I've owned Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within for over a year now, I think. Usually I either win a game within a few weeks or get sick of it and don't finish at all. With Warrior, I played it for a while and then set it aside, having the best intention to return to it eventually. Recently, I've given it another go.
I love the Prince of Persia series. I played the original game as a freshman in college. The second game was one of the first I ever played after I bought my first sound card, so I fondly remember the experience of hearing ACTUAL VOICES in the game for the very first time.
In the Prince games, you play a character with extraordinary athletic abilities. The first two games were side-scrollers. In a typical gaming session, you might be running from a bunch of angry guards, then you duck through a gate just as it closes, jump over some spikes, and finally leap across a wide chasm, just barely grabbing the ledge.
Also characteristic of the series is that it is both brutally hard on mistakes, and generous in allowing you to recover from them. Miss the ledge, and you'll plummet to your death many screens below as the prince lets out a terrified scream. (Hooray again for the invention of sound cards.) Then you'll be transported back a couple of minutes to the beginning of the scene, where you need to start running from those guards again. Luckily, you get infinite lives. The first two games had a time limit; later games have given that up, which I considered a wise move.
In the latest incarnation of the series, the prince has gone 3D on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox. (Actually the Prince went 3D in an earlier PC version called Prince of Persia 3D, but that one was so bad it's best not to speak of it.) In Sands of Time, they introduced a terrific game mechanic, which was the power to control time. You get a limited number of "sand tanks", which you can fill by fighting enemies. If you get killed by one of the many cliffs or deathtraps, you can rewind time to a point just before you died as long as you still have time sand. It was a clever way to stick with the spirit of the series, because it allows you to feel that the world is deadly while still giving you an opportunity to recover from your mistakes without starting over very often. It reduced a lot of the frustration but still kept the tension high, because if you run out of sand then your next screwup kills you. The character was well designed and the new moves (such as running along walls and flipping around poles) were very cool.
In Warrior Within, it's like some committee of corporate non-gamers tried to redesign Sands of Time to make it "hipper," realizing that Sands is a great game but not having any understanding of why. In Warrior, the prince is darker and edgier. The fighting is more violent, and requires you to memorize "combos" -- buttons you have to press in a certain sequence in order to win the battles. Also, the introductory movie has a hot goth chick in chainmail, and there's actually a closeup shot of her chainmailed butt. I like skin shots as much as the next guy, but it was just so utterly gratuitous that it was stupid. It's not all that relevant to the plot and it feels wedged in to the Prince of Persia universe.
All that aside, though, I finally managed to enjoy the game for a while, until I gradually realized that there is one aspect of Warrior Within that I truly, truly hate.
Some games are linear, dragging you from event A to event B to event C on rails. That's okay. Some games are nonlinear, giving you free reign to explore what you want. That's okay too.
But in Warrior Within, the designers have chosen the worst aspects of both. The game is linear in the sense that you must unlock events in a particular order. But the geography of the game is nonlinear, because at any given time, you can travel to just about anywhere else you've already been. And the enemies are all still there.
In other words, it's really hard to tell which way you're supposed to be going. I just recently backtracked very close to the beginning of the game, fighting newly resurrected enemies all the way, before realizing that there's nothing happening there. Apparently there was some other branch that I was supposed to take. So I went back to hunt for the other branch, and got sidetracked going to another useless location.
Adding to this horror, some areas can only be accessed by a very roundabout route, but once you're there, you can instantly take a one-way path that drops you right back where you were. So if you make a wrong jump, you'll slide down a banner and land on the floor, only to realize that you're now in the same place you were 15 minutes ago when you started climbing, leaping, swinging, and shimmying your way to the top. Now you get to do it all over again.
Finally, the game gives you nothing in the way of hints about where you want to be. One button reveals a "map", but the map is just a big artist's sketch of the exterior of the palace. There's not even a large, friendly "you are here" arrow. At the top, it just says "Gardens." At the bottom, it helpfully says "Goal: Open the second tower." Say, it would be nice if you could let me know where the second tower is, you unhip suit-wearing fogey bastards.
It's a shame that there is such a high quantity of anti-fun in this game, because there really are strong hints of the elements that have made the entire Prince of Persia series so much fun. When you're climbing around an enormous yawning chasm, and you make a dangerous running leap, and JUST BARELY manage to grab on to the ledge as you fall past it, it gets the heart pumping while simultaneously conjuring up a delightful nostalgia for the original side scrolling games.
But the first game had different levels, and once you enter a new level, the door closes behind you. When you're on level 20 and about to rescue the princess, you can't accidentally drop down a few ledges and suddenly be back fighting the guys from level 1.
I rarely give games one star, preferring to reserve that rank for the absolute worst stuff I've ever played. This isn't that bad. But it's not good.
Score: ** (out of five stars)