Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

A masterfully crafted adventure that's as short as it is sweet.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 17, 2003
Signs that you know you're playing a truly great game:

1) You look over at the clock, knowing full well that there are reviews piling up and say to yourself "okay, just one more puzzle..." You then look up to find it's five hours later (yes, this really happened).

2) Rather than actually stopping the game to tend to your wayward significant other, you instead try to rope her into playing, thus making plans for dinner and a movie tie directly into progressing in the game.

3) You insist on playing through the game "just in case you missed something," even though you couldn't help but fix every rod and cone in your eye to what was being displayed on the screen the first time through.

I'm guilty of all these things - and more - and yet I'm somehow okay with that. Something about how incredibly polished, brilliantly designed and just plain fun Prince of Persia is seems to excuse any obsessive behaviors (or at least I'd like to think so). The simple fact is before I really delve into what makes the game great, I can't help but state that you should stop reading this review right now and run out to buy the game. It's the good and really any time spent not playing it is certainly time wasted.

If for some reason you're still around, perhaps you need a little more coaxing. Fine by us, we're happy to take you on the guided tour. If you get lost, feel free to ask questions, mmkay? Grrrreat, here we go.

For any gamers old enough to remember Jordan Mechner's PC classic back in the day, Prince of Persia meant endless trial and error, incredible animation and for yours truly some of the best memories of hanging out with friends playing the game in turns that a guy can have. It's seriously powerful nostalgia at work here, however, but it seems the good boys and girls at Ubi Soft Montreal (the same group that worked on Splinter Cell, though not the same team) were aware of this, and from the moment you start playing the game, you get that same sense of intelligent design, control and presentation that manages to wrestle all those warm fuzzy memories of spike traps and long falls to the surface and nurtures them with wholly original concepts that result in one of the best games to come along in years.

For the uninitiated, we'll catch you up on POP's storyline. Tweaking the old tale of a prince imprisoned in a labyrinthian fortress of traps and armed guards a bit, The Sands of Time introduces... well, the sands of time, a substance that transforms any poor unprotected souls into monsters, but also imbues those that can harness it with the ability to control time itself. Seeking to gain his father's approval, the nameless Prince retrieves the Dagger of Time, a knife which can be filled with the aforementioned sand, but that also unleashes a kingdom-destroying tidal wave of destruction when the Prince is tricked by an evil Vizier into releasing the sand.

And thus begins the Prince's quest as you race through an insanely ornate castle populated with a host of traps and a small army of sand-infected monsters to deliver a personal thank you to the Vizier for his deception. By utilizing old techniques and a handful of new moves - including the ability to run and along walls, to jump from wall to wall to gain height, to vault over enemies and strike them from behind, and a seemingly boundless amount of strength to tirelessly pull himself up hundreds of times, the Prince slowly makes his way through the kingdom, discovering in the process some of the most gorgeous settings in video game history.

The new moves are at the heart of why Prince of Persia is so damned fun. Firstly, they're effortless to pull off, designed from the very start to be an intuitive extension of the interface. By pressing R1 at opportune times, you can block any incoming attack (even if you're knocked down, an welcome innovation), run up walls if facing directly head-on, or run along them if running alongside. Each of these moves can then be channeled directly into an attack combo, a series of jumps, damn near anything else the Prince can do, and it's all nigh-effortless. Secondly, they're integral to the game's puzzle design. Each of the Princes moves will be used in a myriad of different combinations to pass the various traps and exercises that dot your quest.

It's because of this, because of the tight controls, fantastic combat (replete with countering system and capture moves that suck the sand from monsters and give you opportunities to control time) and ingenious level design that the game works so well. The combination of those factors plus the ability to harness time to rewind 10 seconds to repair mistakes made or slow it down make the game endlessly fresh. There are very few times that you'll ever run into a situation that you can't rewind from, which save the same from ever really becoming too frustrating.

It also means the classic game design technique of making you repeat your mistakes over and over again until you get a particular sequence perfect, thus adding artificial game length, never really rears its head, making Prince of Persia an incredibly concentrated run of single-digit length. I suppose it's a classic entertainment truism: always leave 'em wanting more, and while I'd love to say I walked away from POP satisfied, part of me wanted another seven hours or so. Yeah, you read right, the game can be beaten in seven hours, and less the second time through. I've mulled it over in my head for some time now, though, and I suppose I'd rather have that concentrated dose of enjoyment in place of bits and pieces of inspired game design in between more blasé backtracking or repetition elements.

Even if those elements were present, there'd still be plenty to look at. It almost goes without saying that after five minutes with the game you'll be ready to stand in line to dole out the endless accolades the engine will no doubt have garnered by the end of the year. Prince of Persia is one of the most beautiful games ever made, from the realistic deforming and rippling pools of water to the blown-out Splinter Cell-style lighting effects (the POP and SC teams actually collaborated on the lighting and cloth effects) to the way massive tapestries deform as you sprint along the wall, sliding your hand across them as you go.

On top of all this is an intelligent camera that can function in both dynamic and static angles (the latter angles are almost always pre-chosen to show you exactly where you need to go, yet another subtle way the game uses visuals to point the way). I can recall but a single time in the game where the camera angle was skewed enough that it kept me from seeing exactly how to complete an objective. It's refinement that borders on Ico-level accomplishments.

There was also a very obvious bit of attention directed towards the audio in the game, both in the Persian-inspired music (complete with lilting vocals in the background) and in the effects. The pitter-patter of the Prince's feet on wood and stone or the different metallic scabbard-on-scabbard clangs are magnificently duplicated, and the same slightly dynamic music that graced Splinter Cell is present here, so when you enter into combat or when there are enemies present, you'll hear the aural cue even if you can't see them on screen. Simply put, thanks to superlative graphic and sound accompaniments, Prince of Persia's presentation is unmatched.

I should be disappointed in Prince of Persia's length, really, because I never used to think games that gave you less than at least 10-15 hours of fun warranted that $50 price tag. Instead, when I look back on my experience with the game, I get all warm and fuzzy - the same warm fuzzies I get when thinking back on the first time I played a Prince of Persia game. For me, that feeling is worth every penny.
The Verdict