Ubisoft's Prince of Persia Sands of Time may well go down as one of the greatest games of this generation, and that proved to be a hard act to follow. Warrior Within performed better in the charts, but its focus on combat and a hard rock soundtrack didn't sit well with fans of the first game. Taking these criticisms on board, The Two Thrones brings back much of the acrobatic goodness that made the original such a cult hit and keeps the improved combat system of the second game. It has made for a game that has moments of greatness, but often falls foul of the very puzzles that make the game what it is.
If you haven't played the two previous games you'll be a little confused by what's going on as the game does little to bring new players up to date with previous goings on. In The Two Thrones, the Sands of Time have been unleashed on Babylon and the prince must save his kingdom and its people. Things obviously aren't going to be easy, and he'll also have to contend with a dark version of himself. The Sands of Time have infected him, and throughout the adventure you'll involuntarily transform into a more dangerous, more arrogant prince. This split personality is made apparent during the fairly lengthy fifteen-hour campaign, with the dark prince often trying to influence the 'light' prince as a voice in his head.
Prince of Persia games are at their best when you're presented with a series of ledges, beams, walls, jump pads, poles, chains spikes, bottomless pits, blades and more, and you must get yourself out of the area. When you're in the groove you'll effortlessly swing from pole to pole, leap from beam to beam, glide down curtains, and traverse perilous sections with ease and elegance. You need to be on your game though, with one false move sending you to your death. The last third of the game in particular is near leaping perfection, with some of the most entertaining sections of any game released this year.
If there's a problem with this aspect of the game, it's the jumping. At times the game will throw up seemingly impossible jumps that leave you totally clueless. You know the prince can jump a long way, but occasionally you're forced into taking a leap of faith, and a lack of consistency makes this rather annoying. Some sections will allow you to make these Olympian leaps, while others laugh in your face as you throw away your life and are forced to trek through the last ten-minutes of the game. The dark prince is equally as agile, but can also use his chain to latch onto distant poles to traverse sections that would otherwise be impossible.
Combat seems largely similar to that found in Warrior Within, but the introduction of the dark prince shakes things up a little. While the 'light' prince is exceedingly controllable and has a move set largely based around throws and grabs, the dark prince seems rather brutish in comparison. His chain is the most lethal, with a spinning attack dispatching of enemies with relative ease. This power is countered by a sluggishness not found when controlling the 'light' prince and an ever depleting health metre. This can be topped up by collecting sand power, but the mechanism causes more than a few problems.
Playing as the 'light' prince lets you take your time to scope out areas for the often unobvious way out of the section, but the dark prince's depleting health gives the game a sense of urgency, which while heightens excitement and gives a sense of accomplishment, causes extreme aggravation at times. If you happen to get stuck in an area, with no clue as to what to do next (which happens a fair bit), you'll be forced to start from the last checkpoint each time you die, forcing you to replay through a five-minute section (or longer) before you get the chance to wander around and attempt to pick a way out of the seemingly inescapable room, courtyard or similar.
The inability to top up the 'light' prince's health causes almost equal frustration at points, and the general scarcity of save points (which also act as the only place you can top up health) mean that you'll either have to play for longer than you wanted or sacrifice a substantial amount of progress and turn the console off. It's as if the developers deliberately wanted you to dislike the game, despite everything that it does well. The whole trial and error gameplay style would have been fine had you been able to try things without the fear of being forced to play through lengthy sections over and over again.
There is of course the rewinding time feature that the Dagger of Time gives you, and this means you can get yourself out of bother while you have enough full chambers of sand. Rewinding a mistimed wall jump to your death helps alleviate some of the pain caused from the checkpoint system, but it comes in most handy when combined with the new stealth kills. When approaching enemies from behind or above, the screen will indicate that a stealth kill can be performed and on activation the 'light' prince must press the attack button when his dagger glows. The time you have shortens on the tougher enemies, but getting it right will make the difference between a five-minute battle and a twenty-second slaughtering. Using the rewind ability here can save you a lot of hassle. The dark prince has no such problems, as his stealth kills are all performed by simply hammering on a button until the enemy dies. Aside from the rewind power, you'll also gain a few other sand abilities, but it's often best to save your sand chambers for rewinding out of mistakes.
Visually The Two Thrones hasn't moved the series on too much (if at all), but it's still a fine looking game. Polygon counts aren't that high, but animations are wonderful and the bloom lighting is used to brilliant effect. The PlayStation 2 version does suffer from a fairly erratic frame rate, but it never really affects gameplay, and the PC version sports more impressive lighting, but all versions offer more or less the same experience. Warrior Within haters will be glad to hear that the awful hard rock soundtrack has been discarded in favour of a much more bearable Middle Eastern sound. Voice work is generally solid, bar a few rather cheesy deliveries, but on the whole presentation is top notch.
Had Ubisoft fine-tuned the checkpoint placement, added a few more save points, tweaked the punishing dark prince sections and made combat a little less reliant on stealth kills, Two Thrones could have matched Sands of Time. As it stands, even with annoying problems in larger supply than the sand itself, the game is often thrilling and a huge step in the right direction. While Ubisoft are yet to announce a next-gen outing for the prince, on this performance, hopefully we won't be waiting too long.