Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Only a year after Warrior Within, Ubisoft completed the Sands of Time trilogy of the Prince of Persia series with the third installment, The Two Thrones. Although it shares the same director as the previous installment, The Two Thrones notably saw a shift back towards the style of the first game, The Sands of Time, and was met with positive reviews on release. Considering the general improvements made to the experience, this praise feels deserved. That said, it does feel like a compromise between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, for better or worse.

Immediately following the events of Warrior Within, the Prince and Kaileena arrive in Babylon, only to find the city ravaged by war. After their boat crashes, the Prince chases after a kidnapped Kaileena, only to find that as a result of his actions on the Island of Time, the Vizier is now alive. The Vizier kills Kaileena with the Dagger of Time, creating the Sands of Time once more, and makes himself immortal. In the resulting blast, the Prince obtains the Dagger and a whip-like weapon, the Daggertail, is embedded in his skin, unleashing a darker side of him known as the Dark Prince. Now the Prince must physically and mentally wrestle with his darker half if he hopes to defeat the Vizier once and for all.

Where Warrior Within felt like an overly edgy story that, while interesting, didn’t have much substance, The Two Thrones has a lighter tone closer to The Sands of Time and feels much more satisfying. The Prince’s arc this time has him dealing with the consequences of creating a new timeline and struggling against the impulses of his darker side. There’s a narrator once again, this time Kaileena instead of the Prince, whose dialogue has generally great placement and doesn’t get in the way of anything else going on. This framing device concludes in a rather triumphant fashion right before the final boss and the very end of the game has a great callback to The Sands of Time. I also liked how the internal struggle between the Prince and the Dark Prince manifested itself in gameplay, including occasional advice from the Dark Prince, without relying too much on cutscenes. When you inevitably die during this game, you can now outright skip cutscenes you’ve already seen, as opposed to fast forwarding them like in Warrior Within, but only if you select Retry on death. Loading a save from the main menu will force you to rewatch any cutscenes you would have skipped.

The Two Thrones also returns to the linear connected world of The Sands of Time while retaining the combat system from Warrior Within. Though this does feel like a compromise between both gameplay styles, it does still put its own spins on platforming and combat.

While parkouring through Babylon, the Prince can now leap diagonally off shutters, stop in place or activate gears by stabbing plates and ascend or descend on chains or between two walls. He must also contend with new obstacles, including reimagined spike and saw traps and arrows that fire from the wall. The biggest addition, however, is the Speed Kill mechanic, which encourages stealth kills against patrolling enemies. Speed Kills aren’t too difficult to pull off, as the screen will distort when you can initiate one and you simply press the right button when the screen flashes until the target dies. If you do it right, you can even perform a double Speed Kill to take out two enemies at once. However, if you mess up one prompt during a Speed Kill, the Prince will enter combat against a potentially greater number of enemies.

Plates add a new element to parkour.

Combat is nearly identical to Warrior Within, with virtually the same combos and secondary weapon varieties, though secondary weapons now have a meter that better indicates their durability. Though Sand powers also return, there are only four of them, compared to six, and they’re simply renamed from the Warrior Within versions. I didn’t end up using the Sands as much as I did before, but they still came in handy from time to time.

In perhaps the biggest addition to the game, the Prince will occasionally transform into the Dark Prince, a physical manifestation of his inner darkness, and will only transform back when he touches water. As the Dark Prince, platforming is nearly the same as the Prince, but with the addition of bars and lights that require the Daggertail to safely swing across and continue a line of parkour. Like the Sandwraith form from Warrior Within, the Dark Prince’s health continually drops, but this time he can suddenly die and can only heal by retrieving Sand. In that sense, his health acts like a timer, which encourages some amount of speedrunning to stay alive. Combat as the Dark Prince also reduces him to combos with the Daggertail whip, as he can’t pick up or use secondary weapons (and the Prince will lose any secondary weapon he had as well). As such, the combat feels less like Prince of Persia and more like God of War, which released only a few months prior.

The Prince with occasionally transform into the Dark Prince.

With a lighter tone comes a lighter color palette, which compliments the improved graphics and simpler UI nicely. Each section of Bablyon looks distinct from one another and you really get the sense of a large city without feeling overwhelming in the slightest. However, I did notice the combat uses all of the same animations from Warrior Within, likely to save time on development, and I did see some framerate drops in a few places, but nothing that made the game unplayable. Yuri Lowenthal also returns as the Prince, bringing the Prince’s original personality with him, and has much better dialogue than in Warrior Within. In another throwback, the music is still a rock/middle-eastern fusion, but is less guitar heavy and has more of a fairy tale vibe than the previous effort.

Unfortunately, in the game’s welcome effort to feel closer to The Sands of Time, it also manages to recapture some of the flaws of that game while also introducing new ones. In the new Speed Kill mechanic, for instance, the timing can feel a little tight at times, not to mention the Dark Prince has a slightly different method (rapidly pressing the same button to initiate Speed Kills) that can throw you off after spending so much time as the Prince. While Health Upgrades are also much easier to find than in Warrior Within, you now have to drink from a golden fountain and then reach the light at the end of a trap-filled hallway. This mechanism isn’t a problem by itself, but later upgrades require precise timing or plenty of Sand to obtain.

The Two Thrones also has two sections where you ride a chariot through Babylon and fend off enemies that try to stop you. Both of these sections are annoying, as you must steer the chariot through tight turns and around or through obstacles that are hard to prepare for. Combined with the somewhat wide turn radius of the chariot, that means you’ll end up using a lot of Sand just to get through. It doesn’t help that the second chariot section leads directly into a tough boss fight against the Twin Warriors with an unintuitive solution. I was able to just barely get through the second chariot section and boss in one go, but only because I had found and maintained a secondary weapon that infinitely recharged the Sands in the Dagger of Time. Even then, however, it was still tedious and I had only a sliver of Health remaining.

Both chariot segments are annoying.

For whatever reason, despite the presence of subtitles in Warrior Within, The Two Thrones returns to their absence while also introducing odd audio mixing, as the audio in the pre-rendered cutscenes is lower than any of the in-game audio. Late in the game, a bit of dialogue got cut off in a specific interaction and I discovered that rewinding time during dialogue will not only cut it off, but prevent it from repeating. This meant that intentionally dying was the only way to have another chance at hearing the full dialogue. Also, on a lesser note, the final boss has an audio cue that sounds like someone gulping or slurping liquid.

In general, like Warrior Within, The Two Thrones is a little buggy. In the Royal Workshop, while interacting with a specific beam, the Prince somehow suddenly climbed on the space around the beam instead of beam itself, causing him to fall to his death. Later, during the Middle Tower, I encountered a movable block that got stuck during a puzzle and refused to move past a specific spot, forcing me to reload my save to advance. In the same section, I also noticed that the Prince went into a sneaking stance despite the enemies only occupying the floor above him. Another, more beneficial, glitch occurred during the climb in The Palace Entrance. I once failed a Speed Kill, but the enemy teleported to the empty space next to a ledge and stood on it as they pulled out their sword, then plummeted to their death, not unlike a Looney Tunes character.

The Two Thrones also has an oddly specific legacy outside of visual references to the Daggertail whip and Dark Prince tattoos in the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film. In late 2007, about two years after the game’s release, an episode of the NBC cop drama Life, S1E7 “A Civil War”, featured the game as part of a storyline where three Persian-Americans are victims of a hate crime. Within the span of just three minutes, however, they manage to completely misrepresent the game, including stating that rescuing Princess Farah is the main objective, implying the game is level-based instead of a connected linear world and displaying false in-game messages and a fake “Game Over” screen with the papyrus font, which The Two Thrones doesn’t use at any point. In that same period of time, Life also demonstrates a general lack of knowledge of gaming, like declaring that the original Xbox was a “hard drive with games on it” that can also run Windows Excel, and a stereotypical view of gamers as a whole. While this segment is truly embarrassing for all parties involved, I found it too interesting not to bring up.

While The Two Thrones is an improvement over Warrior Within in story and tone, it doesn’t quite recapture the same charm that made The Sands of Time so timeless and even repeats some of that game’s mistakes, however small. It’s easier to recommend this game to those who want to round out the Sands of Time trilogy. Otherwise, just be prepared to put up with some frustration.

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