Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Review by Steerpike
February 2006

Thanks, Marcus!

My elder brother first became an FFC supporting character in my PoP: Warrior Within review. To this day, he insists he got a bum rap in that piece, so I'll endeavor to highlight his many excellent traits this time around. Though he got all the really good genes out of Mom and Dad before I had a shot at them, he's otherwise a kind, generous and munificent soul; he turned me on to PoP: The Sands of Time way back in the day. Knowing our shared love of the Prince of Persia franchise resurrection, he Santa-Claused me this newest installment.

The short version is that Ubisoft has continued its storied tradition of doing nearly everything wrong yet somehow managing to produce a great game. Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones is awesome. And it's that way despite several very bad qualities: it was written by drudges only marginally more adept than those who penned Warrior Within. Developed by hacks who think frantic races through narrow streets on unsteerable chariots for twenty minutes with no save points is clever. Acted by hammy caricatures who would be funny (in an "I can't stop crying" sort of way) if they all weren't so obviously trying to be serious.

But it does solve many of Warrior Within's problems while keeping all of that game's positive qualities, so it's an easy tie for second place with its immediate predecessor but still not as good as the original. It is also supposedly the last of the Prince of Persia games, or at least the end of the trilogy. This series has existed since the early 1990s, when Jordan Mechner of Broderbund first entranced the world with the acrobatic Prince. Given that the new franchise has sold nearly eight million units across five platforms, well ... I'm skeptical about its demise.

Technical notes: I played through on the PC with a mouse and keyboard, as I have done with all of the PoP games. Also, I've got the European import of Two Thrones, and that version at least is StarForce-protected, so consider yourself warned. At the same time, consider yourself resigned; StarForce is here to stay. 2006 will be its breakout year, with nearly every major title from Europe—and plenty from America—protected by this much-maligned but now ubiquitous system. If you wish to continue boycotting StarForce, you have my sympathy, but get ready to miss a lot of games.

Awful Things Happen to Wizards Who Meddle with Time, Harry

Let's recap the story so far. The Prince of Persia's adventures began when he stole a magic dagger from an Indian palace, a dagger that turned time itself into Play-Doh in his hands, to be reworked and altered as he saw fit. Shortly thereafter, an evil Vizier tricked him into unleashing the deadly Sands of Time, which totally ruined the big party he was attending. The Prince and Farah—the daughter of the dude from whom he stole the dagger—bickered their way through an enemy-infested palace, fell in love, and contained the Sands. In an effort to undo his monumental screw-up, the Prince then rewound time all the way back to before he stole the dagger, so essentially none of it ever happened. He also killed the Vizier on general principles. Then he went home. That was PoP: The Sands of Time.

At home, the Prince discovered that you're not allowed to mess with time unless you own it. A creature called the Dahaka chased him for seven years, during which he stopped being a nice, if somewhat pompous, young man and turned into a gothy asshole. They'd have us believe that his transformation was the result of stress caused by the Dahaka's pursuit; the truth is that vocabulary-challenged morons replaced the extraordinary writers of Sands of Time in the first of Ubi's many blunders associated with this franchise. The reimagined Prince traveled to the source of all time to stop the creation of the Sands, on the inimitable logic that without them he couldn't have messed up time in the first place. After appeasing the Dahaka, he convinced Kaileena, the Empress of Time, to quit her job due to the lousy benefits package and return to Babylon with him. Then he went home. That was PoP: Warrior Within.

And so begins The Two Thrones. Because he's a jackass now, it didn't occur to the Prince that if he stopped the creation of the Sands, everything involving them would be undone. That means the Vizier who caused the trouble in Sands of Time is no longer dead, and he's still just as evil since all viziers are evil. (Seriously. Watch Aladdin.) The Prince returns to find Babylon in ruins, shattered by the Vizier's army. They take Kaileena prisoner, and the Vizier—who somehow got his hands on the Prince's old dagger—performs an arcane ritual to recreate the Sands of Time and achieve his long-term goal of turning yellow and becoming immortal. The good news is that he drops the dagger, so the Prince grabs it and can once again manipulate time, because that's gone so well for him in the past.

Around this point, the Prince suffers what I can only describe as an excruciatingly painful-looking injury to his left arm. Some Sand gets into that wound when the Vizier performs his ritual, and suddenly the Prince has a new problem: at the worst possible moments, he transforms into a demonic killing machine with a spiny whip and a distinctly sarcastic attitude. This Dark Prince is a manifestation of ... well, a lot of things, and the Vanilla Prince must work hard to come to terms with his new alter ego as he seeks to defeat the Vizier again.

The Dark Prince reminds me of SHODAN from the System Shock games. Like SHODAN, he is with you all the time-mocking you, tormenting you, driving you to commit evil ... yet seeming to care for you deeply. Though he is ultimately a villain, the Dark Prince's wry sense of humor and obvious fondness for his host make him one of the most interesting characters in the game. He's also one of the only good actors. You spend just a fraction of your time as this character, but his running monologue in the Prince's head is one of the chief storytelling tools.

Perhaps the most semi-welcome addition to The Two Thrones is the return of Farah, the Prince's on-and-off girlfriend from Sands. The Mongoloids who wrote Warrior Within cut her out of the narrative, but now she's back. She has no memory of the Prince, of course, since they've never met on account of his compulsive editing of the timeline. Sadly, this means that she's as much of a bitch as when we first met her. The new writers just weren't capable of making her bitchiness endearing like the old ones did. And they replaced the subtle and talented actress who voiced Farah in the first game, so her constant venom isn't as touching as it was in Sands. It also doesn't help that most of her dialogue is cripplingly bad, though I will grant that the very few truly well-written, well-acted scenes in this game involve the pair's bumbling sexual tension while the Dark Prince chuckles in the background.

The Prince's fundamental flaw has always been rooted in his hubris. It manifests as a nearly pathological obsession with gaining his father's approval, which is sad because it's always been obvious that his father is ridiculously proud of him. It's the hubris that drives the Prince to try to undo the mistakes of his past by rewinding time again and again until he gets it right. Unfortunately, every time he tries to fix something, ten new things break, and he's too arrogant to realize that he'd do better to leave well enough alone. Literally thousands of people have died, and the lives of thousands of others have been ruined, because of the Prince's compulsion to undo his garden of idiocies. The whole point of Prince of Persia is that there's something to be said for living with and learning from one's mistakes. This game's ending, which brings the entire series into a beautifully realized loop not dissimilar to the time paradoxes that have plagued the Prince since day one, is testament to that theme.

Ah, a Spike Trap. This Must Be the Living Room.

If you've never played a PoP game because you fear or hate jumping puzzles, don't worry. They're as natural here as they are unnatural in a shooter or an RPG; they have been the core of Prince of Persia since the original series. A few irritating segments aside, The Two Thrones is very well designed, challenging you with some absolutely beautiful and diabolical puzzles. Your progress through the game is dependent on your observational skills, your timing and your mastery of the Prince's spectacular acrobatic capabilities.

The Prince has added some new moves to his repertoire: he can brace himself between narrow gaps, angle-jump using shutters, stab his dagger into wall plates and a few other treats. As always, the animations are so stunning and lifelike that an observer would be convinced the game is playing itself. A talented player can fluidly execute the most astounding gymnastics with nothing more than good timing and a few clicks.

And you still have your Rip van Winkle mojo. The Prince's dagger can rewind, slow down and otherwise adjust the passage of time. The more Sand you have, the more you can do; you get it from enemies and various containers. I feel that they balanced the availability of Sand with the challenge level of the environment pretty effectively. On the more devious puzzles you're going to be rewinding a lot (and seriously, what's with these Babylonians? Haven't they heard of stairs? You wouldn't believe what the cook has to go through if he wants to deliver a hot chocolate from the kitchen to the throne room). Anyway, it's always vexing when you make an accidental mistake and lack the Sand to undo it. The Two Thrones is generous enough with Sand to dodge that frustration and tightfisted enough to keep it from being easy. This deserves a Gold Star in and of itself since game balance in a title like this is exceptionally difficult.

They also kept the dramatically upgraded combat system from Warrior Within. This sublimely elegant combo-driven style is an absolute joy, offering the best swordfighting of any game I've ever played. It is so much fun to be in fights in this game. But ...

... Only when you're the Vanilla Prince. The Dark Prince is armed with the Daggertail, a rather terrifying piece of elastic cutlery that would have been quite at home in The Passion. This makes him a real killing machine, and he's capable of combos just as fantastic as those of his twin. Unfortunately, the Dark Prince's health drains constantly. Only Sand can replenish it, which means that you're in such a hurry to kill your opponents and grab their Sand that you mostly just stand around spinning the Daggertail and waiting for them to stumble into it. Speed must take priority over elegance when you're the Dark Prince, and elegance is what the combat system in this game should be all about. Moreover, it's not very amusing to wrestle with a complex jumping puzzle when your health is falling like presidential approval ratings. You just don't have the time to stop, look around and consider your next move before you die, and very poorly spaced save points mean there'll be a lot of redoing.

The Vanilla Prince is now capable of performing speed kills against unaware enemies. If you can execute a series of impeccably timed clicks to oft-invisible onscreen cues, you'll quietly eviscerate an opponent without his friends noticing. But when I say "impeccably timed," I mean off-by-one-nanosecond-and-you're-meat-on-stick, so I rarely used them. The real trouble with speed kills is that they're necessary to defeat the game's handful of boss monsters, so these encounters become quite frustrating as you try and try again to get the timing right. This is especially true during the outrageously difficult final battle.

Another unwelcome addition is the two chariot races, in which you tear through the streets of Babylon, dodging various solid obstacles and hacking at opponents who fling themselves onto your vehicle. The controls for the chariots are useless, and the sequences go on too long. Ultimately, they feel tacked on, something that makes for a good press clipping but has no place in this game and wouldn't have been missed if removed.

Tempus Iudex Rerum

Time is the judge of all things, and though the Prince may be able to control it, it hasn't been kind to the series' technology. The fact is, this codebase is showing its age. It's still on the same engine as its two predecessors, with minimal graphic improvements. The hand-drawn animations do still look great, but the game engine, first used in 2003's Beyond Good & Evil and largely unchanged since then, cannot compete. Mitten hands, braids that stick through cleavage and corpselike visages are far more noticeable these days. They do make up for it with some stunningly rendered out-of-engine cutscenes.

Another thing that hurts is the lack of realistic physics. Physics are the new 3D; they are the next killer technology for gaming, and it's becoming increasingly unacceptable to publish a top-shelf game without them. This is, I would say, the last year that a studio game can ship without physics and not get torn a new one for the crime.

There is also good news on the tech front, though. It's stable and runs well even on medium-end systems. Heavy blooming reduces the obviousness of the graphic engine's shortcomings, and on the audio side they ditched the obnoxious thrash metal soundtrack from Warrior Within and replaced it with a very pleasing Middle Eastern–sounding score. They've also continued to tweak the control structure so it's easier than ever to move the Prince around, though the tutorial assumes you have a gamepad and doesn't dynamically change its instructions if you've remapped keys.

As mentioned above, they're saying that this is the swan song for the almost criminally successful Prince of Persia resurrection. If this is true, I applaud them; it is too easy for popular franchises like this to go the way of Tomb Raider, endlessly recycling the same game using increasingly decrepit technology. If they do choose to carry on the Prince brand, they're going to have to make some upgrades to the engine.

The Brother's Opinion

The Two Thrones gets a Gold Star for fun-ness and for fixing a lot of problems caused by Warrior Within. They had an interesting challenge here; Warrior Within was fun to play, but its storyline was ridiculously divorced from the PoP mythos. Some real ingenuity was necessary to fix the problem without pulling the old "it-was-all-a-dream" trick. How do you retain the substance of what happened in Warrior Within but undo the damage it caused the story arc?

Well, they did it by embracing their failures, much as the Prince learns to do. The Two Thrones is about redemption, about his recognition that he was a pompous, arrogant, bullying, insufferable tool and that his behavior was getting worse rather than better. His battle with the Dark Prince for control of himself allegorizes that, and his ultimate victory allows him to examine the schmuck he'd become in Warrior Within and recognize that it was wrong. In truth, the conflict with the Vizier is secondary to the war raging inside the Prince's soul.

It's surprising that writers who managed to dig themselves out of a plot snarl this deep would still produce such an appallingly bad script. Ludicrous dialogue and acting that approaches Vogon-poetry levels of horribleness almost ruin the whole thing. You don't restore a classic Corvette and then drive it through the mud, whether or not the vehicle would theoretically survive the trip.

My brother Marcus, a huge fan of video games, nonetheless has a fairly narrow and stern view of what they should be. He's suspicious of story in games (odd since he's a novelist, but still); he hates anything having to do with menus or inventories or movement from place to place or interaction with anything or character arcs or game systems or plot dilemmas or stats or skills or managing tasks or talking to NPCs or bartering or remembering stuff or anything like that. His idea of Hell is being forced to play Morrowind. Honestly, I'm often surprised he doesn't live in a trash can and yell at the Cookie Monster. But he's a very bright guy, he knows what he likes, he has his finger on the pulse of these games, and he's a hell of a lot less wordy than I am.

To wit: his own review of The Two Thrones, emailed to me a couple weeks ago, sums it up better than I did in six pages of rambling: Glad you're enjoying PoP—I am too. The look is beautiful, and the level design is absolutely inspired. If only they'd hired a copywriter ...

If only. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: December 2005

Available for: Game Cube Windows Xbox PlayStation 2

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System Requirements

Windows 2000/XP (only)
1 GHz processor (1.5 GHz recommended)
256 MB (512 MB recommended)
DirectX 9.0c compliant graphics card
DirectX 9.0c compliant sound card
DirectX 9.0c or higher (included on disc)
16x CD-ROM or 4x DVD-ROM drive
1.5 GB minimum free hard drive space
Windows-compatible gamepad supported

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.