Story spoilers for Prince of Persia: Warrior Within ahead!
The first two thirds of Prince of Persia’s story is uninspired but still solid. And when it comes to video-games, that’s basically a glowing recommendation.
The prince is trying to undo a curse fating him to die, so he travels to the island of time to prevent the creation of the sands of time. He is ambushed by an assassin clad in black. He finds her trying to kill another woman and saves her.
The prince reaches the throne room and meets up the woman he saved. She is the Empress of Time's assistant, Kaileena. She tells him he must undo the two locks on the door to confront the Empress. One is a mechanical contraption in an elaborate clocktower, the other is water powered in the hanging gardens.
The prince battles and platforms his way through each area, unlocking both locks and the doors. He returns to the throne room, discovering Kaileena was the Empress all along. He is forced to kill her to prevent her from ever making the sands, as the Empress has been inspired by the Prince's fight against his fate - she herself was fated to die by the Prince's hand.
The Prince defeats the Empress in a gruelling battle. He has done it, he has changed his fate. “Its time to get off this rock”.
This story works as a minor tragedy - The Prince and Empress have conflicting fates and seem impossible to reconcile. They share the same desire to be free from that prison. And the eventual necessity (or perhaps human necessity) to end up in raw opposition when they have to much in common. If only.
Turns out you’re not done yet. The Prince, in killing the Empress, has in fact created the sands. He is “The architect of his own destruction”. So the game continues, this time with the Prince hunting down some kind of mask that lets him change his fate?
You meander around, not really knowing where you’re headed, until you randomly stumble upon said mask. You then spend the next 2-3 hours repeatedly trying to reach the throne room, only for the Dahaka to find you and throw you through walls into completely new, random areas. Finally, you kill the Empress again, but this time in the present, which somehow magically does work???
I’m not even criticising the game for the rubbish, nonsensical time travel stuff. Looper says it best: when you try to explain time travel you end up getting confused and making diagrams with straws. The problem is that you go from having clear objectives and a thrilling climax to bumbling around.
When I knew I needed to open the lock by switching the mechanical tower on, I had a clear sense of purpose. And this is in spite on how complex the tower is - there are at least two or three mechanisms over multiple rooms that need to click into place. But it holds together because I have a clear sense of place - I’m in the mechanical wing of the tower, turning on all of the machinery to undo a lock.
When I randomly found out about a random mask that:
Is described in great detail in hieroglyphs on a wall where I happen to be
Has not been mentioned at all up to this point
Has zero information on its location
Has no clear reason for being ‘fate breaking’ compared to regular time travel
And I have no idea how to get to it, I just feel lost. I’m now no longer going to a particular place, for a particular reason - I’m wandering along the corridors that the game points me along and hoping it all works out.
When you do finally get the mask, the game does a good job ‘subverting your expectations’ in the same manner that ‘The Last Jedi’ does. That is, it stuffs you around constantly every time you’re about to get any sort of satisfaction. At this point, you just want the game to end, but it keeps delaying it, making you repeat sections over and over again. It doesn’t help that there’s no grand objective here that you’re gradually building towards like earlier, it's literally just ‘get to the the throne room’.
When you finally get there you bring the Empress to the present to kill her there, which magically solves all your problems? Except it doesn’t - the final cutscene shows a burning Persia with the Empress whispering on the winds ‘You cannot change your fate”. At this point I’m past caring, since the game has robbed me of my agency by making me play through the past 5 hours of waffle.
If you’re trying to do time travel keep it simple - Let people either change time like in Back to the Future or make it about the nature of fate like the star trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever’. Or you can make it about family and love like in “Time enough for Love” or the pointless of war like in ‘The Forever War’. You could even try to make a time travel movie that makes sense, like ‘Primer’ - although I’d advise you not to try. Prince of Persia’s wildly swingy tone, crappy aesthetics, laughable characters and embarrassing dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. If the game had ended two thirds in instead of going for the stupid M. Night Shyamalan twist, I would have been much more invested in Prince of Persia’s story.