Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is not the masterpiece the critics claim, nor is it the tedious piece of trash that certain people I know unfairly hold up as the poster-boy for overrated software. It lies somewhere in the middle; it is a fun but flawed experience which, despite its occasional missteps, is still a worthy successor to the Prince of Persia series. Now that I have that off my shoulders, let us begin...
"Most people think time is like a river, flowing swift and sure in one direction. But I can tell you they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm. You may wonder who I am and why I say this. Sit down, and I will tell you a tale like none you have ever heard..."
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is Ubisoft Montreal's attempt to make storybook Arabian lands, realistic platforming and instant-death traps relevant again in a video game industry plagued by console gang wars and bloody shooters. It's a noble attempt, to be sure, and with series creator Jordan Mechner on board as project supervisor, it seemed as though Ubisoft could do no wrong. Well, it turns out that even princes make mistakes, but the gameplay missteps are nowhere near enough to tarnish the overall experience - an enjoyable, immersive and mostly fun journey to save the world from your own actions.
"Do you think I felt regret as I gazed upon the destruction we had wrought, or at least humility at the speed with which a world could be transformed from a good world into a hell? If you think so you are mistaken. For from that moment I thought of one thing only: the honour and glory I would bring my father by fighting like a warrior in my first battle."
The story opens in India, where a young Prince of Persia joins his father in plundering the treaures of the Indian Maharajjah's empire. The Prince, hoping to impress Dad, brings honour and glory by finding the Maharajjah's legendary Dagger and Hourglass of Time. Bestowed with the power to control the fabric of time itself, father and son travel to Azad with the spoils of war, including Farah, the Maharajjah's daughter, and his traitorous Vizier, intending to give the Hourglass to the Sultan as a peace pact. When in Azad, the Vizier tricks the Prince into opening the Hourglass with the Dagger, unleashing the Sands of Time and turning everyone except the Vizier, Farah and the Prince into Sand Monsters. The Prince, eventually joined by Farah, embarks on a desparate journey to turn back the clock and undo his terrible mistake, and maybe even find some love along the way.
The story is told primaily through the Prince's narration and short conversations with Farah. This all happens while you're playing, which is an excellent tactic for progressing the storyline without sacrificing immersion. This is helped immensely by Yuri Lowenthal's superb voice acting, some of the best I have ever heard in a game. His chemistry with Joanna Wasick, Farah's voice actress, is to be particularly commended.
Perhaps the best example of character development during the actual game is how Farah reacts to how you play. Draw your sword without reason and she'll ask you what's wrong; slip off the edge of a platform and she'll gasp in horror; take damage from a fall and she'll ask you if you're alright. Farah rarely gets in your way during play, and when she does, simply moving towards her will usually cause her to back away. I applaud Ubisoft for going the extra mile to avoid creating just another boring NPC, and it's these little touches that make her one of the most likeable NPCs in gaming. If only Ashley Graham was like that...*grumble*
There are also several short prerendered and in-game cutscenes, and they are all very well-done. Ubisoft clearly have an eye for cinematic flair, and it shows in every cutscene, from major plot developments to camera pans showing you around a room. Sadly, the in-game camera doesn't fare as well, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Now onto the meat of any game, the gameplay. The platforming controls are fairly solid. A jumps or rolls (context-sensitive), B attacks, and Y uses the Dagger of Time. L controls your time-manipulation powers and R governs your wallrunning abilities. The time-manipulation plays a huge role in the game; since instant death traps are a staple of the Prince of Persia series, you have the ability to rewind time to correct your mistakes, governed by the amount of Sand you have stored in your dagger. You also have the ability to slown down and freeze time to help dispatch your enemies.
The controls in general are pretty tight, but there are some exceptions to this. Because the R shoulder button is context-sensitive, it ocassionally doesn't register if you want to turn around and perform a wallrun. The camera can sometimes get in the way as well; generally dynamic cuts are well-paced, but sometimes the camera will swing around for no good reason or spaz constantly in one place, messing up your angle. It's not a huge deal, but it can get frustrating when it does occur.
Combat is easily the weakest part of the game. You never take on more than four enemies at once, but the controls simply don't give you the freedom to fight them all at once. Some complained about the enemy soldiers "standing around like dorks", but unless you're "finishing" off an enemy, the AI can actually be downright cheap. They love to hit you relentlessly while you're down, and take pleasure in cutting away half your life-bar with a single combo. When it doesn't work, combat is frustrating and out of control, but when it does work it's far too easy. Ubisoft did not implement any sense of skill or need for timing into the controls. Here's an example: say you want to vault over an enemy, slash him once and then retrieve his sand. Instead of pressing A to vault, waiting for the right time to strike with B and hitting Y at the opportune moment to grab some sand, you can simply hit A B Y in quick succession, then sit back and watch the fireworks. It takes a lot of the challenge out of the combat, and what little challenge there is feels downright cheap. The fight with your father-turned-sand-monster comes to mind. Also, your enemies like to teleport right in front of you whenever you try to run away. It's yet another example of cheap AI ruining what could have been the best part of the whole game.
The level design is, for the most part, great. The pacing can be a bit methodical at times, but the subsequent payoff is almost always worth the effort. Many levels require you to expertly pull off ridiculous acrobatics one after the other, say, running from a wall onto a pole, swinging from there onto a ladder, sliding down and jumping onto a pillar, shuffling along that onto a ledge, and jump from there into another wallrun. The platforming always throws in curveballs just when things start to get repetitive, and most importantly, pulling off the acrobatics makes you feel cool.
There are only two areas where the design falls flat on its face: the turret defence puzzle, and the endgame (excluding the final battle). The puzzle, which occurs about an hour into the game, pops up just when the going gets good and forces you to sit and crank levers for twenty minutes while what you really want to do is kill Sand Monsters or flip out and do acrobatics over huge gaps. In addition, the last hour sees you platforming with a special sword that can kill enemies in one hit, but no dagger. This is where I began to see that it's really the Dagger of Time that makes this game so good; without the Dagger, the game because tedious and riddled in trial-and-error. The beginning part of the game doesn't suffer from this because it's designed as a tutorial, but during the last hour of play I found myself instinctively pressing the L button to rewind my mistake, only to realize that my power had been taken from me.
Graphics and sound, overall, are excellent. The art direction is superb. The art never really repeats; there will be long stretches of levels with the same kind of design, but after that chances are you won't see it again. Character models are smooth, and the animation, especially the Prince's, is mindblowing. Some of the monsters look a bit blocky on the outside but, again, the animation more than makes up for it.
The audio is great as well, with aforementioned excellent voice acting and nice sound effects. Stuart Chatwood's rousing mix of rock and Arabian music is a compelling and ultimately beautiful soundtrack. However, the audio mixing and quality seem to have taken a hit on the GameCube version; some small sound-bites are distinctively tinny, and the Prince's monologuing can often be drowned out by other atmospheric effects. In addition, the prerendered cutscenes are sometimes much quieter than the ingame audio, resulting in an uneven sound mix. Still, there's no doubt about the effort put into making each sound convincing, minor hiccups notwithstanding.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is not an amazing game. It's not a horrible game. It's a great game, with a few scars and problems, that should be regarded as a solid action/platformer with some neat ideas and style to boot. I suggest that everyone here at least give it a shot, and if you hate it, give it another; you might just find something underneath the surface. And remember, it's never too late to correct your mistakes.