Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Warrior Within: The Prince of Persia (and his software quality assurance team) plummet to their demise

at 6:00 PM

Above all things, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is probably remembered most as a symbol of a an era of faux-grit, where even a whimsical, sophisticated, and self-assured tale like Sands of Time could be brazenly supplanted by MTV's Godsmacked in a leather bikini cutting a dog in half (with fully real-time BloodParticle (TM) effects) without any justification whatsoever. While the gameplay mechanics were well-received, sales were fine, and an important lesson was learned for the next sequel, Warrior Within still managed to tarnish the perceived integrity of what had been the crowning achievement of the sixth console generation: Halo. Or, um, Sands of Time. (which, and let's not get into this here, but which had a far greater impact on game design-to-come than did the conservative, if blockbusting, Halo). With Prince of Persia: Warrior Within Featuring Godsmacked, Ubisoft reminded everyone (who cared enough to pay attention) that games are soulless entertainment products and that artistic vision is only permitted in commercial media so long as it doesn't conflict with demographic analysis.

Ignoring the stifled critical outcry, I actually don't think there's anything wrong with the concept of Warrior Within as a downer sequel to Sands of Time. Taking a youthful chummy character who went through a seriously traumatic experience and reflecting that in his development is actually... well it's a lot more honest than having Nathan Drake or Max Payne toss off a one-liner after their 1,445th murder. The Prince, and most video game heroes along with him, should be kinda insane. You heard of this thing called PTSD? Even the Ninja Turtles got a bit shell-shocked here and there d;^) The strands of that transformation definitely lurk amidst Warrior Within's story - for instance when the Prince transforms into a wraith and murders himself. For all it's association with baby teenagers, angst can be a sophisticated narrative subject. I think it would've been a mistake to continue in an ever-darkening pattern, but it's only the aforementioned cynicism that would make us assume that would happen. 

The art design of the new Island of Time setting is pretty excellent too. More Persian sandcastles would've been really boring, especially considering sand is generally thought of as not that interesting a thing to look at. Rather than another mystically transformed period backdrop, Warrior Within offers a glance through the looking glass to the reality-defying world that spawned the fantastical Sands of Time, adorned with clockwork machinery (get it? clockwork? like time?), eternal gardens, and demonic inhabitants. The Sands were actually a pretty horrific thing in the first game - the kind of thing you don't want Saddam Hussein stocking up in a secret bunker - so it makes a lot of sense that they come from this haunting otherworldly fortress.

What I'm trying to convey is that the game shows a lot of potential and seems to come from a sensible place. There's no real need to ask "why did they go dark?". There is, however, good reason to ask "why did they go Mature?". It isn't the tone or the concept that feel wrong, it's the weird superficial trappings hinting at a lack of faith in the concept's sales potential. The nu-metal soundtrack, the salacious female foes, the sprays of blood - they're all an escape from the macabre tone of the story, a means of backing down tragic angst to something more teenager-friendly and marketably "gritty". There is nothing challenging or mature about a stripper with a knife moaning in pleasure as the Prince cuts her to pieces. That's abject sleaze. The sad thing is that all of these embarrassing elements are utterly irrelevant and surface-level, as if one of the developer's 14-year-old sons sneaked into the studio the night before release to do a little "tweaking".

And that's probably painfully close to what happened. Warrior Within came out right before God of War, but not right before the God of War two-year hype-train launched into orbit. In fact, the entire development of a Sands of Time sequel probably took place under the shadow of Sony's behemoth brainwashing campaign (iirc as launch approached G4TV was running a 24/7 picture-in-picture live feed of David Jaffe's personal bathroom). So while Ubisoft had Developer A off making his cool Labyrinth fantasy concept art, Developer B was in an isolated room studying God of War trailers and secretly developing a Teenagerizer Ray to convert the finished product into something sure to embarrass everyone.

Unfortunately (again), there never was a "finished product" with Warrior Within. This is of course pure speculation, but holy shit is this game incomplete. The rushed quality makes a lot of sense taking into consideration it was developed in a year and assuredly "guaranteed" (by someone who was not at all a developer) to make a December 2004 release - critical both in preempting God of War and in capitalizing on the final holiday season belonging to sixth gen consoles.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing evidence of the crunch is how goddamn little sense the plot makes. Time travel logic is notoriously difficult to establish and Warrior Within's solution is not to try. At a critical moment in the game, the Prince goes back in time and kills himself to stop himself from creating the sand that allows people to travel back in time to kill themselves. So he returns to the present without the existence of the time-traveling sand and he was very clearly murdered by himself last week before he went back in time to murder himself and extinguish the time-travel-sand and that's a-okay? Is this Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah? It is so fucking lazy it begs the question why bother with the time travel in the first place. The answer is because it doubles the gameplay space (every area has a past and present version) without doubling the development time, so who cares if we can explain it.

The weird selection of voice actors also reeks of "didn't have time to get the right people". Why is the Prince played by a new actor? The Prince's character from Sands of Time was all about that external monologue performance. He doesn't feel like the same person anymore. And you know someone at Ubisoft knew that, because the original (Sands) actor returned for Two Thrones and Forgotten Sands. Possibly even worse is that new main character Kaileena is played by two different actresses! In the same game! That is some hardcore low budget shit right there. There's also not that much voice-over content. Or at least it seems that way, since...

The bugs in this game are insane. Sound effects and voice-over disappeared from my playthrough PERMANENTLY around the halfway point. Never to return. For all intents and purposes, Ubisoft may as well have saved the time and budget on audio, because I never got to hear half of it. This is a AAA holiday release Gamecube game from a major publisher! Not some bargain bin Christian Bible Big Rigs shit. I continued to follow the story thanks to cutscene subtitles, but if the Prince was externally monologuing the same way he did in Sands of Time, I missed it. I wasn't about to replay the first 8 hours and this time cross my fingers that the game didn't completely shit itself.

Perhaps in an attempt to replace the missing sound effects, the game caused my console to make all kinds of loud clicking and disc-reading noises that it has never made otherwise. I finally decided to queue up some Allman Brothers Band on the iPod and tough it out to the end. I did want to see the credits at least once, as all-told it's a fun game and the only one in the series I'd yet to complete.

Despite my best efforts, Warrior Within shall remain the only game in the series I've yet to complete. That's because the portal to the final boss fight doesn't work. At all. In this game. There is no way to get to the final boss fight and see the ending. The game ends for good at the final save point. I've read online that there is a rare bug that lets you continue through to the conclusion - it requires deleting your save file, playing all 15-20 hours a second time, and saying a prayer that the portal will work this time. If it wasn't for all the other random glitching and audio not working, maybe someday in 20 or 30 years I'd regain the enthusiasm to see through Warrior Within. Looks like it just isn't meant to be.

I'm not going to write a conclusion because it's not like I got one for this piece of shit game. I'd be genuinely pissed if I had bought it for full price in 2004. As is I'm just kinda depressed because my OCD doesn't let me take this off the "games to complete" list.

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