Prince of Persia: Warrior Within radically redefined a classic franchise, for good and ill

These days, French game developer/publisher Ubisoft is mostly known for properties like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Ghost Recon, but way back in the early aughts the studio was instrumental in the revival of an iconic gaming series: Prince of Persia. 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time rebooted original creator Jordan Mechner’s classic franchise, bringing it into the modern 3D realm and introducing fun new gameplay concepts such as the ability to rewind time on a whim.

In regards to both sales and critical reception, The Sands of Time was a massive success, making the prospect of a sequel less of a speculative concept and more of an inevitable outcome. Said sequel would arrive a little over a year after The Sands of Time’s launch, but other than the use of the ‘Prince of Persia’ branding and the presence of the titular Prince protagonist, 2004’s Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (which just celebrated its 15th birthday on December 2) had next to nothing in common with its predecessor.

Lights Out

One of The Sands of Time’s most distinct elements was how it used bright, colorful, almost cartoony visuals to build up an Arabian world of sand and sunshine that was equal parts mesmerizing and ominous. Given that bright aesthetic, it was no doubt a shock for fans when Ubisoft decided to go in pretty much the exact opposite direction for Warrior Within.

“Bright” and “colorful” are two words that definitely would not describe Warrior Within. The sequel game is dark, moody, and, again unlike its predecessor, incredibly violent. In The Sands of Time, the prince dispatches monsters made of sand and thus not a single drop of blood is shed throughout the entire game. In Warrior Within, the prince gleefully dismembers demons and other creatures, hacking away limbs as fountains of blood spray indiscriminately.

Ubisoft leaned even further into Warrior Within’s darker aesthetic by replacing the Prince’s voice actor. In The Sands of Time, voice actor Yuri Lowenthal helped shape the Prince into a roguish scoundrel who could throw out a barbed quip or a sword thrust with equal amounts of ease. Being cast as the Prince was actually Lowenthal’s first big break as a voice actor (and he’d go on to voice characters like Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Insomniac’s recent PS4 exclusive Marvel’s Spider-Man), but for Warrior Within Ubisoft wanted the Prince to sound gruffer and more menacing so they instead hired voice actor Robin Atkin Downs.

Warrior Within’s soundtrack got the dark makeover treatment as well, subbing out The Sands of Time’s more melodious Arabic tunes for music that focused more heavily on harsh guitar riffs and heavy metal overtones. Two songs from the heavy metal band Godsmack, “I Stand Alone,” and “Straight Out of Line,” were also featured in both Warrior Within’s marketing materials and the game itself.

Living Off the Land

A major selling point which Ubisoft touted for Warrior Within was its freeform melee combat system. In The Sands of Time, players used the same main-hand sword/off-hand dagger pairing throughout the entire game, but for Warrior Within Ubisoft expanded that basic dual-wield system to include other off-hand weapon types such as axes, maces, and off-hand swords.

Off-hand weapons in Warrior Within had limited durability and would eventually break through sustained use, the idea being that players would routinely find and wield new weapons. Players could even throw their off-hand weapon at an enemy as a form of pseudo-ranged combat, though this was meant as more of a last-ditch move since it left the Prince vulnerable. Depending on what sort of off-hand weapon the Prince held, players could also execute different attack combos and take advantage of each weapon class’s unique properties (axes, for example, were slower than other classes but inflicted more damage).

Along with melee combos, Warrior Within players could also execute the same sorts of acrobatic navigation and combat maneuvers they had grown accustomed to in The Sands of Time. Mastering these maneuvers was important since a pivotal part of the sequel’s new storyline involve the Prince being ceaselessly hunted by an invincible demon called the Dahaka. There were several points in the game where the player had to navigate tricky platforming sequences as the terrifying Dahaka bore down on them, adding a little survival horror spice to the game’s already challenging navigation components.

A Bridge Too Far

Like its predecessor, Warrior Within sold pretty well, though its critical reception was more divisive. There were plenty of positive reviews to go around, but the response to the sequel’s more gritty and dark tone was, at best, understandable confusion and, at worst, outright ridicule. Where some saw the darker nature of the Prince and his world as “more mature,” others felt the jarring tonal shift was unnecessary and that certain elements like the use of excessive violence and scantily clad female characters was in poor taste.

Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner (who had consulted on The Sands of Time but wasn’t involved with Warrior Within) also expressed his distaste for the sequel, saying he was disappointed with the artistic direction Ubisoft had chosen to go in.

Other elements of Warrior Within were off-putting to dedicated fans as well. To voice one of the game’s other central characters, a mysterious woman named Kaileena, Ubisoft recruited Italian actress Monica Belluci (Spectre, The Matrix Reloaded) as well as a sound-alike actress named Alicyn Packard, suggesting that Belluci only voiced Kaileena for certain parts of the game. Fans also weren’t shy about expressing their distaste for the Prince’s new vocal direction, and to its credit Ubisoft made a point of bringing Yuri Lowenthal back to voice the Prince in the two games that would follow Warrior Within, 2005’s Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands.  

Shifting Sands

The Prince of Persia series as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, which isn’t surprising considering how it has spanned numerous games (including a second reboot that was released in 2008), spin-off novels, an official Lego playset, and even a 2010 Disney-produced feature film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Kingsley. In the grand scheme of things, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within probably isn’t the biggest misstep the series has made, but it is one of the most memorable, thanks in large part to just how noticeably different it was from its direct predecessor.

It’d be unfair to simply write Warrior Within off as a bad game, especially since there’s a lot about it that’s quite good. The game was divisive, yes, and to say that it gave fans of The Sands of Time no small amount of tonal whiplash would be an understatement. In a weird sort of way, though, Ubisoft’s gambit actually paid off. Whether out of loyalty to the series or sheer curiosity, a lot of people bought and played Warrior Within, and it was because of their support that the Prince of Persia franchise continued to thrive for many years hence.