Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part three

A while ago I started looking at whether you could take anything interesting from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for use in RPGs. I've had a quick overview of general ideas and issues, and then considered how you might handle things in Pathfinder or BRP. Now I'm going to go back and examine POPSOT's combat in a bit more detail, because it's such a major part of the game's flavour.


The fundamental thing about combat in POPSOT is that it's player-driven, not character-driven. Your character's accuracy in combat depends on what you do, not on some characteristic or skill of the Prince himself. You hit enemies if you deliver an appropriate attack when they're in range and approximately in front of you. You parry attacks by using the Parry command at suitable times. You dodge attacks by moving the Prince away from them. You perform special attacks by pressing the right buttons when you're in the right position, and they succeed if you picked the right attack for the target.

Success in Combat

The combat is fundamentally kill-based, rather than damage-based. You can chop away at enemies all you like, but the only way to destroy most enemies is to perform a coup de grace (in this case, using the Dagger of Time to drain the magic from a downed enemy). If you leave a fallen opponent for even a few seconds, they'll regenerate entirely. Only specific rare enemy types (birds, bats and scarabs) can be actually killed by normal attacks.

Downing an enemy requires a certain threshold of damage. Four or five hits is enough to do this, but un-downed enemies seem to recover from your hits if left for a while, perhaps while you fight off another target. Ideally, then, a seamless string of blows from focused attacks is needed to down the target, followed by a coup de grace to destroy it. This coup de grace also recharges your Dagger of Time, allowing you to use special abilities.

There are also two special combat moves available: somersaults and wall jumps. Somersaults let you flip over a target's head and backstab them. Wall jumps let you use a wall as a springboard to launch yourself at a target. Either attack will insta-down most enemies, but certain enemy types are immune to one or the other, and in some cases will damage you instead. Further into the game, special moves become the most sensible and effective way of downing enemies, and most combat consists of holding off opponents until you can work yourself into position for an appropriate special move.

The Prince acts much more quickly than any enemies. He can attack several times in the time it takes an enemy to strike once, as well as attacking and rolling away, or attacking and parrying. A single "round" for an enemy is often enough time for the Prince to cut down an enemy with repeated blows, and prepare for a coup de grace. He can also outpace them on foot, although...

Movement and Manoeuvring

Enemies can teleport in order to keep pace with the Prince. If the Prince moves a certain distance away from them, rather than keep running, they'll simply teleport. The animation takes a second or so at each end, and makes a noise, so he has a moment to prepare when a monster appears next to him. This ability means that the Prince can't easily isolate individual enemies to defeat, but must always fight several at once. In addition, he can't use his manoeuvrability, acrobatics or intelligence to gain an advantage by finding safe spots to lurk in, or separating groups of enmies.

Enemies sometimes wait in place, but this mostly applies to rooms you enter. In most cases, enemies materialise around you to begin a fight. During the fight, further enemies materialise as reinforcements, typically appearing within combat range. The Prince cannot avoid combats by timing movement or skirting around enemies. Enemies do not patrol or take any ordinary actions. Combat is therefore mostly a compulsory set-piece experience.

Other Factors

The Prince can use the Dagger of Time to manipulate the flow of time. He can rewind time to negate an undesirable result, such as taking a mortal injury or being knocked down. He can freeze an enemy in time for a few seconds, allowing him to kill it with a couple of follow-up attacks, without needing a coup de grace; this also takes an enemy out of the fight temporarily. Finally, he can slow down the perception of time, allowing the player slightly more time to control and consider actions and reactions - though it doesn't allow him to actually act faster than enemies. Again, these are mostly tactical decisions, though rewinding time is more complicated. To be honest, I never found the other abilities particularly interesting or useful in POPSOT, and used them mostly by accident, so I can't say much about them.

Finally, there's your NPC companion Farah. In theory, she helps out by shooting at enemies with her bow. There are a handful of situations where she's a net plus, mostly when fighting annoying birds, which she can kill far more easily than you. The rest of the time, she needs protecting from the guards. Her attack rate is glacial, she can't actually kill anything, and she's not clever enough to just run away and resume firing.

In many ways, then, combat in POPSOT is a sort of tactical minigame. You match appropriate manoeuvres and attacks to the situation, and try to execute them accurately. Success depends on your ability to select and execute manoeuvres, not on the Prince's skills. When she's around, you must also keep track of Farah's status, drawing enemies away from her, and occasionally rushing back to catch any that have her pinned.

There's one final thing to bear in mind about POPSOT combat: all too often, it gets boring. Combats go on too long, with multiple waves of enemies. Teleporting prevents interesting tactics. There's not enough variety in enemy types for the amount of combat, and your own attacks and manoeuvres are too limited to stay interesting. This is something we really want to avoid.

Next time I'll think about how these things could be modelled in tabletop, and whether I'd actually want to.

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