Despite a boatload of critical praise—including numerous Game of the Year awards—Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a commercial disappointment. Why were gamers unwilling to plunk down $50 for one of the best platformers to come along in recent memory? Maybe because the game was released during a over-crowded fourth quarter holiday season, or because Ubisoft gave up on it too soon (before the start of 2005 the game could already be found brand-new for $20). It also wasn't a particularly violent game. Of all the possible reasons for the Prince's failure, Ubisoft has apparently decided that the last one—that the game wasn't violent enough—(which also is the least likely reason, in my estimation) is the very reason why the game languished on store shelves.
However, unlike Ubisoft's other critically acclaimed but criminally ignored fourth-quarter title Beyond Good and Evil, the Prince is getting another bite at the apple with the release of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Of course, critical acclaim is nice, but this title is far more interested in putting up big sales numbers, so naturally, the Prince of the original game (who reminded me of Aladdin from the Disney film) has aged and become a violent, one-liner-spewing, whirling dervish of death, all in the name of "maturity." The game industry continues to labor under the deluded notion that sex, scantily-clad women, and lots of blood and guts equates with being mature. It doesn't—anyone with an actual ounce of genuine maturity knows this—but that doesn't stop developers from taking a fine franchise and "tawdrying it up" in the process. Luckily, the changes to the game are mostly cosmetic. Underneath the new veneer of severed heads, boobs that defy the laws of physics, and countless lame Godsmack songs is the sublime platforming that made the first title so wonderful.
Taking place several years after the events in The Sands of Time, Warrior Within finds the Prince a little older, a lot more haggard, and not in the best of moods. It seems that destroying the Sands of Time has allowed the Prince to cheat his own death, and as such, he's messed up the world's timeline in the process. To set things back to where they're supposed to be, he's hunted endlessly by the Dahaka, a giant minotaur-esque beast that will stop at nothing to see the Prince dead. Weary from the chase, the Prince sets out for the Island of Time. If he can stop the Sands of Time from ever being created, then maybe he can get the Dahaka off his back once and for all.
Narratively, the new tale is a lot more ambitious than the one on display in the previous game. At least Ubisoft deserves credit for trying to create a game-sensitive context for the Prince's new personality instead of just giving gamers the new edgier Prince just for the hell of it. Unfortunately, the new Prince and his new attitude just seem wrong. "Weary" I can buy, but the angry guy swearing and shouting one-liners just seems fake. "Edgy" is the new status quo in games it seems—having an antihero is almost preferable to having a legitimate hero—but the Prince has always been a hero (dating back to the dawn of this franchise all those games ago), and the change seems forced and unnatural. Watching the new Prince is sort of like watching Hugh Grant try to be Snoop Dogg; he might get the mannerisms and the "my nizzles" right, but everyone can still tell it's a sham.
Luckily, once you get past all this "window dressing," the game proper is just as solid as its predecessor. All of the Prince's old moves are here—the wall running, the time manipulation, etc.—mixed in with a new fighting engine (that still retains enough of the feel of the first game to be familiar to anyone who's played Sands of Time) The new engine makes battling slightly less tedious than it was the first time around. Add in some boss fights—which were sorely missing in the first game—and players can see that not all of the changes are superficial, or for the worse.
What's most different from a gameplay perspective is the game's new open-ended approach. Sands of Time was a relatively linear affair that asked players to get from point A to point B. Warrior Within is far more free-form in its execution, allowing players to decide their own course of action in achieving the game's main goals. Because of this, Warrior Within can be confounding at points; there's a lot of backtracking involved, and by the time gamers reach the final showdown, they'll have traversed some areas of the Island of Time no less than four times. It's a real testament to how solid the gameplay is that this never becomes tedious.
The platforming of Warrior Within is a thing of beauty. Elaborately crafted rooms are filled with nooks and crannies that allow the Prince to reach areas seemingly far beyond his grasp when he enters. Finding the right path is akin to solving a puzzle—jumping from one ledge to another is often an exhilarating leap of faith made all the more exciting when it actually works. Unlike the first game, which tended to hold players' hands by showing them a psychic vision with hints about how to get through an area, Warrior Within plops me into a room and lets me figure things out on my own.
Adding an extra dimension to this are the numerous time portals littered throughout the island. To get through some areas or solve some puzzles, the Prince will have to switch time periods and travel through an area in a different time period. In the past, the island's fortress is a lavish and fully functional deathtrap. In the present, it's a crumbling ruin with its own hidden dangers. This serves to make a lot of backtracking more tolerable, since players will be doing it in different time periods. There are enough differences in the locations between the past and the present to make each area feel unique, despite being the same room.
If the game's greatest strength is its platforming, then its Achilles heel is still the fighting. The platforming elements don't quite have the same urgency they did in the previous game (which was probably a blessing for old men like me) but they're still marvelously executed. This makes it all the more discouraging that they so often take a backseat to the tedious combat system. There's a fair amount of fighting involved in Warrior Within, and while the new combat system is an improvement, it's still not enough to make the fighting fun. Dual wielding feels gimmicky, particularly since the offhand weapon breaks with a frightening amount of regularity, and mastering two or three basic combos will still get players through the entire game unscathed. Yes, there may be dozens of combos at the player's disposal, but most of them aren't any more effective than a few standard attacks.
Because the game features so much combat, the fact that it's about 50% longer than the first game is something of a mixed blessing. Had Ubisoft filled that time with more platforming goodness, I'd be adding another point to the final score. But since so much of this time is spent fighting enemies—and many of them are cheap respawns while the player backtracks through areas—it's hard to feel that added playtime was utilized in the best way possible.
If nothing else, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within proves that good gameplay always trumps bad style choices. The new edgy Prince isn't a particularly good character, and the inclusion of Godsmack on the soundtrack is one that I could have lived without, but neither diminishes the fact that Warrior Within is a very good platformer. When I stood at the top of a room, after navigating a seemingly endless array of crumbling ledges, spinning traps, and hidden pathways, I couldn't help but feel a genuine sense of accomplishment—and a sense of respect for the people who've created such a stately game world.