So Close, Yet So Far
I miss Ico. Well that’s not entirely accurate. I suppose I could go back and play it at any time. In fact, I’ve tried to do just that. I guess what I mean to say is I miss the sense of wonderment and discovery I experienced playing through Ico for the first time. There are a number of reasons to love Ico, but chief among them is its reliance on environmental puzzles as a gameplay mechanic. Trying to pick your way throw an enormous and foreboding castle, figuring out how to get from one room to the next is an extremely rewarding gameplay experience, if you’re willing to hang up the ubiquitous blood and sex for a moment.
Ico owed a large debt to the Prince of Persia franchise with respect to two particular qualities long associated with Prince of Persia: its use of environmental puzzles and its outstanding animation. Although Prince of Persia puzzles have historically been focused on traps such as spike pits and running buzzsaws as opposed to intricately designed locking mechanisms, both games represent a cerebral take on the adventure genre.
It seems only fitting, then, that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (the first Prince of Persia title to be released in this console generation) should seek to act on lessons learned from Ico. Certainly, there were still buzzsaws and spike pits. But Ico puzzles were never about actually being able to pull off the moves. There was little platformer-like timing elements to take into account. It was much more about how to progress in the first place. This quality was baked into The Sands of Time, and, along with a mechanic that allowed for rewinding of time up to 10 seconds, it made the game an outstanding entry to the series.
Although Sands brought forth a number of new gameplay ideas to the adventure genre, its Middle Eastern themes bordered on the most broad characterizations and stereotypes. To be fair, it was not really within the scope of the story of the game to address these sorts of issues, and, at the very least, there was consistency throughout the presentation. From the fairytale narrative to the use of Middle Eastern instrumentation, the game succeeded on technical merit and elegance.
Unfortunately, it sold poorly. Who wants to be involved with a refreshing gameplay experience when the latest vampire/sports/kill/drive/instant gratification sex-fest is sitting right there? Ubisoft eventually packaged the game with Splinter Cell in the hopes that more people would give it a chance. Buy a game that deifies covert military culture and we’ll give you a game that tries to do something different. I don’t know how well that promotion worked, but apparently someone championed the cause for a Sands of Time sequel. We’ve been given Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.
As I was such a fan of the original (I bought it for Christmas for two separate friends just so I would be able to talk to them about it) I purchased Warrior Within as soon as I could and read everything I could about it. I admit I was excited at the promise of deep freeform fighting, something that had been absent from the original, though I hadn’t necessarily missed it. Seemingly everyone agreed, however, that Ubisoft had overshot the mark in the effort to make the game more appealing to the masses.
The first thing to notice is that Warrior Within is undeniably grittier. The Prince, as punishment for having mucked about with the inner workings of time in the last game, has been pursued ever since by a tireless beast called the Dahaka. There are instances in the game when the Dahaka will appear, and you are forced to navigate an area (that you’ve likely never been to before) doing all the environmental puzzle solving of how to get out of the room on the fly. It’s a very interesting gameplay concept, and it works very well.
In fact, as far as gameplay goes, most of Warrior is still refreshing, despite its similarities to The Sands of Time. The ability to rewind time has made it to the sequel intact and the fighting game is certainly deeper, but it’s rather unnecessary. There were many times when I just wanted to figure out how to get through a room, not caring enough to fight pretty. Rather, I would kill things as quickly as possible, tossing them off ledges, so that I could be alone in the room, just figuring out how the whole puzzle worked without any distractions. Even still, Warrior Within is certainly one of the better action/adventure games in recent memory from a gameplay standpoint.
The art direction, specifically around this gritty nature I’ve discussed, is what significantly detracts from the entire experience. The Prince, rather than being a charming spoiled child growing into a man, in the nature of the first game, has become a ubiquitous badass hero. The enemies, no longer Middle Eastern sand demons, are now largely populated by females with a bondage fetish. While you’re fighting them, they moan things like “There’s so much pleasure in pain” and other trite garbage that’s meant to cater to some demographic I don’t associate with.
The music, no longer made up of elegant faux Middle Eastern melodies and instrumentation is now comprised of horrendous, driving metal riffs. If memory serves, Godsmack was involved. Please go back and reread the previous sentence to make sure you understand its gravity. Needless to say I enjoyed the game much more with the music turned down. This exposed an annoying little glitch. The music track is tied to the dialogue track in the FMV sections of the game. So I would arrive somewhere, and then watch lip-syncing for about 10 seconds before I realized I had to pause and turn the music back up to hear what was going on. This was only tested on the GameCube version, but it was certainly annoying.
There is a wonderful adventure at the heart of this experience, but it’s wrapped in layers of ridiculously uninspired, cloying presentation. I have read that Ubisoft plans to make another entry in this storyline next year. I can only hope that they not only continue to come up with genre-defining environmental puzzle action, but that they also have a change of heart when it comes to marketing and presentation.