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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Xbox) artwork

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Xbox) review

"If you’re big on shooters (or really, any game that relies on constant, intense action to keep the player, um, playing), you’ll probably be familiar with the common scenario I’m about to unravel. Say you’re playing a game that really gives you an adrenaline rush. It’s got lots of guns, blood, explosions, all that good stuff. No matter how exciting that game is, there will come a point – more than once, usually – when the weapons are briefly stowed for “quieter” segments, usually involving some o..."

If you’re big on shooters (or really, any game that relies on constant, intense action to keep the player, um, playing), you’ll probably be familiar with the common scenario I’m about to unravel. Say you’re playing a game that really gives you an adrenaline rush. It’s got lots of guns, blood, explosions, all that good stuff. No matter how exciting that game is, there will come a point – more than once, usually – when the weapons are briefly stowed for “quieter” segments, usually involving some obscure puzzle or absurd platforming challenge. We hate these moments, but like them or not, they’re there for a reason.

Why do developers do such a thing? Because they want to keep said games from being too intense. They feel that if their games are just action, action, action all the time, players will grow weary of all the loud noises and extravagant effects. They break up the shooting and the gore with some softer, gentler moments to keep the migraines to a minimum.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time employs the opposite strategy. It goes for long stretches of time with little to no fighting to speak of, and when the monsters do show their hideous faces, it feels as if they’re only there because they need to be, as if the player would get bored if he or she didn’t get the chance to engage in a few battles every now and then. An action game’s strength is its intensity; Sands’ strength is its tranquility. An action game uses quiet moments to break up that action; Sands uses action to break the silence.

I have to wonder, then, why Sands is so often categorized as an action game. When I recall the time I spent with Sands, I think not of the occasional sword fights but of the Prince running along walls, sliding down pillars, shimmying across ledges, leaping over deep chasms, running atop collapsing platforms, flipping around poles, jumping between walls… Am I rambling? Sorry, but you need to consider what you’re capable of doing in Sands. This is a platformer if I’ve ever seen one.

And what a platformer it is. The experience Sands delivers is, I assume, on par with being an acrobat. The player is called upon to perform a wide array of dangerous athletic stunts, often complicated-looking at a glance but rather easy in practice once you’ve grown accustomed to the simple controls. Ubisoft has no qualm with using heights to increase the stakes, with many of the game’s key sequences taking place over deep chasms or at tops of devastatingly high towers. It’s alarming that Ubisoft has been able to craft such a dizzying, high-octane adventure when there’s often not a single enemy warrior in sight.

Shockingly enough, Sands is about one Prince of Persia. He’s a good-natured fellow who unwittingly unleashes the Sands of Time (i.e., bad stuff) into the Maharajah’s palace, spelling out a certain doom. The Sands spread and infect all life around him, save for himself and a striking young princess named Farah, with whom he develops a budding relationship. Due to the general lack of interactive characters in Sands (they’re all dead or corrupted by the Sands of Time), the plot is largely a personal one, and much time is spent in connecting us with the Prince and his emotions. You feel his agony when he realizes the mistake he’s made, and doubly so when he realizes his own father is among the victims. You want him to be able to correct his mistake. That’s what Sands is – it’s a trek around the palace in search of redemption.

The Prince’s relationship with Farah is the one thing keeping him on his journey, both physically (she lends a hand in many of the game’s puzzles) and emotionally. Still, most of the dialog comes not from the Prince and Farah interacting, but from the Prince himself as he narrates his adventure, often while the player is in control of the game. This unique take on a decidedly simple story takes the player’s relationship to a whole new level. The Prince is such a likeable character, and his words so genuine, that every time his voice chimed in I was fully prepared to listen. Most games try to convince me that I’m the main character. Sands wants to remind me that I’m not the Prince, and it does so for a reason. Even when Farah is not around, even when there’s no other living thing in sight, even when you couldn’t feel more deserted and isolated… you’re never alone, because you’ve got the Prince by your side.

The palace itself is an intricate beauty, falling apart at the seams yet still carrying a sense of grandness and wonder to it. For a game that takes place in a single environment for its entire length, Ubisoft has done a fantastic job of ensuring that Sands never feels repetitious, which each area looking similar to the last, yet distinct and a thing of its own. The Prince is led along a linear path in and out of caves and buildings, up to the highest towers and then back down to ground level. You’re occasionally led onto a balcony that gives a full view of the almost city-like palace, and it’s difficult not to stop and gaze at your surroundings for a moment, in awe of the level of detail Ubisoft has pumped into every single aspect of Sands.

You’ll do a lot of studying of your environments in this game, actually. I’m tempted to say that the palace is one giant puzzle, the world’s most intricate maze just waiting to be delved into and solved. The solution is found in the way you navigate each area. The Prince can pull off a number of lovely acrobatic tricks that look fancy in motion but really only require careful usage of the A button and right trigger. My favorite maneuver is to "wallrun" (exactly what it sounds like) – a useful trick that is often the start of many acrobatic “combos” that have you using your environment to cover a significant distance in a very short amount of time. Mastery of the controls takes no time at all. You could watch a video of Sands and be amazed by the maneuvers you can pull of in the game, and then actually play it and be astonished by how easily – and how often – such techniques are employed.

You’ll often misjudge the distance between platforms, or make incorrect assumptions about which object in the environment are interactive, and for that, Ubisoft has brought us one of the greatest innovations the platforming world has ever seen: The Dagger of Time. This trusty weapon stores all of the Sands the Prince has collected, and each “tank” can be used for special time-based abilities – namely, the power to reverse time. Let’s say you’re running along a wall, jump at the wrong time, and narrowly miss a platform, sending the Prince tumbling to certain death. In any other game, this single mistake would mean you’d have to restart at some obscure checkpoint, which might be a while back. Not so in Sands. When an error is made, simply hold the left trigger and watch as the game plays in reverse until the Prince is safely back on the platform where he began.

If every game made use of this extremely valuable feature, we as gamers would have a hell of a lot more free time on our hands. Such is the brilliance of Sands.

Not quite so brilliant is the combat. The battle system of Sands is functional enough and even includes a couple of sweet moves, especially the one that sends the Prince vaulting over his enemies to deliver a vital blow to the back. But it’s also simplistic and somewhat shallow, and as the game progresses you’ll slowly realize that nothing is changing, that there’s not enough to the combat to be able to sustain itself for a full-length adventure. The battle system feels like it was designed for minor skirmishes, and on that level, it works well enough.

What Ubisoft needed to work on was pacing the game so it never rose above such skirmishes. The trouble with Sands isn’t that the combat feels obligatory (though it does), but that battles are usually clumped together instead of being evenly spread out. When you see enemy warriors approaching, it’s never more than three or four at once. But as soon as you kill an enemy, another one spawns, and another one, and other one, until FINALLY you’ve beaten all the damn respawning baddies and completed the area, giving you access to a new save point and a preview for the next segment. So when you see three or four enemies approaching, it could be as many as a couple dozen, and they all move and act the same way, and are repetitious and obnoxious to fight.

With better pacing, Sands might not have felt so awkward. As it is, you’ll often travel through vast portions of the game with little to no battling, and then find that before you can save, you’ve got to fight through a massive horde of boring, faceless goons that you KNOW are only there because Ubisoft wanted action in their otherwise quiet game. Anyone who’s seen the movie Troy will recognize such horribly awkward pacing.

And yet while I seem to be making a big deal of this, it’s really not a big deal at all. Sands is the kind of game you play as an experience. You view it not as a list of pros and cons, but as one big picture. And there’s a certain understated beauty in the way Sands looks and feels, and the way it makes me feel. The connection I felt with the main character, the things I was capable of, the view of the Maharajah’s palace from the top of a sky-high tower… It all comes together to create something… magical? Note that I hesitate to use the word “magical” in anything but the literal sense, yet Sands truly is magical.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (November 10, 2007)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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