Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Charles Ardai

Fifteen years later, and you’re still at it.

Another palace, another princess, another treacherous vizier. More mazelike levels to climb, jump, swing, and fight your way through. When the first game in the series came out in 1989, people were blown away by its lifelike animation because no other game offered anything comparable.

Today, of course, there are plenty of games that feature characters who look (more or less) like real people when they move. This poses a problem for designer Jordan Mechner and his nimble Arabian knight: Is fancy footwork enough to make Prince of Persia stand out in 2004?

Light on his feet

The short answer is yes. Particularly novel moves can still make a game memorable—consider the wall-crawling in Spider-Man or the split jump in Splinter Cell—and Mechner and his team at Ubisoft give us some doozies here. To cross a gap in the floor, the Prince can run perpendicularly along a neighboring wall. To reach a high platform, he can kick his way back and forth between two parallel walls like Jackie Chan. Run off a ledge and the Prince grabs desperately for the edge as he falls. In combat, he can cartwheel over an enemy’s head and strike with his sword as he descends. It’s great stuff.

The problem is the controls. Like too many current titles, The Sands of Time was designed principally as a console game, and some things that are smooth as silk in, for instance, the Xbox version are awkward here. Fighting half a dozen enemies as they surround you feels intuitive with a control pad, but not so much with WASD keys and the mouse. Worse, the complete control you have over camera angles on the Xbox is spotty and inconsistent on the PC. Too often you’re stuck viewing the action from an obstructed angle that you can’t rotate, and when you do have control, it’s with an oversensitive mouse that makes the screen swing vertiginously at the slightest touch. Also, because the keyboard controls are based on relative rather than absolute orientation, you can find yourself moving in an unintended direction when the game switches camera angles for dramatic effect. For example, pressing A moves you to the left as long as you’re facing away from the screen, but if the game suddenly switches to a side view, continuing to hold down the same key makes you walk forward instead.

Flipping the hourglass

These issues would be more annoying if it weren’t for some of the special powers the game gives you. In the opening sequence, you steal a magic dagger and a giant hourglass from a maharajah. The maharajah’s vizier tricks you into spilling the cursed sands contained in the hourglass, and you spend the rest of the game retrieving the sand, Dustbuster-fashion, with the dagger. Pick up enough sand and you can exploit certain time-related magic powers. You can shift enemies into slow motion or freeze them entirely. Even better, you can “rewind” time in 10-second chunks, allowing you to unmake mistakes and retry moves you didn’t get right the first time. Since the game is saved only at level-end checkpoints—yet another sign that its heart is in console land—the rewind power, which can function as a sort of minisave, is extremely valuable.

The game is at its best when it poses an apparently impossible physical challenge, such as finding a path from the top of a ruined tower to the bottom. Combat is not its strong suit: Too many scenes just throw dozens of enemies at you one after another and won’t let you proceed till you beat them all. The occasional Myst-style machinery manipulation puzzles don’t add much, either.

But all is forgiven when you find yourself swinging gymnastically from flagpole to flagpole or running up the side of a wall and leaping, at the last instant, onto the side of a shattered column. You’d think we’d have become jaded over the past 15 years, that after all the well-animated action games we’ve played, playing yet another wouldn’t affect us much. But you’d be wrong. The Sands of Time is not particularly innovative technically, and the PC version in particular has flaws—but Jordan Mechner still has the magic touch.

Verdict 4.5/5 Stars

Thrilling acrobatic action, though the controls and camera angles could be better.

The Real Sands of Time

In some ways, the Prince of Persia games never change. But in other ways…well, just look at the difference in these combat screenshots from the original game and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. “[The Prince] runs, he creeps, he leaps and ducks, he hangs by his fingertips—and he looks like a real person doing it,” I marveled in these pages a decade and a half ago. “[Jordan] Mechner has crafted the smoothest animation ever seen.” Those comments go double today—Sands of Time is one of the best-animated games ever.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.