Reviewed: Decvember 20, 2005
Released: November 30, 2005
Everyone’s favorite Prince if back for his six big adventure, although unless you are as old as me, many of you may only be familiar with the last three. The Prince got a next-gen facelift in 2003 with Sands of Time, taking the gaming world by storm with some amazing 3D action gameplay and fancy time manipulation that would make Neo “matrix-green” with envy. Thirteen months later the obligatory sequel, Warrior Within arrived, still loaded with action, but not quite living up to the original.
And now we have Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Ubisoft’s attempt to redeem the series and energize it with the flavor and purity that was lacking from their last effort. And while the designers have managed to throw in a few killer elements, The Two Thrones regrettably complicates issues with a clichéd duality role put upon the prince, painful timed gameplay elements, and an unforgiving checkpoint and save system that will discourage all but the most loyal Prince fans.
The game starts off well enough with an epic opening movie that has the Prince and the Empress Kaileena approaching Babylon, but apparently his tamperings with the timeline have creates some hostile situations back home. The city is already under attack and in moments their ship is sunk, the Empress kidnapped, and the Prince washed ashore.
As you might expect The Two Thrones comes with plenty of new action moves and attacks, but these all seem to be designed to facilitate outlandish puzzles and action sequences rather than giving the gamer extra options for choosing their path through the game. Let’s face it, if you were exploring Babylon with last year’s moves you wouldn’t get very far.
Case in point, the new diagonal wall jump, that allows the Prince to spring from a wall run at a 45-degree angle to land on a ledge or even initiate an attack if an enemy is nearby. These can only be done when you see a specific wedge protruding from the wall but other than helping the Prince to make this jump, that wedge serves no artistic or architectural purpose.
Also new to the series is the sneaking and Speed Kill system. Basically, you go into stealth mode and sneak behind an enemy. When you are close enough the screen will get a sepia filter and you will hear a heartbeat at which time you can hit Y to initiate the next sequence. Now the camera changes angles and you have to watch for a glint off the Princes sword or dagger and press the X button just at the right time, once, twice or maybe more depending on the strength of the enemy.
If you are successful the target will go down in incredible cinematic style and nobody nearby will be the wiser. If you fail, the target will counter your attack and fling you aside and you will have to fight normally.
The previous Prince game allowed you to explore intricate levels in two time periods, while The Two Thrones chooses to explore two variations on the Prince himself. 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.
The gameplay pretty much unfolds as the previous games, although the Two Thrones 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.
Despite suffering from a limited color pallet The Two Thrones 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 the White button 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, once again features a few out-of-place rock and roll tunes, 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 and 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. The Dolby Digital mix offers some excellent direction sound that alerts you to enemies even if you cannot see them.
Depending on your skill level The Two Thrones 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.
While most of this review has been picking apart this game, it’s only because I am a huge Prince of Persia fan going on almost 17 years now. I was expecting so much more from this title, but the most Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones can manage to deliver is a few new acrobatic and combat moves and a Dark Prince that looks cool but that’s about it.
Newness aside, what remains is a solid adventure game rife with puzzles and combat, and they even manage to work in a good story. If you were to strip away the Dark Prince and the chariot races (arguably the two elements being hyped by the publisher) you’d have a really great game here.
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.