cannot help but evoke that dreaded "been there, done that" feeling in gamers. Sometimes, however, change is a very bad thing, as illustrated by the reimagined Prince of Persia franchise. After releasing the amazing and critically acclaimed Sands of Time, publisher Ubisoft inexplicably chose to pull a 180-degree turn on the series' tone. Shifting from a charming and vibrant Persian-themed fairy tale to a death metal-infused angst fest, The Warrior Within met with harsh reactions from series veterans and gaming publications. In response, Ubisoft sensed that -- much like the titular prince of the series -- they needed to roll back time so as to undo the changes in the series if they were to recapture the magic of The Sands of Time.
The result is The Two Thrones, the final chapter of the Prince of Persia trilogy. As its title suggests, the game focuses heavily on duality: the two sides of the Prince's personality, alternate timelines, and seeking to accept responsibility for and to learn from past mistakes instead of merely seeking to undo them. Strangely enough, however, there is another very important (and most certainly unintended) element of duality: Ubisoft's own inability to do the very thing that their game's main character learns to do. In trying to rewind the series in the wake of The Warrior Within's failure, Ubisoft failed to learn from that title's mistakes -- many of that game's negative elements still linger in The Two Thrones. The result is a game that tries hard to recreate the experience of its progenitor, yet doesn't quite reach back far enough in time to do so, instead feeling more like a transitional step between the first two games -- and a lacking one at that.
However, in keeping with the light/dark duality of the game, there are many things that The Two Thrones does right. Perhaps most importantly, the game attempts to recreate the high-flying, gravity-defying acrobatics of the first game in the series -- and for the most part succeeds. As the Prince makes his way through Babylon, ultimately climbing the palace to confront the game's two main antagonists (again with the duality), he must make use of a range of superhumanly dexterous abilities such as running along walls, swinging from pipes and poles, and walking along beams without losing his balance. The Two Thrones even manages to expand the Prince's repertoire of acrobatics, as he has now learned to scale walls using his dagger, as well as being able to scale up and down narrow crevasses and curtains. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities to use these skills either, as there are many skill-testing moments that are sure to leave the controller drenched in sticky sweat.
Another area in which The Two Thrones one-ups its forebears is in combat -- specifically by providing skillful players the ability to avoid combat altogether. The Two Thrones introduces the "Speed Kill," which rewards clever use of the environment and stealth by allowing players to perform instant kills upon unsuspecting foes. The screen flashes white for a brief moment, and then the player must engage in a series of timed strikes at the targets vitals (in the clichéd but effective Matrix-style "bullet time") to pull off the Speed Kill. Though frustrating at times due to unexpected shifts in camera angle (more on that later), the Speed Kill is an honest attempt on the developers' part to provide an alternative to combat, which was perhaps the biggest complaint in The Sands of Time.
And of course, there is the setting. The Two Thrones (mostly) eschews the gag-inducing angst and all-around "dark badassery" (read: juvenile crap) of its immediate predecessor in favor of a more Persian-themed backdrop akin to that of The Sands of Time. There are quite a few genuinely awe-inducing landscapes to be seen, many of them outdoor areas such as gardens or cityscapes. While climbing the palace tower, the player can look back and behold all of the city of Babylon from on high -- few games provide such a visually pleasing reward for progress.
Unfortunately, The Two Thrones manages to retain a great number of the issues from both The Sands of Time and The Warrior Within, which seriously detracts from its enjoyability. Though much of the angst and broodiness of The Warrior Within is gone, an overdose minus half is still too much. Take the Prince for example. For much of the game, he battles against his own inner demons -- literally, in the form of the Dark Prince. An embodiment of the evil and anger within the Prince, the Dark Prince rears his ugly head many times throughout the game. Of course, the Prince himself is much more unappealing and impudent than he ever was in The Sands of Time, so there seems to be very little difference at times between the supposed "light" and "dark" halves of the two Princes -- certainly not enough to necessitate having them both in the storyline.
The Dark Prince's gameplay segments are equally redundant and frustrating. At seemingly random times throughout the game, the Prince loses control and gives in to his darker half, changing his appearance and abilities slightly. Though he is much stronger, this power is offset by a key design flaw: he loses health continually, regardless of what he does. This becomes especially frustrating during the segments in which the Dark Prince must navigate ridiculously fast-spinning trap blades. The Sands of Time was brilliant in that it allowed the player time to figure out the best course of action and, when ready, charge into the fray and skillfully make it through numerous deadly traps. By effectively enacting a short time limit upon the players, The Two Thrones's Dark Prince segments sap the fun out of working through trap-filled halls, instead becoming little more than monotonous exercises in trial-and-error. Even then, the player often has to make it through completely untouched, lest the Dark Prince collapse immediately after successfully running the gauntlet on attempt number twelve or so. Sure, the Dark Prince can replenish his health by -- of all things -- breaking open clay pots and wicker baskets, but apart from being completely unintuitive (a word that could not easily be used in describing any aspect of The Sands of Time), this does little to remedy the underlying design flaw.
The Dark Prince can also replenish his health by killing foes, which leads to the next major flaw of the game: the combat system. In keeping with the "transitional" feel, The Two Thrones's combat feels like a bridge between the dull combat of The Sands of Time and the versatile yet overly complex "Free-Form Combat" of The Warrior Within. In other words, it is the worst of both worlds. Though the Prince can utilize multiple combos with one or two weapons, most enemies can be beaten by repeatedly mashing the square and triangle buttons. Likewise, the Dark Prince can easily kill any enemy simply by twirling his chain in a circle above his head. Though the mixture is certainly Ubisoft's attempt to correct its past mistakes in the series via compromise, it effectively makes the Free-Form Combat system redundant. The Sands of Time's combat was far from perfect, but it got the job done -- if Ubisoft wanted to rewind time on the combat system, they should have just gone back all the way instead of stopping halfway, admitting both to consumers and to themselves that the series is not about combat.
Their reluctance to do so, however, leads to additional problems, such as wonky boss battles. The Sands of Time proved that games don't need to have traditional "bosses" to be enjoyable, providing one really moving and engaging battle at the very end of the game. The Two Thrones takes on a dual philosophy yet again in this regard, providing some bosses in order to justify the inclusion of the Free-Form Combat system. As a result, there are some truly irritating button-mashing marathons masquerading as "boss fights." (The final boss battle, a rematch with the Vizier from the first game, is particularly aggravating.) Furthermore, all of the boss battles require the use of the Speed Kill mechanism in some capacity, effectively stripping down a cool element of player choice to yet another rote button tapping exercise.
The game's puzzles and platforming zones are equally lacking for the most part, with a few exceptions. There are some genuinely hair-raising segments, but for each one of those there are two very straightforward and easily navigable areas. Part of The Sands of Time's brilliance was that it required a bit of thought and strategy in planning out how to clear an area. In The Two Thrones, however, players often will have no problem figuring out where to go or how to get there, simply jumping around and running along walls to get from point A to point B. The sections that do end up being difficult are not so because of clever design, but rather because the indoor areas retain the drab browns and darkness of The Warrior Within to such a degree that it is almost impossible to see the next ledge or crack in the wall that the Prince must jump to. Combine this element with a severely spastic camera, and disaster is certain to ensue.
Furthermore, the save points do not provide visions to guide the player like the ones in The Sands of Time. In fact, the save points no longer exist -- there are only fountains, which both replenish health and allow the game to be saved. Though this may seem trivial, it is actually indicative of perhaps the biggest issue with the game: a lack of verisimilitude and integration. Everything in the series's first entry was integrated seamlessly -- game conventions such as save points, health replenishment, and the like had a rational and believable reason for existence. In The Two Thrones, they just feel like the videogame conventions that they are instead of like part of a larger world.
The storyline is also lacking in power and believability. Sands of Time had its moments, but felt more like a Persian tale than a serious exercise in storytelling; The Two Thrones's dual tones give it a greater air of seriousness, which backfires. The player is supposed to believe, for example, that the Prince is maturing and accepting responsibility for his past mistakes instead of merely trying to undo them. There is little to cause anyone to believe, however, that the Prince is actually doing so. Likewise, though bringing some of the other games' characters back was a nice touch, it is hardly believable. In fact, they become more redundant than anything else (especially Kaileena). This redundancy is further reinforced by the fact that dialogues and cutscenes are unskippable, so if segments have to be redone (I'm looking at you, Dark Prince segments), the player must endure the same lines way too many times. Furthermore, without giving too much away, the story's ending is like the ultimate slap in the face. Though not quite as insulting as the endings of other sequels (Knights of the Old Republic II, you know what I'm talking about), The Two Thrones's ending is both cheap and a final testament to the game's overall redundancy.
The Bottom Line
The numerous flaws of The Two Thrones by no means make it a bad game -- far from it. It is merely a disappointing and ultimately redundant one in comparison to its progenitor, The Sands of Time. For many fans of the Prince of Persia series, Ubisoft's decision to rewind the series back to its roots after the badly-received Warrior Within was excellent news, but perhaps brought with it impossible expectations. Then again, maybe Ubisoft was simply unwilling to do the same kind of self-reflection that the Prince is supposedly doing during the game itself, refusing to admit that The Warrior Within was (for most fans of the original) a huge mistake. They instead tried to rewind the series back enough to keep some elements of the second game while being as close to the first as possible. In so doing, they truly did emphasize the duality of two thrones: that of The Sands of Time's Contender (for "Game of the Year" awards from numerous gaming publications), and that of The Two Thrones's Pretender (for trying to be the original, but failing).
by prymusferal (23) on October 3rd, 2008