The modern Prince of Persia trilogy begins almost inexplicably—a man stands on a balcony that looks out into a thick jungle. All he can do is enter a palatial building through swaying drapes. Then come the images—a drop of water, the desert, a beautiful woman—and the story begins:
Most people think Time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of Time, and I can tell you, they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm. You may wonder who I am, or why I say this. Come, sit down, and I will tell you a tale like none you have ever heard…
Impressively, this is true; more impressively, the tale is actually good.
The man telling the story is the Prince himself, and the game in which he tells it, Sands of Time, is deliberately constructed to evoke the feel of the 1001 Nights. As the game progresses, the Prince’s narration occasionally explains where you are or what he’s feeling. When the player dies, the Prince steps in to correct him: “No, no, no, that’s not what happened.”
The characters are also evocative of the 1001 Nights. The Prince himself is the main character, accompanied by the Maharajah’s daughter Farah. His opponent, the treacherous Vizier, first betrayed the Maharajah to the Persians, and then betrayed his new master by tricking the Prince into opening the Sands of Time. This mystical substance has destroyed the palace of Azad and infected its inhabitants. In order to “undo what he has done“, the Prince must traverse the crumbling ruins to confront the Vizier and re-seal the Sands in their Hourglass. Along the way, he must mature from a sarcastic young charmer fixated on honor and glory into a responsible adult who properly understands his duty as a person.
To do this, he must use an array of acrobatic skills. The Prince can run up or across walls, jump great distances, balance on beams, swing on poles, and cling to precarious ledges. The challenge of the Prince of Persia games is to figure out which route to use through a landscape, and which skills must be used. Then, precise timing is often required to make it through. Mistakes are inevitable, but the Prince can survive them using the Dagger of Time which he finds early in the game. With this, he can rewind time back to a moment before his failure, or slow down time to make evading a trap easier, or even freeze his opponents in time.
The Prince’s first confrontation with the Vizier ends in failure. Despite the bond that has grown between him and Farah on their journey through the ruins, he distrusts her at the critical moment and the Vizier casts them down into a tomb. They escape, but the price of his failure is that Farah steals the Dagger. But because she is not a warrior, she dies en route to the Hourglass. Filled with remorse and aware of the futility of fighting for honor and glory, the Prince at last heeds her words and plunges the Dagger into the Hourglass. The effect is to rewind time all the way back to before the Vizier betrayed the Maharajah. As the story ends, it becomes clear that the whole game that was played was the story the Prince was telling to Farah to warn her of the Vizier’s treachery.
The final combat with the Vizier is a rather mundane sequence; properly viewed as an epilogue rather than the final boss. The true final boss of the game, as others have noted, is the Tower of Dawn, which the Prince must climb using all his skill but without the Dagger. This is a critically important key to understanding what the Prince of Persia games are really about. The platforming, motion, and timing are the essence of the game. Farah’s criticism of fighting as futile is also important to this point.
Yet the developers themselves did not understand it. In the sequel, Warrior Within, the focus is on combat. Because Sands of Time was criticized for its repetitive and excessive fighting, the developers attempted to address this by creating more unique fighting moves. This was an attempt to solve the wrong problem. The fundamental flaw with the combat was not that it was dull or there was too much of it, though both these things were true. The problem was that the combat had nothing to do with the rest of the game.
The platforming and combat aspects of gameplay in Sands of Time did not interface well, to the point where it felt like you were playing two different games. One of them was a magnificent platformer, and the other was a mediocre hack-and-slash game. The careful timing, exhilarating acrobatics, and understanding of the environment that were the core of the platforming were abandoned when the swords came out. Thus, the player had to shift gears every time a battle started. Jerry Holkins likened the feeling to ordering a pizza and getting a free walrus. Any step to “fix” the combat that did not recognize this divide was doomed to failure.
In Warrior Within, the Prince, pursued by the demonic Dahaka for the crime of opening the Sands, flees to the Isle of Time to prevent their creation. He fundamentally does not change his behavior—when he accidentally creates the Sands of Time by killing the Empress Kaileena, his answer is to go back in time to fix his error. He succeeds in doing this, and also kills the Dahaka. The Prince’s failure to change as a human being is accompanied by an intellectual regression in the game itself. Farah’s rejection of violence is cast aside, and in a way she is ridiculed from afar by the game’s glorification of violence and puerile, chauvinistic sexuality (best evinced in Shahdee’s outfit). Granted, a chauvinistic viewpoint (the Prince’s) was also present in Sands of Time, but there it was used to ridicule the Prince and demonstrate his childishness. In Warrior Within the chauvinist’s view is celebrated. Moreover, every aspect of the 1001 Nights influence vanishes, replaced by generic architectural and musical elements; the narration is excised completely. As a cumulative effect of these decisions the game is an artistic failure.
Warrior Within alienated many fans of Sands of Time, but all the errors were fixed in the finale, The Two Thrones (or Rival Swords in its Wii incarnation). The Prince returns to Babylon with Kaileena, who narrates the tale, recovering this part of the atmosphere. The classic characters also return, for the Prince finds the city ravaged by the Vizier, who has overthrown the Maharajah, imprisoned Farah, and invaded the Prince’s kingdom, with the intention of seizing Kaileena. He succeeds in doing this, and the Prince, still acting as he did in Warrior Within, attacks recklessly and fails to save her. She dies, releasing the destruction of the Sands of Time within the city, and also into the Prince. He comes away from his failure with nothing other than the Dagger.
The Sands give rise to an alter ego—the Dark Prince, who in form resembles a sand monster, and whose personality is the purest articulation of the man the Prince was in Warrior Within. As the Prince works his way back to the Vizier for a final confrontation, the Dark Prince constantly urges him into combat and seduces him with promises of bloody vengeance. Farah once more argues against this path, ultimately convincing the Prince himself. For the Prince, hearing his dark half’s eulogy of the bloodthirsty warrior, replies, “…what you describe is not a man, but a beast…” Implicit here is a criticism of the very kind of game Warrior Within was, and of what it celebrated.
This is more than just a passing note from the writers, for the game itself constantly de-emphasizes the sword-based combat that dominated the earlier entries. While the Prince can fight in this way, the best approach to combat is always to use the stealth-based “speed kill” system. In this sense, “stealth” means moving through the environment to a point above or behind the target, waiting for the right moment, and then engaging in a timing-critical attack sequence. Bloody, violent combat becomes less a part of play, while platforming begins to inform every aspect of the game. The boss fights, once purely combat experiences, become fusions of combat with platforming or timing. The “two games” problem is thus put to rest.
This evolution is best articulated in the fight against the Vizier, which has three phases. The first is a straight-up fight that might have come directly out of Sands of Time. In the second, the Prince must engage three speed kills, and the combat of Warrior Within vanishes. In the last segment, the Prince must navigate a floating maze to reach the Vizier—with this, the death of fighting is nearly complete. Combat has been supplanted by platforming.
Yet the final articulation of the Prince’s agreement with Farah comes in the game’s epilogue. Here the Prince confronts the Dark Prince in the realm of the mind. To defeat the Dark Prince, platforming is necessary, but the amount of combat needed declines throughout the sequence. In the end, to triumph over the Dark Prince, the player must choose not to fight him, and instead to follow Farah’s voice, casting the “warrior within” aside forever. Thus the player’s gameplay transition matches the Prince’s maturation process.
This is true in another connection as well. Throughout the trilogy, the Prince and the player fix mistakes by manipulating time. This is fundamentally childish, akin to putting a broken lamp back together using Elmer’s glue in an attempt to make it seem as if an accident never happened. Yet each repair the Prince performs causes a new problem. Undoing his error at Azad provokes the Dahaka. Going back in time to kill the Empress creates the Sands. Traversing time again to rescue Kaileena from himself and destroy the Dahaka only brings the Empress into the grasp of the Vizier. Near the end of The Two Thrones, when the Vizier has captured Farah and cast the Prince down into the Palace catacombs, he comes across the greatest sign of this failure: the body of his dead father. As the voice of the Dark Prince mocks him, the Prince casts aside the idea of “undoing” his mistakes. He will not rewind time; rather, he will confront his mistakes and their consequences.
The player, who knows all too well (from three games) the attraction of rewinding time to reverse one’s errors, is implicitly invited to this kind of maturity. And, by giving up the dagger after the confrontation with the Vizier, but before the game ends, the player is made a part of the Prince’s decision. This could have been accentuated more powerfully, as in Sands of Time, by giving up the Dagger when the Prince finds his father, but for story reasons the Dagger must be with him at the top of the tower after the Vizier’s defeat. Nonetheless, by playing the final stage (within the mind) without the dagger, the player and Prince are united in confronting the outcome of their mistakes (in this case, the Dark Prince) without trying to “undo” them.
The Prince of Persia trilogy is very uneven; Warrior Within was a significant artistic failure, devoid of the atmosphere and meaning that informed Sands of Time and The Two Thrones. Sands of Time itself was seriously flawed, because of its divided gameplay. Its story and atmosphere, however, more than compensated for that imperfection. These were preserved in The Two Thrones, and moreover that game achieved a gestalt in which the two primary gameplay aspects were unified with each other, and then brought into alignment with the thematic rejection of violence and of “undoing” mistakes. When the Prince repeats his introduction from Sands of Time at the end of The Two Thrones, the story comes full circle, but his enormous growth as a person is undeniable, for the player has participated in it.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (highly recommended) and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (not so highly recommended) can both be played at GameTap. Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and its Wii counterpart Prince of Persia: Rival Swords are still available for purchase at video game retailers (as of 3/2008). I would regard any video game library as incomplete without The Two Thrones.