Eternal Darkness is not the most frightening game I’ve ever played. It is, however, the best attempt I’ve ever seen to have a gameplay mechanic mess with the player’s perception of what’s going on in the game world.
Here’s an anecdote which I frequently relate when attempting to explain the game’s “sanity effects” to people: One night in college, after a long night out on campus carousing, I decided that rather than try and sleep, I’d pop in Eternal Darkness and play one of the game’s chapters. I was still energized by the night’s partying, and it was October, so horror games were definitely on the docket.
My good friend Bob, who had been out carousing with me, plunked himself down on the bed across from the television and watched. Bob, it is to be admitted, may have been carousing a little harder than I had, and so his normally keen senses were a trifle dulled. As I maneuvered my unlucky protagonist through the decrepit hallways of an ancient and blasphemous temple in the heart of the unexplored jungles of southeast Asia, the tension grew as I was assaulted by monsters and booby-traps. It seemed as though from around each corner might spring the nameless terror which would slaughter and devour my unfortunate avatar.
Soon, though my health and sanity were dwindling and I was reaching the climax of the chapter, Bob had to rouse himself from the bed and use the restroom–the alcohol in his system had gotten the better of him. Quietly, so as not to disturb my concentration, Bob slipped off the bed and stepped toward the door, just as I entered a room which contained not one but two enormous abominations, which roared at me in throaty rage.
The sound on the television cut out. In neon green block letters, at the top right of the screen, the word “MUTE” appeared.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Bob blurted, looking frantically about the floor below him in the dim glow of the television. “Did I step on the remote?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My character’s just going insane, that’s all.” I’d encountered this particular sanity effect before. On the television, the abominations lurched toward me silently.
I don’t remember whether I survived that particular encounter. What I do remember is the expression on poor Bob’s face: stricken, terrified, as though the game was somehow deliberately making him question the nature of his reality. Bob and I were both a little tipsy from our evening’s adventures, of course, but the game’s intended effect was spot on. I could see writ large on Bob’s features the same cry that any one of the game’s protagonists is wont to shout when faced with such madness: “This… isn’t… really… happening!“
It’s nothing new for me to claim that there’s a world of difference between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which is widely regarded as a modern classic, and its successor, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which is widely regarded as… not.
However, most of the complaints against Warrior Within are leveled against its aesthetics: gone is the flavor of “A Thousand and One Nights,” and in its place we have a sort of heavy metal, blood and guts, gritty flavor that one might accuse of aping God of War until one realizes that it actually precedes Kratos’s first outing by almost a year.
As I sat down finally to make my way through the game, however, some seven or eight years after its release, I realized that it wasn’t actually the disappointing aesthetic shift that bothered me the most. There was some magic in the gameplay of Sands of Time that was no longer in evidence here, or at least in shorter supply. What I ultimately came up with is this: the fundamental method of engagement in the first game is translation, and that gets muddled considerably in the second offering.
Allow me to explain a little bit what I mean by “translation.” Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a game which focuses brilliantly on one of the most basic elements of gameplay present in any platformer–evaluating the geography in order to discover the correct series of inputs to allow your character to traverse an area. The player “translates” the layout of the environment into the moves necessary to move through it.
The brilliance of the game is in the basic number of options you have, as the Prince, to navigate any configuration of terrain that the developers place in front of you. In this regard, the Prince of Persia games have more in common with Portal than they do, say, Super Mario Galaxy or even Assassin’s Creed, a series with which they share some aesthetic and even control elements. Like Portal, there is great emphasis in examining and understanding your surroundings in order to proceed. The true joy of Prince of Persia lies in looking at an environment and innately, almost instinctively, understanding “I need to wall-run here, then jump across that gap onto the bar and swing myself up to that ledge.” Unlike Portal, of course, less emphasis is placed on decoding the environment, and more emphasis played on controlling the Prince to correctly traverse the obstacles in his path.
The reason Sands of Time was so revolutionary was because of the way that the developers restrict your perspective: Ubisoft gave us enormous chambers and caverns, the entirety of which we couldn’t possibly translate from any one vantage point, and asked us to simply have faith and jump into it, trusting that if we could read the geography well enough, the path would always be laid out before us clearly, even if there were many places it would collapse beneath our feet if we dawdled for even an instant.
In playing Prince of Persia, we’re forced to translate on the fly, as we go, and when we’re able to do it successfully, it makes us feel like a total badass. The game is tuned to make those simple inputs show up onscreen as brilliant flips, jumps, and somersaults. There’s a huge amount of joy in making the astonishing feel easy.
Let me pause to say that these sequences–the huge, beautiful arenas in which the player may parkour to their heart’s content, are still present in Warrior Within. They’re there, and they feel just as wonderful as they do in Sands of Time. But before I follow that line of thinking, let me talk a little bit about the other elements of translation present in these games.
Near as I can figure, there are two other primary flavors of gameplay at work here: hallways full of traps, which operate in a different way than the expansive arenas, and combat, which works as a kind of “dynamic translation” that I’ll touch on in a minute.
All of the environments in the Prince of Persia games are populated with these absurd hallways full of spikes, spinning blades, buzz-saws, and spikes on spinning-blade-poles. These form a geography that needs to be translated, too–except, unlike the expansive arenas I’ve just described, you can see the entire sequence at once, which is important, because in each case, you need to traverse the hallway in one smooth motion by using the same inputs and mechanics you use to traverse the larger areas (or else be impaled, sliced, skewered, etc.). These hallways often form the bridges between the more large-scale platforming areas, and serve as a kind of breather for the player–the method of engagement is slightly different, asking us to translate small chunks at a time rather than a large sequence of inputs.
Something similar is occurring with the combat, which often takes place in pockets of the large areas, except the inputs are different–and yet still limited. The Prince is given a handful of different attacks, each of which seems to work better on a different type of enemy, and the player is asked to translate a moving target. (This is the “dynamic translation” I alluded to earlier.) Knowing that you can’t vault over the tall enemies and can’t directly attack the fat ones is functionally equivalent to understanding that a large horizontal surface means “wall run” and two poles next to a wall means “swing, wall-jump, swing.”
The combat in Sands of Time is relatively simple for a reason: the joy of the game is in achieving a sense of flow, where you can see the next moves unfolding in front of you even as you complete the current one. Every game has the player evaluating environmental stimuli and reacting to it, but the Prince of Persia games excel because they are straightforward, well balanced, and allow the player to feel “in the zone.”
So. Where does Warrior Within stumble? In a couple of different places. Firstly, the ratio of one type of engagement to another has been shifted, so that rather than focusing primarily on the large platforming arenas and using combat and trap hallways as bridges, the game gives us each type of gameplay in about equal measure. Though I can’t imagine why any series would want to shift its dynamic away from the thing it does the best, this in itself would not be a terrible move if it weren’t for a couple other changes that happen concurrently.
The Prince seems to take more damage both from traps and from enemies in Warrior Within, necessitating more uses of the Sands of Time to rewind and try again (and probably more game overs). This is probably in response to complaints that the first game was “too easy” or “too simple,” though I can’t find much evidence of these complaints in reviews of the first offering–perhaps this came out of a focus group? Whatever the case, more game overs in a series whose primary strength is creating a sense of flow in the player is absolutely a step in the wrong direction. Even having to use the Sands more frequently is probably a bad thing–the ability to rewind time functions best, in my opinion, as a reassurance that allows the player to proceed quickly and recklessly.
The biggest gameplay change from Sands of Time to Warrior Within is the change in the combat, which no longer functions as a kind of translation but instead is more complicated, with many more moves, combos, and even different weapons to be used. The removal of the simple combat from Sands of Time means that battles can no longer be “read” in the same way that they once could, and the player must be in an entirely different mindset when enemies are about. There are still combos which work better on certain enemies (can’t vault over the Sexy Battle Ninjas this time instead of the Tall Guys), but there’s no shifting geography to be read in the groups of enemies that you encounter in Warrior Within. You move around, you try not to get hit, and you lash out with the best combos you’ve got in order to try and dispatch the bad guys before they kill you.
In some ways this combat is more frustrating and less accessible, though there are times when the complexity allows for some satisfying moments. The problem, really, is that battles no longer function as a kind of extension of the primary gameplay mechanic of the series–the game’s focus is less unified than its predecessor, and focus is really the strength of these games. In addition, Warrior Within adds a number of boss battles, which, when you look at the history of video games, ought to be the perfect place to preserve that element of reading the enemy–but it somehow manages to miss the mark in this regard.
These three gameplay shifts (the change in ratio between the modes of engagement, the added difficulty, and the more complex combat) mean that Warrior Within is not as unified and focused as its predecessor, and when this is combined with the jarring aesthetic gap between the first game and the second, the whole game begins to feel weirdly disjointed.
Should you seek out and play Warrior Within? Well, I’m certainly not going to steer you away from it. The core of brilliant platforming is still at the heart of the game, even if it’s obscured by more clutter than the first game had. There are also a handful of awesome things going on in the game, most notably the sequences in which the Prince is chased by the Dahaka, which add a beautiful urgency and desperation to their gameplay.
Nevertheless, Warrior Within is not a “must play,” a title I would definitely bestow upon Sands of Time. (Please, please go play that if you haven’t already. It’s one of the best games of the last ten years.) If you’re a fan of the original, it would be worth your while to check out the second game in the trilogy, but be cognizant of the fact that it comes with some baggage. And if you’re just looking to spend some time with the charming protagonists you came to know and love in the first game… you’ll have to look elsewhere. They didn’t make it into this one.