It's been a long road for the Prince of Persia. Coming from out of nowhere to score a smash reinvention after years of lying fallow, the masterful Sands of Time was both a surprise and a pleasure. The sophomore followup, Warrior Within, was an effort that was structurally admirable, but left many cold with darker aesthetics and harsher tone. Unlike some developers, Ubisoft must have been paying attention to the unhappy comments because this third iteration, The Two Thrones, is a solid return to the form and style that made so many sit up and take notice. Keeping true to the original precedent, Two Thrones has more in common with Sands of Time than it does with its immediate predecessor, and most will see this as a good thing—myself included.
The Two Thrones features third-person high-wire acrobatics and stylish combat set in a fantastical Middle-Eastern world, like its brethren. Death-defying jumps and impossible feats of athleticism conquer abstract architecture and heights that resist gravity. At its core, this is only a variation of the original gameplay, and nothing here will convert people who have not signed on already. But, for those who can appreciate the impeccable controls, environments that look like they've been taken out of a storybook, and unquestionable technical craftsmanship, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones is a rare sequel; satisfyingly familiar, yet with enough new ground to make the exploration worthwhile.
Enhancing the hallmark wall-running and ledge-grabbing the games are known for are two changes to the formula—stealth kills and the Prince's alter-ego, the Dark Prince.
Stealth kills are timed sequences that become available when the Prince is able to approach enemies undetected from behind or above. By surveying the layout of levels before rushing into battle, it's often possible to remove enemy guards quietly through surgical precision. Adding this element was a good move, since historically combat has been a facet of the Persia games that has proven hardest to get right. Not only does this technique avoid a lot of unnecessary and repetitive battle; it helps maintain the quick pace and flow of play since strategic assassinations take only a fraction of the time a regular fight would.
The other new element, the Dark Prince, also has a similar streamlining effect. After being exposed to magical sands, the Prince develops a crack in his psyche and has to deal with the internal conflict of a split personality that also manifests physically. More ruthless and aggressive, this evil side uses a chain-like weapon to slice through opponents and grapple far objects. His weakness is that he loses health quickly, and at a constant rate. Going too long between killing enemies or finding life-replenishing sand will put an end to the adventure.
Much like the Dahaka chase sequences in Warrior Within, the Dark Prince segments required me to move faster and rush through areas, counting mostly on reflexes and instinct. It works well to add pressure and intensity to level navigation that's usually calm and serene, and I was especially grateful that these pieces never went on for an extended period of time. However, I didn't think that the internal dialogue between the two mental halves was very convincing, or even well-written. More cheesy and annoying than anything else, the presentation falters a bit in this area.
People who journeyed with the Prince on his first two adventures will be glad to know that the overarching storyline started in Sands comes to a satisfying conclusion in Thrones. Some familiar faces make a welcome return, along with some who are not-so-welcome. It's true that this is the sort of game that is not played for its plot, but I appreciated the fact that the developers made an effort to tie everything up, especially given the fact that dealing with time travel (one of the series' key elements) in any story complicates things by an order of magnitude.
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones doesn't break away from its former identities or experiment with many new facets, but it is notable in that it avoids most of the things that turned so many people off of Warrior Within. By removing the questionable focus-group aesthetics and getting back to what made the game so great in the first place, The Two Thrones succeeds in delivering a rock-solid adventure experience from start to finish.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.