Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Review by Jesse
December 2003

Amidst a barrage of media advertisements, Ubisoft has released yet another title this season in a bid for your Christmas dollar. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has been hailed as one of this year's best action titles far and wide by the media, but what does this mean to you and me? Sure, it's pretty, but is it a good game worth spending my hard-earned money on, or should I save it for that other Ubisoft game I just saw a commercial for?

It's All About the Story, Isn't It?

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has a classic story: Boy's kingdom conquers and enslaves Girl's kingdom, Treacherous Vizier tricks unsuspecting boy into unleashing the Sands of Time on the populace, thus dooming the kingdom, Boy saves Girl from the Wicked Sand Monsters, Girl sasses Boy while working with him to stop the Sand Monsters, Boy decides Girl needs to learn her place, so he will marry her and teach her how to act like a lady, etc. ...

POP is, if anything, a puzzle game at heart. The Middle East theme is fun, and the settings and music are all very appropriate to it, but essentially the story is there only explain the Prince's criminal tendencies of breaking into places he doesn't belong and taking things that are not his.

The story could easily have been: "Windex the Magnificent, Sorcerer Extraordinaire,™ catastrophically failed with his latest spell to create the world's most powerful grease stain remover. The resulting concoction removes stains all right, the stain of humanity! You need hunt down and kill the original in order to save the kingdom." If you exchange the sand and Middle East architecture with the stone walls and green grass of Dark Ages Europe, and throw in some Gregorian chants for good measure, this game would play exactly the same.

The setting makes for some stunning visuals, and the relationship between the Prince and Princess adds a nice touch of sexual tension, but the story is essentially filler.

Not for the Action Faint of Heart

If you played Ico, and thought to yourself, "You know what would make this even more fun? If the fight scenes were more difficult and the fighting more involved!" then this is your game. POP is essentially a third-person puzzle game with fight scenes. Gameplay consists of enter room, kill baddies, figure out how to climb up to that ledge, avoid security, repeat.

The Prince takes the crown as the most athletic of heroes. He jumps, flips, climbs walls Jackie Chan style, and overall is one very badass dude. Everything is well animated and beautifully choreographed. The question remains, though, whether you will still find everything as fresh and new after you have been doing it for an hour. For me, the answer was no. The first fight scene was pretty cool; after the twelfth such battle, I was less enamored; after the 27th, I was just going through the motions.

There are several moves and special abilities in your repertoire. Your shiny new Dagger of Time allows you to slow time, reverse time to fix a mistake, freeze an enemy, or freeze everyone. It is also what you use to prevent enemies from coming back. During a fight, you can vault over enemies and hit them from behind, spring from walls, etc.

All these moves are works of art in and of themselves, and every battle scene is a thing of beauty. The camera angle slows action and moves around according to your actions and gives every battle a very cinematic feel without hindering the player.

The problem lies in the waves of enemies you are pitted against. As a general rule, you only face four enemies at once. But as soon as you get rid of one, it is replaced by another. Add to that their ability to teleport, and strategy begins to fly out the window as you just try to cling to life. There is no point in bringing the enemies to a choke point when one can teleport behind you and thus have you surrounded. This leads to some frustrating battles, and some will have to be repeated.

The Princess tries to help you with her bow during the battles, which complicates things even more when she ends up shooting you in the back or getting surrounded and killed. In one scene, you are trapped in a tiny room with the Princess and waves of monsters, and it is a exercise in pure frustration getting through that scene without either of the protagonists dying.

A lack of variety in enemies is another sticking point. There are five different types of enemies, and during a fight they end up becoming "that guy I can't jump over," "that guy I can't block," etc. It makes sense from a balance perspective, but it further drives home the point that after the 20th battle, you shouldn't expect anything new.

Usually in action games, you expect the game to become progressively more difficult as you get further along and more comfortable with the controls. Not so here. Since the enemies never change, as you grab more powerful weapons, things actually get easier, and all the game can do is throw more bad guys at you. This all leads up to a sorely disappointing final battle at the end. After clawing your way up to the final scene and honing your skills to the point where you can singlehandedly fend off a legion of Sand Monsters, you are treated to the easiest battle of the entire game as you face your final foe. Anticlimactic doesn't begin to describe it.

But I Paid a Lot More Money for My PC!

POP, in keeping with Ubisoft tradition, plays very much like a console port. I would highly recommend a gamepad if playing on the PC, as there are a lot of keys to keep track of. As a veteran of 1980s PC RPGs, I am used to playing games that use every key on a keyboard, but if you are not absolutely comfortable with keyboard use, it would be more of a hindrance than a help. Even with my experience, there were many times I hit the wrong key and got smacked by a monster in the process.

Save points are another carryover from the console that will grate on many PC gamers. Most save spots will not be available until you fight off legions of monsters. This can be quite frustrating, especially if your health is already low at the beginning of the fight. If you do die, you will not have to go back as far as the last save, but you will still have to face those 20 enemies with your low health before you can progress any further.

Just about every major battle has a pool of water you can use to replenish your health, but when it takes several times to refill your health and you face endless spawning enemies that can teleport right next to you, that is easier said than done.

Will I Want to Use That Rewind Feature on My Purchase?

Is Sands of Time worth your holiday dollar? This will vary depending on your tastes. If you like third-person puzzle environments but are not a big action fan, you probably should look for something else. If you have a PS2, I would highly recommend Ico instead (besides, you get to hear the cool "clop clop clop" of Ico's wooden sandals). If you are a diehard action fan, POP may seem a little thin in the strategy department, and you would be better off looking in the Tomb Raider department, which has more strategy along with the platform elements.

If you enjoy a combination of both, then you might enjoy this game. The fighting scenes are beautiful and cinematically done, the martial arts–style athletics add a fun element to the 3D environment, and the game has a wonderful atmosphere.

In the Gamecube and PS2 versions, you are able to unlock the first POP game, and in the Xbox version you can also unlock the second POP game. The Xbox and Gamecube also have a "making of" featurette. It appears that none of this is available for the PC version, so if you have a choice as to platform, I recommend the Xbox version. If the extras mean nothing to you and you have a good controller for your PC, then the PC version is the cheaper buy.

I enjoyed Sands of Time and think it makes an excellent addition to the Prince of Persia mythos. I was disappointed that no effort was put into the PC version, and it even lacks any of the extras featured on the console versions, but I found it a fun little action game that kept me entertained for 10 or so hours. If you are not put off by action gaming elements and you like puzzle-type games, I think you can find enough merit in the visuals and cinematography to justify a purchase. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: December 2003

Available for: Game Cube Windows Xbox PlayStation 2 

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System Requirements

Windows 98 SE/00/ME/XP
PIII 800 MHz
256 MB RAM
GeForce 3 or equivalent with 3D support (GeForce 4MX not supported)
DirectX 9.0a (included)

Where to Find It

GoGamer PC 37.90; GC 46.90; Xbox 46.90; PS2 42.90

Prices/links current as of 12/19/03
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