– Superb evolution of the platforming formula
– Excellent platforming puzzles and traps
– Introduction of the “time reverse” mechanic relieves the frustration of failure
– Charming characters and witty dialogue
– Story told as a narration fits the Arabian theme
– Excellent graphics for the time, still hold up reasonably well
– Great music
– Combat isn’t particularly enthralling and can be “broken” with a few attacks
– Some of the puzzles can have obscure solutions
– Pre-rendered cutscenes look pretty bad in this day and age
– The game eventually ends
This ain’t your momma’s Prince of Persia
Back when I was a child, my time was primarily occupied by three games: The Incredible Machine 2, Lords of the Realm II, and Prince of Persia, all on the computer. The original Prince of Persia was a 2D platformer with a focus on “realistic,” meaning you couldn’t drop down 100 feet and just walk it off. It had an interesting mix of puzzles, platforming, and climbing combined with some pretty mediocre combat and a difficulty curve that was out of this world. After making a few successful versions of the 2D Prince, the original creators tried their hand with Prince of Persia 3D, which was a pretty bad attempt to modernize the series. Needless to say it was forgotten, and the whole series was abandoned for several years until Ubisoft decided to bring it back in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. As another attempt to put the prince in 3D, this time the formula was…let’s say a little more successful.
Welcome to the new 3D platformer.
The story this time around revolves around a young, brash, headstrong Prince (of Persia) who aspires for glory in battle under the watchful gaze of his father, the king. When Persia invades a city, the Prince (in a hunt for treasure) acquires the Dagger of Time, a weapon whose full potential is initially unknown to him. After returning to Persia with both the Dagger of Time and the Sands of Time, a massive hourglass, a treacherous Vizier tricks the Prince into putting the dagger into the Sands, causing time to mess up and everybody in Persia to turn into crazy sand monsters. As one of three people who were’t changed (the Prince, the Vizier, and a captured girl from the original city called Farah), the Prince has to confront his arrogance in order to undo his mistake and fix both time and the mess he brought upon his family and country.
It’s a simple story, but what shines is how well it is played out. The entire thing has an Arabian Nights feel to it, because the Prince is actually narrating this story to an unknown audience throughout the entire game. Should you fail completely, the Prince will hesitate and say, “Hmm…no, that’s not how it happened.” before you reload a checkpoint. But what is probably the most endearing is the Prince himself, and how he interacts with Farah.
Video game romances are overdrawn affairs, often a mix of forced circumstances, melodrama, and just a general lack of development. While PoP: SoT certainly has a little bit of these things, it is completely overshadowed by just how damned charming both the Prince and Farah are. Farah is a sensible, if a bit uptight, woman who wants to fix things and blames the Prince for this old mess. The Prince (initially) thinks he isn’t to blame for anything, and will defend himself with perhaps a little too much vigor throughout. The dialogue is clever and natural, the character interactions realistic, and as a whole it’s a charming love story hidden inside an action-adventure game about sand monsters. I’m not going to say it’s the greatest story ever, but it has a certain freshness that no other game I’ve played has been able to emulate, and that makes the characters and their situations memorable.
Plus the Prince is kind of a jerk, which is entertaining in and of itself.
But what about the actual game? Well, PoP:SoT could actually be considered revolutionary. While the failed Prince of Persia 3D didn’t work because they tried to emulate the original games without evolving enough, PoP:SoT manages to both take the original ideas from the first Prince of Persia and blend them into something completely new.
PoP:SoT is a parkour platformer, and could honestly be considered the first parkour platformer. For those who down’t know what parkour is, it’s an art/ability to run seamlessly across dangerous environments without slowing down or stopping. For example, it’s common in PoP:SoT to wall run over a pit of spikes, leap to a precarious pipe, swing from it to a ledge, and then jump back and forth between a tight space before emerging victoriously at the top. It’s a game that rewards preciseness and speed with some incredible sights, and a general feeling of satisfaction when you overcome some of the more difficult rooms. And it gets hard, fast, which means you’ll be failing constantly. Which brings us to another excellent improvement: the Dagger of Time itself.
Every room is, itself, your biggest opponent.
It’s hard to believe that once upon a time time reversal mechanics in games was unique. Now it’s everywhere, from our racing games to even Rock Band 3 using it when you pause. But back in 2003, the concept was completely novel, and PoP:SoT pioneered the concept. Essentially how it works is the dagger allows the Prince to “reverse” up to the last 10-20 odd seconds, with the ability to stop reversing anytime mid-transfer. So if you leap off a ledge and just miss a button press, you can immediately back time up for another shot. This was a fantastic concept because it meant, unlike Uncharted, that you could actually put some horrendously difficult platforming puzzles in without the risk of having your players hate you for cheap deaths.
Of course, your sand powers were limited, so you still had to be careful least you be forced to checkpoint the room over again, but the number of “do-overs” you had increased throughout the game, and along with it the difficulty increased as well. It was ingenious for this type of game, and was so good that all the sequels used it too, which I’m totally fine with. The platforming in this game is excellently designed from top to bottom, making each room a cross between a deadly puzzle, a button-pressing challenge, and a visual thrill ride as the Prince just barely makes a wall-jump in time to grab onto a pole and miss falling to his demise.
As another bonus, save points also double as hints. When you enter a glowing pillar of sand that doubles as a save point, it’ll show a quick flash-forward of what is to come and how to succeed. It’s presented extremely quickly, meaning you’ll probably only remember small samples of it, but it’s usually enough to both keep the challenge while ensuring you never get stuck. A great little touch.
The platforming in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time set a standard.
I’d honestly go so far as to say what Mario 64 did for 3D platformers, PoP:SoT did for its evolution. Think now on how many modern games have borrowed or taken chunks from its seamless, perfectly controlled parkour gameplay. Crackdown, Infamous, Prototype, Uncharted, and others all owe a rather hefty debt to this game. Mario 64 figured out how to make 3D platforming work, but PoP:SoT figured out how to do it in style, with a player feeling like they had full control over the awesome things they did, while still making it completely manageable. It’s hard to describe the combination of elation, fear, and thrill that playing PoP:SoT invokes, but just know that there are few games as good as this one, and I’ve played my share.
It’s a pity they thought it needed combat.
It isn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as the combat in PoP:SoT isn’t particularly great. To be honest, I never really had issue with it, it just seemed more tacked on than anything. The Prince is pretty agile in his fights, being able to run up the enemies themselves and leap over them to instantly get behind them for free hits, and he can jump off the walls and ram himself into them (the super-cheap way to breeze through the game, FYI), knocking them over for a quick kill. In order to finish enemies off, the Prince has to absorb them into the Dagger, meaning you knock them on their backs, wait for an opening, and suck their sands up before they can get back to their feet. It’s simple and does a decent job displaying the Prince’s acrobatic skill, but to be honest he feels a little gimped. After I’ve scaled a massive tower, running and leaping and jumping and getting dangerously close to falling, having him plod around with the same three moves is lame. They fixed the combat up a bit in the sequels, but for now I think it’s servicable but not great. It doesn’t take anything away, but it could have added so much more.
This is where the fun stuff is.
The visuals haven’t aged well at all. They still don’t look awful (like most N64 games now), but they certainly appear dated. Character models have low polygon counts and their hands are just…blocky. The CG pre-renderings are extremely blurry and have janky animations. However, when you are running, jumping, and flipping in-game the Prince’s animations are fantastic, all the way down to his quick ladder climbing.
The sound design is excellent throughout, with the voice actors for the Prince and Farah really bringing it home in terms of quality and presentation. The music is also amazing, with a combination of rock and Arabian themes that can be both upbeat or subtle, adding to the overarching experience very well. It’s a memorable soundtrack, and that’s saying something.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a masterpiece of a game. Not just for what it inspired (a whole generation of games involving easy climbing, running, and jumping), but because it is just a damn solid game on its own merits. Combining lighting-fast, frustration free platforming puzzles with a clever story and well presented script, there is very little to dislike about this game, even nearly ten years after its release. It has since been re-released on the PS3 as the entire trilogy in HD, which I highly suggest picking up if you haven’t played any of these games before.
Five out of five stars.
A job well done, Prince.