By dankempster 15 Comments
I've just finished playing Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. It's a game that I have quite a bit of history with, and a torrid one at that. I initially played the game back in 2005, when I received it along with several other games after buying a friend's original Xbox. I don't remember what my problem with the game was, but it didn't endear itself to me and I must've traded it in not long after that. A year or so later, another friend was offloading some PS2 games and I took about ten off his hands. Among them was Warrior Within, along with the two other games in the Sands of Time trilogy. I began, logically, with the first game, and chose to pick up Warrior Within immediately afterwards. I can't remember if I became burned out on the platforming mechanics or simply got stuck, but I put the game down after a few hours and didn't bother to pick it back up. That is, until last week.
Returning to Warrior Within for the third time has been both a pleasure and a chore in almost equal measure. Every moment of sheer enjoyment in my fifteen hours with the game was offset by a moment of disbelief or frustration. Strangely enough, though, my main complaint the standard one levelled at the game - namely, the excessive levels of baditude piled onto the product. While I found it a little gimmicky after the Arabian Nights-esque presentation of The Sands of Time, it didn't have any impact on my enjoyment of the game itself. My beef with the game actually concerns its mechanic discord, for lack of a better term. Put in simpler terms, there are aspects of Warrior Within's technical and mechanical design that really seem to be at odds with each other. In many cases, what one mechanical choice does really right is offset by another choice that does something really wrong.
The most immediately obvious example of this mechanical discord establishes itself between the game's combat system and its handful of boss battles. For those not in the know, one of the primary complaints directed at The Sands of Time was that its combat mechanics were pretty simplistic, resulting in fights being more inconvenient than enjoyable. Warrior Within addresses this criticism with a much deeper combat system, incorporating dual-wielding as well as a number of grapples, throws, weapon-steals and acrobatic attacks. Pretty much all of these moves can be linked into each other, opening up a ton of potential combos for the Prince to unleash upon his foes. You might think these myriad possibilities would make for some interesting boss battles - perhaps some Zelda-style opportunities to exploit weak points using specific combos and open them up to attack. You'd be very wrong if you did. Save for a single evasive move which allows you to spring off an enemy's head, all those skills and permutations become null and void in the face of a boss. This reduced my boss tactics to 'slash a couple of times, back away from the counter-attack, wait for an opening, and slash again'. Add to this the fact that the damage done by bosses seems outrageously high, and you've got five very, very tedious boss encounters on your hands.
The other case of mechanical discord that bothered me was a lot less obvious, but much more infuriating. It's also pretty difficult to articulate. For lack of a better way of putting it, I found the parts of the game where I wasn't playing, were making me not want to play it. As anyone who's played a Prince of Persia game will know, a big draw for those games is the speed and fluidity of the game mechanics. The platforming is snappy and responsive, the combat is stylish and acrobatic, and if you should make a mistake and die, the time-rewinding mechanic allows you to quickly and painlessly pick up where you went wrong. Every single aspect of the gameplay seems focused on providing a fast, flowing, uninterrupted experience for the player. This makes it very jarring when everything not directly related to the gameplay takes twice as long as it should. It's evident from the moment the game launches - one after another, four animated logos fill the screen. Only one of these can be skipped (specifically the second one, which in itself is a pretty strange design choice), so every time I turned the game on I found myself enduring an unnecessarily long wait to actually play it. If you're unlucky enough to die without any sand tanks in reserve, the game will slowly fade to black, then present you with an animated 'Game Over' screen. The screen then fades to black again, and presents you with a second Game Over screen, this one giving you the option to choose between Retry or Quit. This whole process takes about twenty seconds, and is completely counterintuitive to the 'get-back-in-action-quickly' effect of rewinding time. Why not just make one Game Over screen, damn it? And while you're at it, make sure the game doesn't have to noticeably load it.
The most enervating example of this is encountered whenever you try to save your game. Have the Prince drink at a fountain and you'll be given the chance to save. 'Would you like to save your game to the Memory Card in Slot 1?', it asks. Given that drinking water is also a healing mechanic in Warrior Within, this is pretty understandable - it's perfectly feasible that somebody might want to drink from the fountain to restore their health bar, without actually saving the game. Answer in the affirmative and it'll present you with a list of save game slots to pick from. Select one and the seemingly amnesiac Warrior Within will double-check with you on your intention - 'Are you sure you would like to save your game to the Memory Card in Slot 1?'. You'd think your woes would end here, and if you're picking an empty save slot, you'd be right. If, however, you're electing to overwrite an already-existing save game (as I'm sure quite a substantial number of people playing a linear action/adventure game with no branching paths or choices would), you're in for one last triple-check before you can actually go through with it - 'Are you absolutely, positively, 100% sure you want to overwrite this game on the Memory Card in Slot 1?'. Saving your game in Warrior Within is not only time-consuming, it is almost physically painful.
The most annoying thing about these jarring conflicts between getting to play Warrior Within and actually playing it is that there's no excuse for their existence. It's clearly not a question of developer ability, for one. The level of polish and fluidity exhibited in the gameplay of Warrior Within is a testament to the developers at Ubisoft Montreal's ability to streamline aspects of games that might otherwise have been ungainly and awkward (compare Prince of Persia's platforming with that of its contemporary, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, to see what I mean). I don't believe it's a hardware issue, either. Plenty of PS2 games are able to very quickly dust the player off and throw them back into the action - if you die during the campaign of TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, for example, you're back at your last checkpoint in no more than a few seconds. With just a little more refinement, these menus could have been made at least less invasive, if not completely unobtrusive.
I can't remember if these issues were present in The Sands of Time, because It's been five years since I played it. I really hope they're not present in The Two Thrones, to the point where I'm actually reluctant to play it and find out. Perhaps I'm overreacting, coming across as overly pedantic because these aspects of the game don't actually reflect or impact upon the quality of the game itself (for what it's worth, the game part of Warrior Within is largely great). That may be true, but they do impact on the experience of actually playing the game, and in my eyes that's just as bad. To draw a comparison with the current generation, I'd say it's akin to building a great online multiplayer experience, but without the online infrastructure to back it up. If you keep getting disconnected because of problems on the server end, problems that shouldn't exist but do, then you're not going to want to come back regardless of how much fun actually playing the game is. That's how I felt every time I died or had to save in Warrior Within. Thanks very much for reading, guys, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Persona 3: FES (PS2)