My apologies for a bit of a hiatus! Real life has become doubly real in recent weeks.
The Kingdom Hearts series, in my experience, is a somewhat divisive one– not quite a “love it or hate it” scenario, but many of the gamers in my acquaintance are either tremendously enthused with the premise or exceptionally uninterested.
I’d posit that to like Kingdom Hearts, only a couple of things need to be true: You must A) be able to enjoy a simple action-RPG, and B) have some affection for the various worlds of the Disney universe. I’ve met a lot of people who possess these two criteria.
However, in order to love Kingdom Hearts, you have to have an exceptional tolerance for the usual JRPG abstract philosophical gobbledygook, with which the games are flooded. There’s so much talk of light and darkness and hearts and memories and faith and friendship that it’s quite overwhelming, especially when much of it is so abstract that it begins to make very little sense. (Riku is hindered by the darkness inside him, but also made powerful by it–and by “embracing” it, he gets to keep the power but not be manipulated by it? I think?) What do light and darkness even MEAN in this world? Are they synonymous with hope and despair, or kindness and anger? None of the characters ever seem to be able to satisfactorily explain it, especially later on in the series when light and darkness both seem to be good things? Maybe?
Whatever your feelings about the games’ narrative(s), you can’t possibly object to their scores, by Square’s talented Yoko Shimomura, responsible also for Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana, among others. I brought up “Hometown Domina” earlier, but the track I’ve provided here today is proof that Shimomura is quite adept at battle music as well. The juxtaposition of energetic piano and intense rhythm creates a superb sense of urgency, and “A Fight to the Death” is one of my favorite pieces of boss music ever. It brings in some of the leitmotifs that Shimomura establishes elsewhere in the score in a way that is very effective.
Also, it’s a very appropriate accompaniment to the absurdity that’s occurring in the game–apparently, after the release of FFVII: Advent Children, Square decided that the film’s style of “Dragon Ball meets the Matrix” action scenes would fit perfectly in the climax of Kingdom Hearts II. In fact, if you haven’t played the KH games, I’d almost say that KH2 is worth it for the final battle alone. Completely absurd, over-the-top action. Totally disconnected from reality.
I love it.
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.