Reviewed: April 24, 2007
Released: April 3, 2007
Our acrobatic, sword wielding, time manipulating, Persian prince makes his second trip to the PSP in Prince of Persia: Rival Swords, a re-titled and slightly enhanced port of a game console owners might know better as “The Two Thrones”.
The first game, “Warrior Within” was plagued with problems and technical glitches, but this time around Ubisoft gets it right, for the most part. While there are a few inherent control issues that come from taking a console game to the PSP, Rival Swords manages to remain fun, playable, and totally challenging. Throw in some exclusive multiplayer options, new maps, new chariot races, and expanded storyline, and even those who have already played “The Two Thrones” might be tempted to revisit Babylon and save the princess.
Rival Swords starts off with the same story we saw on the console. Upon returning to Babylon, the Prince realizes he has pulled a Marty McFly and my messing with time in the previous games has royally screwed up the present timeline. The city is under siege and in the battle his ship is blown out of the water, Kaileena is washed ashore then dragged away by soldiers and you are left with a fairly substantial series of missions that will take you through, into, and below the city.
Despite the smaller format, Rival Swords comes across nicely on the PSP with the same excellent level design, intense combat, and vertigo inducing acrobatics. The Prince can leap, swing, balance, and even run along walls to traverse chasms, avoid traps, and even combo these moves into some fluid special attacks.
Combat is slick but does get repetitive after you have slain random guard #200. You have your dagger attack, secondary weapon attack (if you have a secondary weapon), and you can even throw that secondary weapon for a nice range attack. There is also a stealth attack you can use to execute a Speed Kill, a nice slow motion, one-hit fatality.
The biggest change to gameplay comes a few hours into the action when the Prince turns into a dark version of himself, complete with a few new fancy attacks that revolved around his deadly new whip weapon. Both versions of the Prince are instructed by the somewhat haunting voice of the Empress of Time. It gets even creepier when the Prince starts talking back. She provides the in-game tutorial that seems to last for hours, but it just takes that long to introduce you to the new moves and new Prince.
The Dark Prince, while visually stunning to watch, and quite formidable with his deadly whip, suffers from a vampiric health system that is fueled by your sand capsules. This mean that using any time functions detracts from your health and taking damage depletes your ability to manipulate time. Call it what you will, but I call it an "embedded timer" that forces you to rush through the game, or at least the levels that feature the Dark Prince, hacking as many enemies as quickly as possible then smashing every urn and basket to find more sand when you run out of enemies.
I don’t mind the occasional timed sequence, challenge, or puzzle, but making a huge portion of the game dependent on your ability to collect a continuous quantity of sand just isn’t fun to me, especially when I ended up dying more due to lack of sand than taking any real damage. To make matters worse, you cannot shift between the two Princes at will, so it’s not like you can opt out of the vampire mode when it no longer suits you.
Rival Swords seems to have separated the combat from the action sequences, bringing it back to the series roots. You now get to plan and execute acrobatic combos to traverse the level then engage in a few melees – rinse and repeat.
The new Freeform Fighting mode allows you to create impressive combat moves and chain them together, even working with the environment and any usable objects, to string together amazing combos. The directional target system allows you to pummel on one target and with a flick of the stick do a backward thrust into somebody sneaking up behind you. And since you are very often outnumbered, mastery of this system is mandatory.
The Speed Kill system has also been integrated into the environments so you can now execute these stealth attacks while dropping in from above or even launching off a wall jump. Getting the timing down for these seems to be a bit trickier than when you start from a stealth approach.
That nasty whip also allows the Dark Prince to live out his Indiana Jones fantasies by whipping and swinging across large chasms. The swing mechanics work pretty well, perhaps a bit too easy, as I found it no more challenging to do this than to perform the standard gymnast swings with the regular prince.
Everyone including the back of the box is quick to boast about the chariot racing, but this is not Ben Hur by any stretch of the imagination. Frankly, I found the entire experience and its execution very contrived and pointless. The races are linear enough to be considered on rails, only giving you the option to change lanes, usually to escape an incoming attacker or hopefully, smash him into a wall. And don’t even get me started on the impossibilities of jumping a team of horses Dukes of Hazzard style with a chariot in tow.
My biggest beef with the game is the save system and soft checkpoints. You can save your game at any of the hundreds of official watering holes in the game, although any other sources of water including green sewage will refill your health meter. The game also soft-checks itself periodically, but you never know when until you die and groan, “I have to play all that over…”
It gets pretty bad about 4-5 hours into the game where you have to perform a serious 5-minute acrobatic action sequence across rooftops and balconies to even get to a mini-boss fight. This includes taking out no less than six enemies along the way then facing three sand portal guards who can summon infinite reinforcements if you don’t dispatch them quickly enough. Oh, did I mention you have to do all this on a single health bar? Even rewinding failed attempts only buys you a few retries.
One new change to Rival Swords is the sand portals. On the console you had to destroy these, but on the PSP you actual enter them to find more challenging and exclusive gameplay waiting on the other side. You’ll even get some additional story elements for your trouble.
Of course the biggest change is the control system. Prince of Persia is relies heavily on a dual stick control scheme – something the PSP cannot do by design, so to move the prince you use the analog pad and to move the camera you hold down the left shoulder button and move the analog pad. This means you can never move the camera while moving the prince and this presents more than a few problems. Thankfully, the camera system does a surprisingly good job of maintaining a playable view, so manual tweaks are infrequent.
Despite suffering from a limited color pallet and some downsized textures, and even a few hiccups in framerate, Rival Swords is a visually stunning game with some of the most ingenious levels ever design, even if they were created with the sole intention of testing the abilities of the Prince rather than for their architectural significance. About every two minutes during the game you will be asking yourself, “can anybody but the Prince get through this room?”
The character design and models are exquisite and the animation for old and new moves alike flow together in seamless precision creating action sequences that would raise the eyebrows of Jet Li or Jackie Chan.
The camera is still automatic although you do get the scripted opportunities to hit D-pad Up and get the panoramic view. The reverse angles on the Speed Kills focus just enough on the weapon so you can master the timing, all the while giving you some great action views without taking you out of the moment.
The voice acting is just as good as always with a great reading by the Prince, and the haunting disembodied voice of the Empress of Time continually motivates and instructs. Even his dark alter ego manages to muster up a convincingly sinister attitude.
The music is an odd mix of traditional background music blended with high energy rock, but for the most part the score is quite epic and cinematic with plenty of Persian flavor and authentic instruments. It slips into the background then shifts into high gear for the bigger battles.
There are all sorts of environmental effects, wind, fire, water, and excellent use of reverb when you are exploring those cavernous interior levels. A good set of headphones will allow you to experience excellent directional sound that alerts you to enemies even if you cannot see them.
Depending on your skill level Rival Swords can take you anywhere from 10 to 20 hours. Realistically, this is a 10-12 hour game, but the aforementioned checkpoints and brutal boss and sub-boss fights can create a lot of annoying and repetitious replay.
The story is linear and probably not worth revisiting anytime soon after you beat it the first time. It would have been nice to explore two possible endings with either of the Princes, but given the almost broken nature of the Dark Prince’s gameplay, it’s a good thing we don’t have to play him any longer than we do.
The Chariot Races and new multiplayer modes are a nice attempt to add some extended value, but with no GameSharing or Internet play you are forced to rely on knowing somebody else with their own copy of the game.
Having already played The Two Thrones, I pretty much knew what to expect going into Prince of Persia: Rival Swords, at least as far as content, story, and gameplay. I was anticipating control issues due to the lack of a second analog stick but they weren’t as bad as I had imagined. In all, this is a fairly solid handheld port of the console version.
Hopefully, for future installments, Ubisoft will focus on the core elements that made Sands of Time the best game in the series and stop trying to reinvent or clutter the gameplay with unnecessary hooks and gimmicks.