Looking Back on… Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Sony Playstation 2)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Console: Multiple, but for reference, PS2.
Genre: Adventure/Action/Puzzle solving.
Developer: Ubisoft.
Publisher: Ubisoft. (This is the first in the Sands of Time series, for reference.)

Alright, I am going to deviate from the norm and sum this review up on one simple statement, because everything after this will only be reinforcing that statement, so I might as well get it out of the way now.

I don’t care what console you own, you MUST take the opportunity to at least PLAY this game, if not own it outright. (I still feel at least partially that way, though the rest of the games that come after it are a bit hit-or-miss.)

Everything from this point onward is only validation of the above statement. Thank you.

Ah, Prince of Persia. I remember playing the original games back in the 80’s, when the concept was incredibly fresh and new, and the games themselves were easily some of the best you could ever hope to own. (Well THAT’S a bit extreme, but they were really interesting structurally and mechanically, and gave birth to a small sub-section of puzzle-platformers that were well-liked for a while, including games like Out of this World, the first two Oddworld games and Nosferatu, before Limbo came out and we acted like we’d never played anything like it before ever.) I loved them like a son, and found them to be a fun time, for many years after their creation. The PC remake of the series that came out a few years back was an abysmal pile of crap, and served to make me think that the series might never see a fair update in my lifetime. (Yeah, there was an initial attempt at remaking PoP in 3D, and it was basically hot garbage.)

Then Ubisoft had to release this masterpiece and prove me wrong. Bless them for that.

Short form sum up: You play the Prince in question, a young man who’s essentially an egotistical asshole at the start, as he progresses through the story, from start to finish. See, he, his father, and the army of Persia (which, at that time, was rather huge) decide to invade a palace in India, at the urgings of the treacherous vizier of the palace. While there, the Prince acquires a bauble called The Dagger of Time, which is one of two artifacts the vizier wished to possess as his own, the other being “The Sands of Time”, a giant hourglass with shining sand inside. The Prince’s father delivers the Sands to a neighboring kingdom they are on good terms with, the vizier convinces the Prince to use the dagger on the hourglass, and as a result fucks over the entire kingdom. (To sum it up more directly: the Prince stabs the dagger into the sands, and turns basically everyone but himself, the Vizier and Farah are turned into sand demons.)

Net result: The Prince, the vizier, and a woman from India named Farah are the only notable survivors. Everyone else turns into a sand zombie of some sort or another. So, even in ancient India, you can’t escape the fucking zombies. Anyway, the Prince and Farah undertake the task of trying to fix everything that went wrong, and a kickass game results. (It’s a little more complicated than that, and since the game is like a decade old here we go: The Prince and Farah run around the palace, attempting to unfuck everything, before the Prince and Farah basically consummate their relationship. She then tries to set things right on her own, dies, and the Prince finally sets things right by resetting events prior to the unleashing of the sands and killing the Vizier, though Farah no longer remembers him. It was a powerful tale with an interesting and cute ending, so the next two games became super heavy with depressing shit, though the Prince and Farah finally end up together in the end. Oh and he hunted down his brother somewhere in there, but no one cares.)

Graphically, the game is an absolute wonder, similar in scope to Ico, but much more attractive. (This would’ve been a couple years before Shadow of the Colossus came out, which is more interesting artistically, if not technically, than this was. This still has a strong presence, though, and it’s easily the most artistically interesting of all of the games in the Sands of Time series.) The character models are quite attractive, and they animate incredibly fluidly, which lends credence to the unbelievable things you see going on in the game itself. The Prince and Farah, while not as hi-res as I’d like, look thoroughly acceptable, and the sand zombies are perfectly hideous in their design. The levels are breathtaking, and I felt the need more than once to just stop and move the camera around to take in everything I was presented. The only complaint I can bring against the game is that it slows down when a lot of things are going on, though not so much that you’ll die because of it. (I’m almost surprised Ubisoft hasn’t tried releasing a High Definition version of this game, at least, since it’d probably look amazing if treated right and would fix a lot of the technical issues in the game.)

Aurally, the game is a prize winner, bar none. The in-game music is wonderful to behold, and mixes an ethnic Arabian feel with modern day beats, with the end result being a kickass soundtrack. Unfortunately, you only get to hear the best the game has to offer in battles or dramatic situations, though that’s probably a good thing… the last thing I need is for a hard rocking beat to be playing while I’m trying to time a jump exactly right. (So in the next game they inserted a heavy metal soundtrack featuring Godsmack, then wondered why everyone was pissed off.)

Ditto the above for the sound effects… while the creature noises are repeated for each type of creature, they’re so well done that I doubt you’ll notice. Bravo to the voice actors, as well… the voice work is some of the best I’ve ever heard, and each character conveys the appropriate emotions in their voice acting, from the Prince with his conceited tone, (Yuri Lowenthal at his best.) to Farah with her proud and thoughtful speech, (Joanna Wasick in what was one of her very few roles.) to the vizier with his “I’m an ancient asshole” routine. (Barry Dennen, who’s probably best notable for being Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, so… there’s that.) (Oh, and for the record, everyone here has a British accent because Britain, at the time, pretty much had their arm up to the elbow in the assholes of the Middle East. No, it’s not a perfect reason, but it works for me.) (Since it’s actually somewhat based in historical fact, I think it’s a fair reason.) In short, it works, and I loved every moment of it.

And, hey, since they designed a game that looks so good, and sounds so good, Ubisoft figured they’d make it play like a dream too. What a bunch of nice guys! Seriously, the game is a beauty to play… when I say that the controls are so fluid and precise that you almost feel like you’re in the game… okay, that’s hyperbole and bullshit, but they ARE damn good. (A decade later, that entire paragraph is basically bullshit, but the game did play pretty damn well, honestly.)

Basically, Prince, besides being royalty, is also apparently a member of Cirque de Soliel. Besides running, jumping, and the prerequisite wall climbing and box moving, Prince is also gifted with superhuman acrobatic skills. He can bounce from one wall to another to move himself higher in a room. He can swing from horizontal poles. He can run up and along walls. He is, in short, an acrobatic god. And the beauty of it is, not only is the control incredibly responsive while doing so, but he looks natural doing it. In the end, it all seems believable. (This is one of the earliest examples of parkour appearing in a video game, before that was a thing fucking everyone was doing, and it’s one of the best examples of such a thing in gaming at this point, oddly enough, despite how old it is and how there were four more games within this franchise that came after this. Go figure.)

The actual gameplay is also easy to get into, as you’re basically just running, jumping, and vaulting around the various rooms, looking for whatever goal you need to fulfill to move on to the next section. The game tosses new and different obstacles into your path, like spinning swords, hook traps, spikes, and such, and offers new and more complex areas to navigate as you progress, and these make the game a thought provoking affair. Puzzles are more often than not just a matter of “find somewhere for Farah to go”, as she’s smaller than the Prince and can fit in tight spaces, or “find a switch and get there”, because most of your switches are on the other side of the damn world. (So, yeah, not the most thoughtful design concept, but it’s the HOW that works, not the WHY.)

Now, besides having the acrobatic skills of Spider-Man, the Prince has another trick up his sleeve… The Dagger of Time (if you can imagine a chorus of angels singing as you read that, you’ll get the impact). Basically, the dagger is a unique tool in the world, and offers the Prince a plethora of special powers, should his acrobatics and swordplay (more on that in a minute) fail him. The most common use of the dagger is to rewind time, which, at the press of one button, sets time back several seconds. This is useful for several things, like avoiding damage in combat, not falling onto a pit of spikes or in a bottomless pit, or trying something with expert timing one more time. In addition, the dagger can slow down time (ala bullet time, only with no bullets), stun enemies and allow you to kill them with a powerful stroke, and stop time and allow you to hit your enemies without retribution, ala the Matrix, but cooler. The catch is, you have a gauge that determines how often these feats can be undertaken; a row of sand tanks lines the left side of the screen, with white indents on the side of them. The tanks determine how often you can rewind time, and the indents mark uses of every other power you possess. It’s essentially the game’s gimmick, and as gimmicks go, it’s useful and fun, so I approve of it highly. (Most of these concepts followed the Prince around for later games, though they were changed up a bit as games went on, and by The Two Thrones he was turning into a monster version of himself with a sword whip. Seriously.)

And, in case you thought I forgot, let’s cover combat for a second. It’s here that the game kicks into hardcore overdrive… basically, the Prince is a combat demon, and is capable of performing a variety of moves to thrash the enemy with. Besides just whooping an enemy with your sword, you can flip over your foes and stab them in the back, block and counter attacks, bound off of walls into an attack or aerial vault, and use the powers of the Dagger of Time, listed above. To counterbalance the Prince’s insane asswhooping skills, the game throws large amounts of enemies at you at once to offer a challenge. Sadly, it’s here that the game falls flat. Enemies will often stand around and do nothing while you whoop their friends, drink water, and so on, which, while it might make life easier, isn’t terribly smart. (Drinking water was the game’s healing mechanic, for reference.) Most enemies will block your frontal assaults, so you often resort to vaults to accomplish your ends, and for the few enemies that block normal vaults, wall vaults are basically your only combat options left. In short, there’s not much variety to combat on the whole, and until the last hour of the game (where you get a zombie cleaving sword that kills baddies in one shot), it’s basically the same thing over and over again. (The second game tried to fix that by improving the combat, but it mostly only marginally succeeded and fucked up everything else. The third game kind of struck a balance, in that the puzzles and combat were both aggressively fine but not much else, and I can barely remember the last game in the franchise. Ubisoft then released what was supposed to be the start of a new franchise, simply called Prince of Persia, which refined the combat into one-on-one encounters and simplified a lot of the mechanics, but everyone called it “too easy” and after a shitty DLC pack they more or less buried the franchise again in favor of more Assassin’s Creed games. Sigh.)

Last, but not least, comes our dear friend Farah. Now, as mentioned above, she can fit into tight spaces the Prince cannot go, but she’s also good for a lot more, and is reminiscent of the girl from Ico, only not a liability in combat. (This game almost felt, in some respects, like someone played Ico and said, “Hey, why don’t we make a version of this that’s actually fun to play?”) Farah can activate switches to assist in team based puzzles, point out objectives, and shoots enemies with her bow and arrow which, while not lethal, takes the heat off the Prince. She’s a fair addition to a game already brimming with style, and she certainly holds her own. (So of course she’s mostly a non-factor in the later games.)

The only negative thing I can say about the game itself is this: once you beat it, that’s it. You can unlock a playable version of the original Prince of Persia from the PC days (though this is apparently the Macintosh version, go fig) and see what the word “unforgiving” really means, and there a few upgrades to the Prince character as the game itself progresses, but it’s fair to say that you’ve seen everything the game has to offer after three hours, and that you’ll find nothing new after completing it once. (These days they’d have crammed in a billion fucking collectible grains of sand and a bunch of time-based Achievements or some shit, so I’m not sure that’s the worst thing.) That said, the game itself is so well designed, from top to bottom, that experiencing the game one more time might be the only reason you need to play it again. It’s sad that nothing really changes or advances in the game, but what’s given to you is so good, you probably won’t really care.

In the end, I can honestly recommend POP:TSOT to anyone. With addictive gameplay, a wonderful story, enough action to satisfy anyone, and some of the most satisfying visuals I’ve seen to date, the game is an absolute masterpiece. It might be a bit short, and might not have all the extras some other games offer, but it’s like a fine work of art: just because the Mona Lisa doesn’t change or do anything different every time you look at it doesn’t mean you’ll only look at it once and throw it out. It’s something that you can appreciate over and over, and I can’t think of a single reason that any gamer would want to pass this up. (Its sequels, on the other hand, can mostly be ignored unless you love the game immensely, especially the second game, which was a broken piece of shit in an age when patching games just didn’t happen on consoles. Well, at least Ubisoft learned their lesson from that OH WAIT.)

THE GOOD:
1. The graphics are awesome, period. (Less awesome, but still really good even now.)
2. The music is fitting, and very well produced.
3. Controls are extremely tight, and easy to use.
4. The game is incredibly stylish.
5. It’s an incredibly fun experience. (Fuck you, fun is still a valid word.)

THE BAD:
1. You’ve pretty much seen everything in the first three hours of play. (Gears of War was that way and it still spawned three sequels too, so.)
2. Combat ends up being slightly shallow.
3. The game is rather short. (Which is still an ongoing problem even now, as games like The Order have shown us.)
4. Besides the original POP, there’s nothing new to unlock in the game.

THE UGLY:
1. The original POP gives new meaning to the term “anal violation”, so easily frustrated players need not even try it. (Yeah, for its time it was probably par for the course, but unless you have a walkthrough and a shitload of practice it’s hell on Earth.)
2. I don’t have anything else. I’m sorry, I’m bad, I know. (Well, here you go: the sequels, mostly.)

GRAPHICS: 10
MUSIC: 10
SOUNDS: 9
CONTROL: 8
EXTRAS: 8
IMPRESSION: 9

OVERALL: 9 (Hm. For its time… I’d tick off a couple points on “Extras” but it’s probably still around an 8.5 for when it came out. These days I’d probably call it around a 7-ish, but then, it’s a decade old so that’s hardly the game’s fault.)

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