Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones Exclusive Hands-On - Back to Babylon
Join us as we take an exclusive trip through the mystical Middle East in the conclusion of the Prince of Persia trilogy.
Classic-game revivals are often a hit-or-miss affair. You can take a game that was great back in the days of yore and try to re-create it by modern conventions, but there's no guarantee you'll be able to recapture that magic that made the game so good the first time around. That's why 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was such a delightful surprise: It took the puzzle-based platforming and mystical Middle Eastern atmosphere of Jordan Mechner's 1989 PC hit and successfully brought the series into the third dimension, probably thanks in no small part to Mechner's own involvement with the project.
The series continued last year with Warrior Within, which added new fighting options and an interesting time-travel mechanic to the formula. The circle will soon be complete next month, when Ubisoft releases Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, the third and ostensibly final entry in the series as it stands on current-gen consoles. We've spent some time with a partial build of the game and offer our thoughts at its current stage of development.
The storyline in The Two Thrones is shrouded in mystery, not least of all because the demo we've been playing features only a sampling of disconnected levels taken from the final game. But then, the prince himself doesn't really know what's going on at the outset of the game, either. After spending years on the run from the Dahaka, the horrible time beast that haunted him in Warrior Within, the prince has finally returned to Babylon, expecting to escape his tortured past and finally settle in for some peace and quiet in his own kingdom.
Upon arriving, however, he's greeted by a rather unpleasant surprise: His land has been invaded and his people slaughtered, and his love, Kaileena, has unleashed the sands of time in order to combat the menace. The prince will again have to face off against waves of sand-zombie bad guys, and figure out who the hell is making trouble in his homeland and how he can stop them. Without giving away too much of the storyline, as this is the third and presumably final entry in the trilogy, you can expect some blasts from the prince's past to show up and bring things full circle before all is said and done.
Warrior Within did a good job of reprising the time-based puzzles and acrobatic environment interactions that made The Sands of Time one of 2003's best games. But the sequel was panned for replacing the first game's ethereal, storybook feel with an excessively darker, edgier tone and a less likable, far more angst-filled prince. Then again, when you've got a hideous monster stalking your every move, you can't really blame the guy for being a little peeved. At any rate, we've found that The Two Thrones establishes a happier medium this time around; it seems to be a little more rooted in its cultural influences, and we've heard nary a lick of Godsmack during our time with the game so far.
The game itself may not be as grim as its predecessor, but the prince's predicament is certainly darker. Apparently, the sands of time have awoken in the prince a malevolent alter ego, and you'll be involuntarily transformed into this dark prince at various times throughout the game. In fact, it seems like this bad guy is a separate personality that exists within the prince, since he will sometimes chime in with his own thoughts as you're fighting or exploring. This inner dialogue between the prince and his evil half presents an interesting twist on the storyline; you get to hear the two sides of the character warring with each other about how to proceed. Of course, the dark prince has a whole bunch of new gameplay abilities too--but we'll get to those in a moment.
For those who loved the high-flying, exploration-based puzzles of The Sands of Time, worry not--there's still plenty of that included in The Two Thrones. You'll be jumping from poles to narrow beams, running up walls and across chasms, all that good stuff. The designers have even added some new mechanics this time around. You'll now find plates set into certain walls that you can stab your dagger into and use as a temporary handhold. These simply require you to time your attack button just as you jump or run up to them. You'll also find switches that you have to jump toward and then use your dagger to pull down--these tend to be time-limited switches that will reset after a few seconds. There are even jump pads on some walls that will let you perform a diagonal leap, if you can properly time your jump during a wall run. Finally, we've noticed a small tweak to the camera interface: The game will now prompt you with an eye icon when it wants you to use the landscape camera mode, which gives you a bird's-eye view of the area and often makes it easier to figure out where you should go next.
The melee combat in the original Sands of Time was arguably the weakest component of an otherwise excellent action-adventure game, so the fighting was tweaked and expanded considerably in last year's Warrior Within. This time around, Ubi Montreal has further refined the combat in The Two Thrones in a number of ways. As in the last game, you'll be armed with only a dagger to defend yourself with, but you'll also be able to pick up weapons from felled enemies for a little dual-blade action. Dropped weapons will only last through a few battles, though, since they have a durability meter that goes down as you fight with them. Whether you're dual-wielding or using only the standard dagger, you'll have a ton of attack combos that you can pull off with carefully timed button presses, and these can all be viewed from a fighting-game-style move list that shows you exactly how to perform each one.
While the dual-wielding ability and plethora of attack moves make the human prince a pretty formidable fighter, he doesn't even hold a candle to the combat prowess of his dark alter ego. In addition to the dagger, the dark prince is armed with a blade-tipped chain whip called the daggertail, which you can swing and whip around with deadly precision in a fight. Most of the game's regular enemies that we've encountered so far have gone down with barely a fight while we were wielding the daggertail, and of course you'll have a raft of new moves and combos that can only be accessed while you're in dark form. The daggertail also comes in handy in some maneuvering situations--you can use it to swing across large gaps by whipping it around an outstretched pole, for instance.
Another addition we've found especially satisfying so far is the new "speed kill" ability. Essentially, if you can sneak up behind an enemy without being discovered, you can initiate an automated one-button kill that will neutralize that foe without actually putting you into combat, assuming you can make some well-timed button presses. Once you're in range for a speed kill, the screen will take on a sepia tone, and you can hit the speed kill button to start the maneuver. The prince will leap at the enemy in cinematic fashion, and his dagger will flash just as the action pauses for a split second. Each time you see one of these pauses, you'll have to hit the attack button at the precise moment, and if you can time all of the attacks correctly, you'll dispatch the enemy with a decapitation or some other grisly move.
Chariot races are another new addition to the gameplay in The Two Thrones. At one point during our demo, the prince was fleeing from a number of enemies when he came upon a chariot conveniently tethered to a couple of horses. The game then automatically threw us into the race sequence, which has the horses galloping automatically and requires you to simply steer your way through a fast-moving obstacle course fraught with dangers. Enemies riding chariots will occasionally come into the picture, and you'll have to steer into them and force them to crash before they do the same to you. Other enemies, on foot, will occasionally jump on to your chariot and try to slow you down, though you can pull out your dagger and take care of them at the touch of a button. The chariot race level we played only lasted a few minutes, and it seems like these sequences will serve as a nice way to break up the main gameplay with a little added variety.
It seems that you'll have to contend with some unique boss encounters as well, if our demo is any indication. In one scenario, you'll enter an arena being occupied by an enormous gladiator who has apparently been twisted and deformed by the sands of time. This guy is way too big for you to fight through conventional means, so you'll have to use nearby environmental effects to find a way to climb up to his vulnerable eyes and bring him down. This sequence provided another good change of pace from the standard exploring and fighting, so hopefully the full game will contain other such bosses that require you to fight them through unconventional means.
So what about those time powers that made the original Sands of Time such a unique game? They're still present in The Two Thrones, apparently with some new surprises included. But Ubisoft is playing your new time powers close to the vest, so much that they're actually not even included in the build of the game we've been playing. We're quite interested to see how these powers have evolved, especially in contrast to the dark prince transformation that frequently takes place throughout the game, but we'll apparently have to wait until a later date to find out what's going on in the temporal-ability area.
In aesthetic terms, The Two Thrones seems to be shaping up well. The game maintains the same Middle Eastern architectural and cultural influences as its predecessors, and as we mentioned earlier, it seems the artists and designers have toned down the attitude a little bit. Even the soundtrack seems more in line with the atmospheric, ethnic music predominantly used in The Sands of Time. The voice acting we've heard so far has been solid, since some of the familiar actors from the past games (such as that of the prince himself) have returned for a third time. Though some of the animations and cutscenes are a little rough in their early, temporary state, the artists continue to refine the presentation of the game, and we expect to see the overall look of the game brought in line with the high standards of the series by the time the game hits shelves.
All told, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones seems to be coalescing into a fitting end for the trilogy that Ubisoft Montreal and Jordan Mechner began two years ago. We'll obviously have to reserve final judgment on the game until we see it in its final graphical state, with all gameplay features, especially the time powers, fully implemented. But you won't have to wait long for our verdict--the game is scheduled for release at the beginning of December. Come back for a full review then, and in the meantime, check out some new direct-feed gameplay footage of The Two Thrones in action.
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