Review: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time (**** stars)

TL;DR – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time charmed reviewers nine years ago (if not the general public) with its storybook visuals, amazing and challenging platforming segments, and telling a simple story effectively in video game form. While certain elements have aged rather poorly, such as the repetitive and frequently annoying combat and the camera, the overall experience still stands as an excellent game that stands the test of time and deserves play.

Having never played the first few Prince of Persia games, this was my first exposure to the series. As the predecessors to Assassin’s Creed, it contains the same exact elements: combat and platforming. However, the former is an open-world grab bag of wonderful and tedious tasks – it’s impossible to make continually interesting content, and thus the quality slides. The latter, however, doesn’t have this problem – it provides a focused, taut experience entirely focused on the two aforementioned game styles. It’s also perfectly paced, almost coming in at the length of a downloadable game (I’d say 6-8 hours, but your mileage may vary).

The story…well, the story’s not THAT important other than introducing a fantastical setting. It’s a simple tale about tampering with magical powers, evil vizier that looks like Jafar from Aladdin (this must be an Arabian villain stereotype, as it’s seen far too often in these settings), and bad things that happen when you unintentionally unlock sand that tampers with time. What sets it apart, however, is the constant banter and interaction between the Prince (played with great aplomb, prestige, and condescension by Yuri Lownethal) and Farah (acted by Joanna Wasick, who I am quite impressed with here). They come from different worlds, but both arrive into a situation they can barely comprehend and dangers they don’t understand. Rather than fix the problem, at first, they lash out at each other with creative insults and mutual distrust that blossoms into romance and a rather full-fledged relationship in the vein of all great adventure films. Plus, they’re genuinely funny and witty to boot. Both voice actors make the script leap from the page and into your video game. Frankly, I’m impressed – even the twists and turns at the end add to the relationship even further, as well as closing the loop (you’ll get what I mean).

There are other reasons than aesthetics why you should play this. The Prince of Persia series always brings a great deal of creative platforming to the table, as your avater exemplifies the most agile protagonist you can have in a game. The Prince moves effortlessly over chasms and through traps, aided by rather tight controls that, usually, don’t kill you for no reason. Rather, timing remains king; unlike Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia punishes bad timing and poorly aimed jumps. Guaranteed, you will fall to your death more than once – the Prince, like any normal human being, can’t survive a twenty foot drop without injury or death. There’s a great deal of timed jumps, wall-runs, and gauntlet-style sections that require great reflex and skill. Each ability finds its own use, and nothing is superfluous here – you’ll find more and more intricate combinations of platforms as you go along, integrated with puzzles that will test your mind as well.

Unlike its predeccessors, however, the Sands of Time of the game’s namesake allow you to “rewind” any particular segment and resume a segment back when you weren’t hurtling toward your doom. This reduces the tedium of falling to your death, although the amount of “sand” you will be able to keep in reserve significantly lowers the challenge in the latter half of the game. At times, I’d die intentionally to keep my sand bar full – that’s probably not what the designers wanted, but it’s a valid tactic. It’s a good thing they take that ability away from you at the game’s climax, which involves a long, LONG climb up large tower – that doesn’t make it any less satisfying, however. In a way, the ability to rewind acts as training wheels for this shining moment when the scaling difficulty of the platforming reaches its zenith, and the developers trust that you’re ready. It’s a shining moment that perfectly integrates with the plot AND makes all those hours of running along walls, avoiding giant traps and navigating dense, puzzling rooms (God, the library is awful sometimes) all the more satisfying. Even so,  the system’s not broken due to sand being a resource with limited charges.

Camera angles, unfortunately, remain a problem. Though sometimes cinematic, and sometimes helpful, you’ll find camera angles that inexplicably change and cause you to die. These frustrate at times, especially when said jump requires, like Assassin’s Creed, the directional pad to face a particular way. I’m not saying these camera angles don’t look great – in fact, a set camera angle can work wonders. It’s the abrupt switching that makes certain segments a chore. Additionally, anytime you’re given control of the camera, it never works quite right. Often, it will try to refocus the camera behind you because an object is in the way of your viewing area, even though you want to move it in that direction – that this bizarre occurrence is also accompanied by a hilariously annoying swooshing sound doesn’t make it any better. Still, this doesn’t break the game by any means, but since Mario 64 perfected the 3D camera even before the advent of a right analog stick, you’d expect better (also: don’t play the PC version – the controls are awful, and you need a tactile controller for this).

However, Ubisoft Montreal felt the Prince couldn’t exist without some kind of combat system, and thus we have long segments of fighting. Simply put,  it commits a cardinal crime of video games: being really boring and dumb. I’ve found two unbelievably efficient strategies – vault over enemies and/or wall dive. One or the other will work on the vast majority of enemies in the game. There’s lots of options, granted (parries, blocks, flip attacks, whatever) but no need to use them. I’ve found that trying for parries places me in horrible situations – they don’t work from any angle but in front, and letting four enemies surround you is never a good idea. Getting knocked down by one enemy usually means death, as they’ll place you in a continual blocking animation in which you can’t escape (use sand!).

Your goal: knock down enemies. Once you do, you need to stab them with the Dagger of Time to kill enemies once and for all (and gain some extra sand power yourself). This becomes inconsistently bizarre, as sometimes other enemies won’t attack, and sometimes they’ll knock you out of your stab animation. Yet, other times, they’ll stand there dumbfounded, unable to figure out that. This isn’t a bad thing – the random nature of the enemy AI means you’ll want to separate enemies to prevent damage to yourself. Sometimes though, it makes the stabbing mechanic unfair at times, as predicting enemy movements becomes a matter of luck.

However, though I complain about the combat, there’s one thing it does exceedingly well: create tension. This isn’t a game of auto-saves and checkpoints. The game makes you EARN your save point after a treacherous and damaging platforming section. It’s almost impossible to thin out enemy numbers with continual respawns. Most encounters equate “challenge” with “endurance” – it’s not uncommon to face 12-16 powerful enemies in a row (though, thankfully, they only attack in groups of 4 at a time). Farah will also participate in fights, and her frailty means keeping her alive and out of harm’s way (and not too close – she can hit you as well, and the same goes for you) an important part of battles. While the combat isn’t perfect, it’s measured much like the platforming segments, and doesn’t present too many options. For once, we have a straightforward system that gives you limited options and clear goals in every encounter. Honestly, I’m not totally sold on it, as it’s obvious combat was secondary to the game’s true focus, but it’s passable.

In both respects, then, the holistic structure of the game seeps into the platforming and the combat. It doesn’t hurt that the small bits of music scattered throughout are AMAZING, or that the animations give a sense of real physicality, or that the graphics hold up well even nine years later. It’s so focused on these two styles, and so perfectly assembled into a linear, tunnel-like vision that the game succeeds even with its minor flaws. Every feels like it comes from the same experience, and makes perfect sense in the context of the story. You’ll have to accept the fact that this palace has a bizarre construction and far too many switches, however – that’s a game-like contrivance, but one you’ll hardly notice as the game tightens its grip around your consciousness and begs to be played.

I should mention, as well, that I write this after my third play through of the game. The Prince has lost none of his charm, nor have the puzzles dimmed in their ingenuity, nor has the challenge diminished. A good game doesn’t need endless variety, but focus. A game with focus will have flaws, sure, but it shows care for the player and designs a wholly consistent experience. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time does this effortlessly. The hands of a skilled game designer guide the player through their imaginary worlds without letting them out of their immersion. It keeps the player in mind. It doesn’t abandon them to faulty mechanics and immersion breaking contrivance. As the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 49:

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
And the Lord has forgotten me.”
15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
16 “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.

God keeps us in his mind continually, and doesn’t abandon those who obey Him. Even in sorrow and grief, He is still there even if it doesn’t feel that way. That’s quite the consolation – frustration isn’t the breaking point you think it is. God’s in control and hasn’t forgotten about you. It’s nice to know a game offers the same feeling. So it is in video games, so it is in real life.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.