Bless you, Jordan Mechner…You single-handedly managed to revitalize the action platformer genre with your puzzle-ridden romp through Eastern kingdoms. Personally, I look back with fondness on Prince of Persia: It was one of the games that I constantly played on lunch breaks or free periods in school. It was also one of the titles that taught me a lot of the backdoors of the Windows file structure, as my friends and I constantly hid playable copies in our network accounts from the watchful eyes of the computer lab staff. Unfortunately, only two sequels followed within 5 years, leaving fans of the swashbuckling adventure series hanging without their Persian fix. Now, 10 years later, Mechner’s series returns with a vengeance to next-generation systems and computers with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Like previous PoP games, players take on the role of an unnamed Prince from a Persian kingdom. However, his betrothed princess hasn’t been kidnapped like previous titles in the series; instead, this bachelor prince is merely seeking glory and adventure to please his father, a powerful king besieging land in India. I’m not going to give away a lot of details for this game, because the plot is nicely written and features quite a few twists along the way. (If you expected any, put the hookah down and step away from the TV, because you’re only getting generalities.) Instructed to retrieve a special dagger locked away in the bowels of an Indian castle by his father’s vizier, the prince charges into battle with sword drawn. However, after crating the spoils of war to a neighboring court, the prince (again under the cunning direction of the vizier) unwittingly releases the Sands of Time, dangerous powers that turn just about anyone it touches into dangerous sand beasts. To avoid this terrible fate, the prince will have to return the lost sand to the Hourglass of Time and escape the castle.
Many players of previous PoP games might remember the prince as being rather inflexible and tight with their movement. Well, apparently this prince has been tutored by someone from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon universe and managed to catch a Matrix movie or two. Extremely agile, players will find themselves running horizontally along walls, flipping off ledges or other objects, and swinging from ropes, flagpoles or other environmental objects. Able to scale many seemingly insurmountable walls by quickly bouncing between surfaces or shimmy across ledges, the prince has an amazing sense of balance. This prevents him from intentionally walking off precipices or other drops, because he’ll either stop and retrieve his equilibrium or swing down and grab the edge of the wall. What’s remarkable about the moves available to the prince is the fluidity of motion, which is probably the most realistic animation ever seen in a game.
This silky smoothness is highlighted by the combat system, which is rather intuitive. Instead of a targeting system, players are free to select their victim by pointing the prince in the direction of the monster. He responds by tumbling and flipping towards the threat, slashing his scimitar at the head or torso of the beasts. The prince can also launch himself like a torpedo at his adversaries by bouncing off walls. His accursed dagger (you know, the one that started the trouble) gets into the act as well, acting as either a finishing move to disperse creatures or as a means to freeze enemies in their place. Once frozen, these foes can be quickly destroyed or left to deal with more pressing attackers.
However, the possessor of the Dagger of Time receives many more abilities than simply freezing one creature in place, all triggered by the amount of sand you manage to retrieve on your adventure. Players have the option to slow time down dramatically, allowing the prince to get extra attacks in against monsters. Any potential mistakes made, whether during combat or normal exploration, can automatically be avoided by rewinding time. However, there are even some times when you will still find yourself completely outnumbered. While you’ll exhaust all of your stored sand, you can make yourself move faster than time itself, automatically striking deadly finishing blows against any beast in your way.
Like I said above, of the powers you receive with the dagger, the one you’ll find yourself using the most is the power of rewind. This will save your hide more times that you’ll be able to count, as you run around, above and across the numerous levels of the castle trying to solve its puzzles. Anyone who’s played any of the Prince of Persia titles knows that PoP games pride themselves on bending gamer’s brains with split second timing riddles and trap-filled hallways. Well, most of those obstacles are back in new insidious ways. For example, many doors require switches to be pulled before you can continue through a section. Unfortunately, pulling the switch also manages to activate defense systems, which turns of deadly objects such as spinning blades, slashing poles and rotating buzzsaws. Just in case you were wondering PoP fans, the ever hated spike traps have made a return as well. Yet while these obstacles would automatically slaughter previous princes, players will have a chance to replenish their strength thanks to the pools of water lying around the castle.
If you’ve been looking for the one game to impress upon your friends or family just how beautiful games can be, then look no further than PoP. Stunning, captivating and eye-popping are three terms that can’t even begin to describe just how beautiful this game looks. Simply put, you really have to see this game, and even then you won’t believe it, because screenshots aren’t dynamic enough to show this game off fully. Impressively, Sands of Time looks great on every platform, including the now much graphically maligned PS2. Backgrounds are rich and textured, and it’s really cool to see the distinct differences between a lush garden and a dark cave or dungeon. It’s also nice to see how interactive some of the background elements are, such as flowing tapestries, flags, or cages that can realistically be knocked down. You’ll also notice the impressive tracking of particles regardless of the system PoP is played on. As the Prince walks through the scattered Sand of Time that coats the floors, you’ll notice how it swirls and moves around him. Similarly, as every monster is destroyed with the dagger, it’ll explode, followed by a scattering of bright light and small flashes of light that get absorbed into the blade of the weapon.
As I’ve said earlier, animation is incredibly smooth and natural looking, and this extends for more than just the prince. His fellow reluctant adventurer, Farah, is just as slick, and shimmies through wall cracks or destroys enemies with a bow and arrow that she carries. With the wide open areas, you’d expect there to be a ton of camera problems or some significant graphical glitches. However, Sands of Time is virtually perfect in this regard as well, with a ton of motion blurring cuts between camera angles and different moves. The game is intelligent in its use of angles, tracking and finding the best one to highlight the onscreen action. This can result in a number of Matrix-like zooms and pans, yet its never disorienting like other games. In fact, the slightest issue you could find with some of the graphics is the rare instance of clipping.
A haunting melodic soundtrack accompanies the graphics of Sands of Time beautifully. Full of Middle Eastern flavors, the music flows throughout the gameplay, becoming feverish during significant fights and seamlessly melting away afterwards. Sound effects are very well done also, with the clang of metal on stone and the explosion of monsters standing out amongst them as definite highlights. Incidentally, Sands of Time actually tracks relative distance of objects when it reports an sound, meaning that you might hear a muted effect or an echo if you’re far away from the sound itself, ramping up the volume as the prince gets closer to its source. The true gem of the game is the dialogue itself, which is perfectly delivered by the game’s actors. The prince’s delivery of lines, many of which are given as a narration to the story, provides a reflective look on his adventure. While it seems like he’s proud at times, deeper reflection reveals how much this character grows throughout the game. Even better is the banter between the prince and Farah, which displays a sarcastic, playful friendship that begins to deepen as the game goes on. This is highlighted by the fact that the prince will speak to himself as he runs through the castle, a natural characteristic we all do, which gives players a larger look at this character’s personality. And perhaps one of the greatest touches that the designers put into the game is the prince’s commentary during saves or the occasional mistake that you’ll make. For instance, hearing the prince say, “No, no, that’s not how it happened,” is a tongue in cheek way of motivating players to keep playing while at the same time keeping the tone of the game being an epic adventure.
The game does a great job of fostering an idea of a large scale adventure with the massive environments found throughout the game. It is somewhat deceiving, however, considering that the game is only about 10 hours or less. Novice gamers that haven’t ever played this kind of game before might want to pick up the BradyGames guide to help them get used to how to navigate the game’s areas, but advanced players will pick up the control scheme quickly. Once you’ve conquered the game, you’re probably not going to find yourself returning to play Sands of Time over and over. Thankfully, the designers have included somewhat of a challenge, with the inclusion of the very first Prince of Persia game as an extra as well (Gamecube owners get the option to use the GBA as an alternate way to play the game, while Xbox owners actually get the second Prince of Persia game included). Deceiving length of play aside, the other slight against Sands of time is the lack of unique features. Shortly after you start the game with the Dagger of Time, you’ve essentially received all the powers you’ll ever have. You don’t really ever power up different levels of the powers I described above or gain tons of new abilities; you simply add additional sand tanks so you can trigger the powers more frequently. Even the different swords that you acquire are few and far between, so by the time you receive the most destructive weapon of the game, the finish line is clearly in sight.
Those problems aside, however, Sands of Time is excellently produced, with intuitive, responsive controls, a deep, engaging storyline and immersive sound. Not only does Prince of Persia: Sands of Time live up to the legacy of the Prince of Persia series, it pushes it in new directions, easily establishing a stake for Game of the Year honors. Simply put, if you own a console or a PC, do yourself a favor and pick this game up. You won’t be disappointed at all.