Ironically for a game whose central mechanic involves turning back time, Ubisoft has spent the last 12 months trying to do just that.
After the majestic, understated, balletic brilliance of The Sands of Time, the splittle-flecked gothic angst of The Warrior Within was a shockingly unnecessary change of direction. Leaving most evangelists of the original ashen-faced, it was akin to the mortified humiliation of seeing your charming, witty best mate turn into a possessed, spiteful, drunken lunatic just at point you've introduced him up to all your cute single female friends. "Honestly, he's not normally like this," you plead as he vomits down Suzie's top.
Worse still, it was a very public mistake. All those people you'd spent a year raving about The Sands of Time to rushed out and bought it, meaning we've had a subsequent year of people whining at us in return. And what sucks even more is that now both sets don't really care about The Two Thrones. Even the die-hards mutter cynically that it'll be another Warrior Within, despite Ubi's repeated protestations that "no, really, it's much more like the first one! Wait…come back!"
Shot to the heart - and you're to blame, Ubi PoP: a bad name
So, in with a bullet at No.29 in this weeks' UK chart, it's as you were, with The Two Thrones apparently destined to suffer the same underperforming fate of the first in the trilogy - despite being the storming return to form Ubi promised it would be. If we had some Sands of Time on us right now, we'd bloody well rewind to 12 months ago and put this game on the shelves instead of The Game That Killed The Faith. Gah.
In this concluding part of the trilogy, the Prince returns to an under-siege Babylon with a new lover, Kaileena, only to find that the nefarious Vizier is back - and hungry for revenge. Naturally, he wastes little time in murdering your new beau, and swiftly unleashes the Sands of Time - making himself apparently immortal in the process. Full of righteous vengeance - but torn in two by the effects of the sands of time - you have to chase him down and finish this sorry episode once and for all.
In a nod to the previous games, you'll effectively play both princes; the charming, softly spoken 'light' one of The Sands of Time and the surly 'dark' prince so unloved in The Warrior Within. Rife with internal schizophrenic dialogue, it's actually a neat way to address why, exactly, the game's lead protagonist changed so radically in the last game, while giving us (for the majority of the game) the return to the original values of The Sands of Time. It's even the same voice actor, pleasingly.
But what did we actually want from a sequel to The Sands of Time anyway? It's a question most fans would have addressed at some point, and not all that hard to answer, in truth. The combat was a bit lacklustre in the original, for sure, demanding little more from the player than finding the nearest wall and bounding off it repeatedly and slashing wildly. But then, of course, Ubi went and placed far too much emphasis on the combat in The Warrior Within and managed to alienate a huge chunk of its audience in the process. We also wanted the same quality of devious-yet-satisfying platform puzzling, and for it to perhaps be a little longer. As spellbinding as The Sands of Time was, it was all over far too soon. Could Ubi right the wrongs of both, once and for all?
The instantly recognisable thing about The Two Thrones is compromise: the way it strives for a balance between everything it does, never overcooking the frenetic combat nor throwing the kind of puzzles in your way that have you frantically looking up the solution with abject exasperation. It also gets the look and feel right once again, returning to locales befitting of a Prince from Persia, replete with a soundtrack that's similarly more sympathetic to the subject matter, and ties it all together into a hugely satisfying 15-hour foray that gets its claws into you just like the original.
Obviously, Ubi hasn't just junked everything from The Warrior Within. The much-vaunted Free Form Fighting remains, giving you pages and pages of single weapon and double weapon combos to try out. To be honest, there's way too many to remember, but after a while you'll settle on what works for you - and for those of us that just want to get to the next platform puzzle as efficiently as possible, Ubi has just the thing: the Speed Kill. Essentially, it's a means of dispatching an unsuspecting foe with a deadly stealth attack that finishes them off in anything from one to five carefully timed blows.
To alert you that a Speed Kill is possible, an audio cue kicks in and the screen goes blurry around the edges. At that stage you must tap a button to invoke a slow motion manoeuvre, and just when the screen goes monochrome you then have a split (and we mean a split second to stab another button to land the blow correctly. Get your timing all wrong, though, and you're thrown off; forced not only to fight them in the normal freeform manner, but their mates as well. Mastery of the Speed Kill is not only a lot of fun to engage in, but it saves you a whole lot of hassle in the process, meaning you can creep through entire sections unscathed.
Once the prince gets his Sand of Time power back (yes, it takes a while), the game instantly becomes about five times more fun. For a start, you can make up for all those silly mistimed and misdirected jumps, but - more crucially - you get the chance to rewind failed Speed Kill attempts which seems to aid progress no end. Without this ability entire levels would otherwise become a huge slog where the odds are so hideously stacked against you, you simply wouldn't have the motivation to try and slug it out with everyone at once. For example, at several points along your quest you'll come across a Sand Plate, which is guarded by a sentry or three. Alerting these guards is bad for several reasons, but chief of them is the fact that they call for back-up, meaning that a fairly straightforward couple of speed kills can turn into a back-to-the-wall effort to even stay alive. After a period of failing Speed Kills and being forced to repeatedly duke it out with a crowd of enemies, you'll quickly learn the benefits of clean Speed Kills - and appreciate the ability to re-do them when they go wrong.
Later on, new unlockable abilities like The Eye of the Storm help the prince even more, allowing you to use one of your sand tanks to slow down time. Needless to say, this helps enormously when you're seriously outnumbered as well as giving Ubi another means of inventing devilish puzzles that require legging it over to a rapidly closing door. Oh, and it looks pretty cool, too. Even further into the game the Sand Winds and Sand Storm beef up your ground attack abilities - like the smart bombs in Golden Axe, but a bit more furious, and capable of instantly wiping out everyone around you. We find flatulence in the office after a big night out in Tandoori Nights has much the same effect.
You wouldn't like him when he's angry
Ahem. On top of that, the prince's new 'dark' side opens up other new gameplay possibilities, with a different combat style as well as a marked change of puzzle approach into the bargain. Unlike The Warrior Within, there's no dark world or anything as tedious as that; in The Two Thrones he's more like the Hulk in that he gets periodically possessed by an uncontrollable rage that transforms him into a 'ruthless, reckless and sadistic' character. Equipped with the flexible Daggertail, you get to whip everything in sight, as well as use it to swing between objects while traversing unfeasible chasms. As soon as he finds water the dark prince 'cools down' again, and normal service is resumed.
The chance of pace and change of tactics is a welcome one, rather than feeling forced and contrived. While the dark price is far more powerful in terms of combat (able to wipe out hugely powerful enemies with relatively little effort) the effects of his dark powers constantly drain his energy, meaning every section becomes a frantic rush to find more enemies to kill and pots to smash in order to top up his ever-draining reserves. After this ceaseless panic, you’re more than happy to be able to take your time again as the prince, and as such the gameplay feels nicely measured and balanced between the various styles it flits between.
Taking away the Speed Kill, though, it's fair to say that the combat still feels a little too random and a bit of a button mashers' paradise for our liking. Next to, say, Devil May Cry 3 or even God of War it's a game with almost too many combos, too many options and not enough of a clear focus on what actually is effective. For far too long you'll be fumbling along, never quite sure what move you just pulled off, or which one is actually the most effective against whom. Next time, Ubi, a less is more approach would work better. Sometimes you can have too many, especially evident when half of them seem to be based around pressing the same button multiple times. An invitation for a mash-fest or what?
Hounds of hate
Some of the enemies, too, seem designed specifically to kill you off as quickly and unfairly as possible, and being greeted by sand-gobbling canine hellhounds three at once is likely to rile even the most hardened PoP idol; especially when you realise you can simply leg it. Why even put them there if you can just scarper? Either place tough enemies in manageable numbers, or reasonably challenging ones that come in waves; just plonking you in an environment against creatures three times harder than anything you've faced, and then giving them the power to rob you of the only advantage you have (i.e. Sand) is a curious design decision. Most things in the game are pitched at just the right level of challenge, but there are some areas that will craze the living daylights out of you, so be prepared. Bring a cushion.
The chariot races, too, seem like a slightly pointless addition, as slick as the EA-style cutaway slo-mo's are. With one hit death the order of the day, it's a case of getting lucky, choosing the right path, steering pursuers into obstacles, hacking aggressors off and hoping the twitchy handling doesn't make a mug of you while you're doing it.
While the game still stacks up nicely as a whole, it's surprising to note how dated some of the visuals are starting to look. Maybe it's partly down to playing too many 360 games lately, or being spoiled by the likes of God of War or Shadow of the Colossus, but the stunned awe that PoP once inspired is replaced by a comfortable, familiar acceptance that what we're seeing is no longer standard-setting: time has caught up with it a little. Don't get us wrong, it's still a beautiful game, replete with excellent environments drenched in a heady atmosphere that most games still struggle to match, but it's the little things that irk now. Take the animation; in most senses it's still as spot-on amazing as it always was, but you start to notice the odd things, the strange lurching jump that doesn’t look as though it should land but does. Combat manoeuvres, too, have a tendency to look daft, with some animations looking unfinished or inappropriate. At its worst, glitches creep in, with enemies reacting very strangely indeed, choosing not to follow you when stood six feet away from you (despite the fact you're busy stoving their pal's head in). Meanwhile, the game's context sensitive combat system makes it a real pain to do simple things like jump onto a nearby platform to evade them. It's difficult to climb on a box when you're backing into it. Grrr.
Reclaiming the throne
A lot of this is nitpicking, of course, and arguably applies to all of the games in the series - and games which a lot of people loved to death. It's just as well there's so much to love about this one as a whole, too, with that same determined one-more-go feel about it as The Sands of Time. In all the respects that matter, The Two Thrones is the sequel we were hankering after all along. It's got a takes a measured approach to combat, pitches the atmosphere at the same eery, mysterious level that we loved about the first game, and wraps it all up with one of the more flexible control systems imaginable (quick point though, Ubi: why can't I invert the look up/down?) that make it possible to enjoy the kind of trap laden environments that would make Lara's eyes bleed at the prospect.
The Two Thrones might well be the concluding part of a trilogy, but it's really The Sequel That Should Have Been. An excellent return to form, Ubi: thanks for listening.