"You must see to it that in the epic battle of man versus his surroundings, man conquers, and conquers frequently. You'll regularly accomplish this much, only to be beset by the undead and re-animated warriors set against you."
Look around the net. Leaf through a few game magazines. You'll notice that much is made of this game. Rest assured that everyone is not lying to you; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an uncommon triumph. It's a triumph especially as this new generation Prince is a good deal better than the games it pays homage to. And make no mistake, homage was paid to the franchise's beginnings; the developers even saw fit to include the groundbreaking original PC game by Jordan Mechner (as an unlockable feature available about one-third of the way through the adventure), and brought the man himself on board to assist with the conception of this follow-up as well.
The old Prince seemed ready to burst forth from the constraints of his side-scrolling realm. He was imbued with a liquid agility that would serve him well on his journey from the dark of his dungeon, which featured tip-toeing escapades through spike traps and slicing blades; and long falls at the end of leaps of faith that came up short. The danger for him was braved all in the name of freedom from his jail, and likewise the liberty of his Princess.
Our new Prince, duped by a cunning Vizier, has unwittingly unleashed a terror on his world that turned men into monsters (his father, tragically included). Now he must track down the Vizier and a magical hourglass to try to set things right. En route, he navigates in three dimensions the same sorts of dangers as before, and so much more. He can swing on chains, swing around metal pipes, and tightrope walk across girders while slashing at cawing carrion birds. He can zip along walls where there is no floor, as the abyss stares upwards; he can push off and jump to and from towering columns. Having trouble actually getting the Prince to reach high enough on a column to scale it? Try having him run directly up a wall and leap from it onto a higher portion of the pole. Yes, it's safe to say that the old dog has learned new tricks.
As in the previous games, the journey is broken up into easily digestible and exceedingly tasty morsels. Separating each area from the next--and the areas are regularly gargantuan in size and scope--are save points. A golden flame will spear out of the ground and rack the Prince's body with pain serving to both record your progress in dramatic fashion, and give you a peek at what's expected in the next segment, in the form of stylish black and white visions. It's immeasurably helpful when you find yourself lost in a gigantic new chamber to take a few steps back to the last save point in order to see what the Prince sees.
Once you realize where it is your Prince has to be, you'll need to put to work your problem solving abilities and deft touch with the controller to get him there--through all the seemingly insurmountable odds as offered by the environment around him. You must see to it that in the epic battle of man versus his surroundings, man conquers, and conquers frequently. You'll regularly accomplish this much, only to be beset by the undead and re-animated warriors set against you. Yes, this game seems to offer three distinct challenges: to figure out how to get from point A to B, to then nimbly navigate your way, and finally--to meet with the tortured souls who lie in wait for you!
Armed with your sword, you'll thrust and parry, and vault high above the heads of giant foes bearing curved blades. You'll sidestep when they attack in kind, you'll tumble when arrows try to find you. You'll spring off walls like some Olympic swimmer changing directions underwater--your sword, your arm, your body all together a human arrow flung from a giant bow. You'll find that it isn't prudent to try to fight your freakish foes one by one; instead, it becomes necessary to exploit the Prince's superior agility to stick and move, bouncing from foe to foe to keep them all off balance. You'll jab this way and that until they begin to topple around you like sentient trees felled by a murderous lumberjack.
Once your enemies have been laid out, the Dagger of Time comes into play. Tap the Dagger attack button and watch the Prince cartwheel to the nearest fallen adversary and plunge the weapon of ages into its prostrate body, that the artificial life force within be expunged. The Dagger's powers do not stop there. It serves to slow time, making sticky situations more manageable. It can slow enemies and quicken its user, so that foes seem to stand still while the Prince flashes through entire hordes, leaving only dust to clear when the universe catches up. And most useful of all, the Dagger may reverse the flow of time, offering cack-handed players the opportunity to right their mistakes as long as the sand tanks in the tool are full enough.
In addition to the sweet gameplay, Sands of Time is a beautiful adventure, featuring character designs reminiscent of those employed in Prince of Egypt, the gorgeous DreamWorks animated picture of some years ago. The environs are authentically Persian, and grandiose, and the camera works to further aggrandize all the world around you, emphasizing the smallness of man. When we put a massive area behind us, we are mountain climbers conquering Everest--and Sands is a collection of Everests linked by a clever tale that wasn't even wholly necessary to impress us, but was sewn within the adventure's fabric just the same.
The timeless atmosphere is helped along by ambient sounds and Middle Eastern-themed tunes that play softly at most times, only swelling when there is a need to take us from the constant task of staring down the world's obstructions to the more pressing matter of swarming sand-driven human shells. Only your wits and platformer skills are on the Prince's side, and a mysterious princess who lends a hand from time to time. But is she to be completely trusted? The rapport between her and the Prince is not the stuff of Mamet, but certainly her involvement helps to keep things fresh and interesting.
In fact, if there are weaknesses in the armour of Sands, they really only become apparent when the Princess is absent around the halfway point of the game. The game reaches its lowest point then, asking of us some tedious task completion in the guise of the excellent levels we had come to expect up to that point. In all honesty, at times even when she is present, but not making herself particularly useful, the game seems dark and oppressive and… lonely. This speaks volumes in the game's favour surely, as it's quite a feat for a game to evoke these kinds of emotions--but the moodiness can work too hard and become overbearing.
Sands would have benefited from a few bright and spectacularly different levels to excite our spirits as we push past wondrous obstacles and the lonely darkness that paints mostly everything. But again, even this 'weakness' is a testament to a mood and a realism arrived at properly: after all, we do represent but one man against legions of unfeeling undead, and the much more overwhelming reality of the uncaring world standing unyieldingly in our path. While not perfect, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time offers a poignant, uncommon challenge. Its world awaits, rich, wondrous, indomitable. Will you overcome it?
Staff review by Marc Golding (April 29, 2005)
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