Ah, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I like this game but it keeps defeating me! Every few years I pull it out and attempt a run through the Palace of Azad, only to be whipped by Sand Creatures along the way, and end up ragequitting. With the recent news that Ubisoft is remaking this for a 2021 release, I thought it time to give it another spin. I still can't beat it, but I progressed farther into the game than I've ever progressed before! Enough to make a review.
You, the Prince, were betrayed by a treacherous Vizier into unleashing the Sands of Time upon a hapless world. The Palace of Azad has been transformed into a death trap filled with traps and hostile Sand monsters. Now it's up to you and the plucky Princess Farah to battle through the Palace to reach the evil Vizier and reverse the damage you've done to the world!
PoP: The Sands of Time is an action platformer. Half the game is platforming across levels filled with tricky traps and hazards, the other half is fighting enemies that come at you in waves. The Prince fights with his trusty sword and the Dagger of Time (and the powers of Sand it contains). At any point in the game you can use Sand to manipulate time: speed up the Prince's movements, slow down his enemies, or rewind time to redo his past actions. That gives you an edge in battle -- not to mention lets you escape death when you inevitably fall or die during the platforming sections!
The platforming hazards and combat enemies are straightforward in themselves, but they appear in all kinds of permutations which keeps the action fresh and pointy-ended. In between fighting and platforming, there are collectables and secret locations to search for, all of which increase the Prince's health or the Dagger of Time's capacity for holding more Sand. And all throughout, you have to escort Princess Farah and protect her from death. She assists you during combat with archery skills, but frankly, her help is somewhat limited and doesn't synergize too well with the Prince's moves. But you have to keep her alive in fights or it's Game Over!
Game progression revolves around moving through different self-contained regions of the enormous Palace of Azad -- it's entirely linear with no backtracking. Each Palace region is cleverly designed with a distinct look and feel, and contains its own unique permutation of traps and enemies. Progression is clearly telegraphed through plenty of visual clues, and it's impossible to get lost.
Sound design wasn't as integral as the visual cues, but I liked the contrast between the upbeat soundtrack that only plays during combat, and quieter exploring where you only hear the ambient noises of a eerily too-silent Palace.
The more I play video games, the more I've come to realize: Simplicity = Sophistication. If a game has simple or few (or both) controls and UI, it's usually hiding a complex yet streamlined set of mechanics underneath. This is the case for The Sands of Time, and a big reason why I like it so much. The UI is very streamlined with only a few elements, but they tell you everything you need to know about the Prince's health and the Dagger's capacity. All other information is conveyed through mostly visual and some audio cues embedded inside the level design, and is telegraphed clearly. The Prince's moves are straightforward at face value, but change depending on whether he's platforming or fighting; chain enough of them together and he pulls off some freaky stunts. This guy may have a goofy hairdo, but he sure can bust a move!
Graphics have aged quite well: the textures may be simple by today's video game standards, but that just lends an austere elegance to the visual aesthetic. For all their dated cartoony looks, the Prince and Farah have remarkably expressive faces and gestures. The game's age shows up poorly in other places (more on this later), but graphics-wise, it still looks fabulous.
Elegant graphics, clean UI, well-integrated level design and visual/audio cues, and diversity of the Prince's movements... all of these pieces synergize to make this game a very pleasing experience. Somehow, playing this game just feels so good!
Story-wise, I loved the clever narrative where the Prince tells his story as you're "reliving" it. Princess Farah is a great character foil to the Prince, and both of them banter and bicker constantly as they explore the Palace. It was quite delightful to discover how their relationship was changing by eavesdropping on their dialogue, and I thought the voice-acting was perfect. I wish I'd gotten farther through the game, because I was quite invested in their story!
That's the good about The Sands of Time.
The bad: it's old. While some parts have aged gracefully, the parts that haven't are quite stark. The PC version is clearly "last generation" technology and needs modding to get widescreen resolution and contemporary gamepad support, all of which are provided unofficially by the fan community. The Prince's and Farah's voiceover audio tracks are balanced strangely, to the point where I could barely hear their voices above the ambient sounds, which detracted from the story experience. As mentioned above, Farah's AI is very rudimentary, especially by contemporary games' standards. Her pathfinding and combat abilities are quite inconsistent; at worst she can become an immovable obstacle if her pathfinding stands her on top of a savepoint or at a narrow chokepoint. The only fix for this is to forego the savepoint, or reload a save if you can't navigate the Prince around her.
And the ugly... alas, I couldn't beat the game. I'm not great at action games, and precision and timing are everything in The Sands of Time. My skills certainly got better as I progressed, and that sense of achievement I felt when I overcame a level was real and hard-won. But I finally reached a fight that defeated me. Now comes the point where repeating the same fight for the 9th or 10th time, without making any useful headway no matter what combat moves I experimented with, becomes disheartening. And let's just say the ragequit meter starts filling up very fast (a rare occurrence for me) and I have to shelve the game in a hurry to protect my PC hardware from damage. Indeed, that's just the nature of an older game that doesn't have adjustable difficulty, where reaching a certain prerequisite of skill is integral to the challenge it presents. But I'm quite happy that gaming trends have changed over time so that most action games nowadays have adjustable difficulty to accommodate a variety of skill levels and allow more people to enjoy at least the main quest/campaign. I for one, simply don't have the patience or interest in grinding fights just to "git gud" enough to progress through a main quest.
Thus ended my latest attempt at beating Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I made it to almost 50% game completion -- the farthest I've ever reached! In spite of my frustrations I'm glad I played this great old game, even though I could only taste a fraction of its goodness. But watching Let's Play videos is a really sad consolation prize. So I'm keeping an eye on Ubisoft's Remake. Here's hoping it stays faithful to everything great about the original... and has an easy mode!
Cross-posted at We The Players.