More than a year after the Prince of Persia trilogy wrapped with the awesome Two Thrones, the acrobatic adventure has squeezed its way onto the PSP with Prince of Persia: Rival Swords. Essentially just Two Thrones with a surprising amount of new content shoehorned in, Rival Swords isn't just one of the best Prince of Persia games - it's one of the best PS2-to-PSP transitions we've played yet.
Unlike a lot of other PS2 ports we could name, with their choppy framerates and impossible cameras, the action and controls in Rival Swords are pretty close to flawless. The Prince bounces around the game's precarious environments with the same fluid grace he does in the full-sized versions, and guiding him up the game's impossible structures and past its giant deathtraps is somehow even easier. Granted, moving the camera around still gets awkward, but that's more than offset by the new levels, multiplayer modes and other extras that got stuffed into this edition.
Like Two Thrones, Rival Swords opens with the Prince returning home to Babylon to find it in flames. It seems that by mucking around with the past in PoP: Warrior Within, he's unwittingly resurrected one of his greatest enemies. Said enemy sacks Babylon and unleashes the deadly Sands of Time, turning his soldiers into monsters. Now Babylon is infested with sand zombies, the Prince is hunted through the streets and, worst of all, he's lost his shirt again.
Despite the downer of an opening, Rival Swords marks a return to the lighter, more adventurous tone of The Sands of Time, as well as to the puzzles that made that game great. There are still plenty of enemies to fight, but now there's a much greater focus on leaping, running and climbing your way through baroque deathtraps. These bits are challenging, but the solutions are usually obvious enough to not break your momentum as you hurtle through them. And if you screw up, the Prince can slow down or reverse time, letting you undo any boneheaded mistakes.
Combat, on the other hand, is kind of tedious and button-mashy, and while the Prince can bust out a nice assortment of acrobatic dodges and attacks, fighting still boils down to busting out repetitive combos until your enemies die. It's far more satisfying to just bust out stealthy "speed kills" whenever possible, which let you sneak up on enemies and hack them to death through a series of timed button hits. (These are also instrumental to winning the handful of boss battles, so you know.)
Fighting gets a hell of a lot more interesting when the Dark Prince shows up. A by-product of the internal struggle between the original charming, naive Prince and the "battle-hardened outcast" he became in Warrior Within, the Dark Prince is a shock-haired wraith with a razor-sharp whip imbedded in his forearm. Most of the time, he's just a sneering voice in the Prince's head, but he takes over when the story calls for it.
The problem with the Dark Prince is that he loses health constantly, and can only heal with magical sand - which, conveniently, is stored in enemy torsos. So if the Prince's segments aren't frantic enough for you, turning into the Dark Prince gives the game more urgency and a sharper focus on combat as you plow ahead as fast as possible, looking for the next enemy to get your sand fix from. It's not all bad, though; the Dark Prince's chain whip makes fighting (and death-from-above speed kills) a lot more interesting.
Of course, none of that will be news to anyone who's played The Two Thrones. What will be news is that the PSP edition features a handful of new levels, which the Prince delves into every time he closes one of the "sand portals" his enemies have left lying around the game. These tend to be short and more plagued with camera problems than other levels, but they still make for a cool diversion for those who've already played Two Thrones.
Less cool are Rival Swords' plentiful glitches, which seem to crop up whenever the game is played for longer than 15 minutes. They especially like to appear during fight scenes, as you might flip over a guard's shoulders and suddenly find yourself 20 feet away, or whiff your sword through the air when there's a guy standing right in front of you. Also, if the game suddenly seems quieter than it should be, it's probably glitching, as the voice-overs and music will frequently cut out for no apparent reason. It doesn't affect the action, of course, but the story's a lot less compelling when you can't hear the constant bickering between the Prince and his darker half.
Story aside, Rival Swords also features a throwaway chariot-racing mode, which would be a lot cooler if the chariot sequences weren't the most frustrating part of the game. More interestingly, the game packs in the Prince of Persia saga's first real multiplayer, and while it's limited to an ad-hoc race between two players, at least the approach is novel. At the beginning of each of the made-for-multiplayer levels, you'll pick from three branching paths. There's one that's hard and fast, one that's easy and slow and another one in between, and if you get tired of one path, you'll be able to switch off when they intersect. Depending on which direction you choose, you'll be able to spring traps on your opponent, tripping them up as you inch closer to the finish line.
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