Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

One year after the success of The Sands of Time had revitalized the Prince of Persia brand, Ubisoft released a sequel, Warrior Within. While it did receive generally positive reception, it notably had no involvement from Jordan Mechner, who didn’t like the darker direction the studio had taken the game compared to The Sands of Time. After finally playing Warrior Within for myself, I can see why.

Seven years after The Sands of Time, the Prince finds himself relentlessly pursued by a being known as the Dahaka. The Prince learns from an old man that he was meant to die from releasing the Sands of Time, but since he didn’t, the Dahaka will ensure he meets his intended fate. He is then told of the Island of Time, where the Empress of Time created the sands, which gives him the idea of killing the Empress, erasing the Sands and the Dahaka from history. The Prince sets sail for the island, but crashes onto its shores after a fight with a mysterious woman in black, Shahdee.

Defying fate lies at the core of Warrior Within’s story, but this game handles that theme in a darker and somewhat more complex way than The Sands of Time. Defying his original fate summoned the Dahaka and put the Prince in this situation and now he hopes that defying fate once more will end his suffering. Though the Prince now has a jarringly different personality, he still goes through an interesting character arc where he figures out a better way to accomplish his goal, though it clashes with the goal of another woman, Kaileena, who won’t listen to him. Depending on whether or not the player meets specific requirements, the story has two different endings, one of which continues directly into the follow-up game, The Two Thrones.

Warrior Within plays pretty similarly to The Sands of Time, which creates a good sense of familiarity and unity between installments even when it introduces its own twists. For instance, you can still heal by drinking water in the environment, but now fountains that heal you double as save points, streamlining the process. Platforming also functions in much the same way, but now combines more elements together, including more complex trap combinations, and introduces curtains to easily descend from walls or reach lower platforms. I also greatly appreciated the more lenient wall jump timing, a welcome quality of life change that effectively removes the frustrations I had with it before, as well as the generally snappier movements and time effects.

The Prince can now descend with curtains.

Compared to its predecessor, Warrior Within feels more combat heavy, with a noticeable increase in enemy encounters and boss fights, along with a deeper combat system. There’s even a difficulty select, which, as far as I can tell, alters damage dealt and received. Elements of the free flow system from The Sands of Time are still there, but now the Prince can dual-wield with primary and secondary weapons and perform combos for different results, typically ending in a gory decaptiation. Not only does the presence or lack of a secondary weapon affect combos, but individual weapon types as well, between axes, maces, swords and daggers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can even steal or throw weapons from enemies or weapon racks, allowing flexibility in finding your playstyle or switching weapons as needed. It’s worth noting, however, that secondary weapons deteriorate with each hit, meaning that you’ll switch back to a single weapon style until you find another weapon. If you know where to look, you can find hidden secondary weapons that won’t break and provide their own unique advantages, but you will lose them on death. While vaulting is still a viable strategy, it’s no longer as guaranteed a victory as before, so you have to mix up your strategy to stay alive.

All of the Prince’s sand powers return, but he now has a new power meant for crowd control, an explosion of sand that knocks back enemies and deals damage. The Sand Tank system has also received an overhaul. All sand powers use up a number of Sand Tanks, of which you start with three and gradually go up to a maximum of six. However, sand is now harder to retrieve, with a lack of sand clouds and a lower drop rate from enemies, though the Prince can now break certain objects for a chance at additional sand.

Where The Sands of Time was a pretty linear affair, Warrior Within takes place on one non-linear island, with many nooks and crannies filled with hidden secondary weapons and paths to valuable life upgrades. Collecting all nine life upgrades not only give you and edge during the final boss fight, but also allows access to the canon ending, which I found well worth the effort. Your platforming skills are greatly put to the test thanks to the increased number of environmental puzzles and the ability to travel between the Past and Present timelines through mystical sand portals. While in the Present, the Dahaka will occasionally show up and chase the Prince in increasingly tense and lengthy sequences, testing how well you can think on your feet and speedrun through various obstacles and over numerous bottomless pits. In an interesting attention to detail, traps will also function perfectly in the Past and act more run-down in the Present.

The Dahaka will occasionally chase the Prince.

Perhaps due in part to the one-year gap between releases, Warrior Within has improved graphics over the previous game, with more detailed character models and environments that all stand out from one another, enough so that the Past and Present feel distinct. Fittingly for a darker story, the game features a darker, moodier color palette and dimmer lighting, along with blood (that you can toggle in the menu) and enemy decapitations. Both the menus and the UI also look busier, but are still easy to navigate. This darker tone extends to the audio as well, with a more guitar-heavy metal/middle-eastern hybrid and two Godsmack songs that play at different points; Dahaka chase sequences use an instrumental version of “I Stand Alone” and “Straight Out of Line” plays over the credits. Robin Atkin Downes also replaces Yuri Lowenthal as the Prince, which felt like a fitting choice regardless of personal preference.

In spite of the technical improvements between installments, however, a few things stuck out to me during my playthrough that reminded me of why I liked The Sands of Time as much as I did. Starting with the story, Warrior Within has an increased reliance on cutscenes, even in the middle of boss fights, as opposed to telling some of its story through gameplay. As a result, the narrative feels less connected, especially with the lack of another character the Prince can interact with. It doesn’t help that Shahdee, one of only two other named human characters, doesn’t serve much of a purpose outside of capsizing the Prince’s ship and speeding up his trip to the Island of Time. On the bright side, however, you can at least fast forward, but not skip, cutscenes you’ve already viewed once on your playthrough.

Throughout my playthrough, I noticed an inconsistent difficulty curve. Even on Easy, enemies can take longer to kill than they really should and the Prince can take cheap shots no matter what he does during combat, even in the middle of vaulting animations. One particularly annoying standout occurred during Shahdee’s second encounter, where she can kick the Prince all the way across the arena with no warning. While the Prince can maneuver a lot during combat, I found myself accidentally vaulting over an edge every so often, as the Prince’s trajectory would change if he landed on a wall at any point, not helped by the narrower fighting spaces. Boss fights also felt mostly defensive and reactive, as charging in at full steam would more often than not result in taking a lot of damage.

Warrior Within also boasts a longer playtime, around 10-15 hours on average, but that time includes a lot of backtracking through the same environments, just with a different motivation. It seemed like I had to go through most environments at least two or three times each, not counting moments where I had to backtrack for missing Life Upgrades. Interestingly, for as much combat as it has, there are many points where you can actually skip past enemy encounters, as they aren’t completely necessary for progressing through different areas.

The map is also very unhelpful.

I also can’t ignore that Warrior Within is a pretty glitchy game, with reported softlocks and crashes across multiple platforms. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any of the bigger bugs, but that didn’t stop any from popping up. One section towards the end of the game had a noticeable framerate drop, almost turning into a slideshow, due to drawing somewhat thick fog and multiple enemies on screen at the same time. I also noticed that some in-game dialogue got cut off early and, during the final stretch, the audio was out of sync with the cutscenes. Additionally, some music seemed tied to a location instead of an event, so some boss music would play even if the assigned enemy wasn’t there. This also applies to the visual filter that signals the Dahaka, which permanently showed up in one specific spot despite the lack of a chase sequence.

While some other bugs were more minor, including one environment texture flickering at a certain angle or finding two floating red dots in a spot where an enemy would have previously spawned, others more directly affected my enjoyment of the game. Most of these involved some kind of teleporting. I once teleported up a small wall while scaling it and whenever the Prince would throw an enemy to the ground but collide with a wall, he and the enemy would continue teleporting forward or to the side until the animation(s) could finish in an open area. Should the Prince vault backwards and land on an enemy, the game solves this by teleporting him backwards onto solid ground, which also messes up any attacks the Prince has initiated. During the second fight with Shahdee, I once saw her skewering and throwing animation affect the Prince despite her rolling a few feet away. You can also phase through certain objects, like a fully extended wall trap in my case, though I admit this one might be positive depending on the situation.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with this game, however, is the presentation. Warrior Within boasts an M-rating, but some creative decisions make this feel forced by the developers. The Prince is very brooding and his dialogue has more swearing, not to mention his bloodthirsty combat barks and generally unlikable nature. The presence of blood and a darker metal soundtrack, while good, contribute to the feeling of trying to be edgy for the sake of it. As icing on the cake, Shahdee and Kaileena’s outfits are pretty revealing, but seem designed for the sake of having “sexual themes” in the ratings box. I’m normally not one to complain about revealing outfits, but their designs seem a little overboard, especially Shahdee, who leaves almost nothing to the imagination and even wears what looks like a metal thong to boot. I feel like if Warrior Within were dialed back to a T-rating, it could still tell the exact same story and even have a darker atmosphere, just without coming off as excessively edgy.

Warrior Within does improve in some areas over The Sands of Time, but in an effort to feel “mature”, it loses much of the charm and emotional storytelling that made the original so timeless. I could easily recommend this installment for the gameplay alone, but you’ll have to put up with a lot of backtracking and annoying bugs. As for the edgy tone, your mileage may vary.

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