On a whim, I recently replayed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I haven’t played it in a few years, but always name dropped it as a game that I consider to be a masterpiece. Needless to say, my opinion of the game hasn’t changed for the worse. If anything, I love it even more.
Sands of Time is an action platformer with some puzzle elements. The main hook is that the Prince is incredibly athletic and can generally do cool parkour stuff way better than a real person can do. The Prince also has a dagger that allows him to manipulate time, which the player uses to solve puzzles and to save themselves if they make a mistake.
The free running and time manipulation were fairly novel for the time, but the game still holds up because of its intense attention to detail and emphasis on making the core gameplay rewarding. Simply put, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of the best 3D platformers ever made.
Sands of Time’s director, Patrice Desilets (who would later go on to create Assassin’s Creed), told Gamestop in 2003 that he was heavily influenced by the the feel of sports games, especially Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
In the early days, I thought of this as an action adventure game like Tony Hawk, only with a prince. I wanted a character you could throw around the environment, and he would do acrobatic tricks. Our prince was going to be about a set of possibilities rather than specific abilities, so as you played the game, you were going to surprise yourself with what the character could do in certain environments.
That isn’t just fluff, the influence is apparent. The Tony Hawk games revolve around recognizing the different obstacles in a level’s map, knowing what tricks you can do on those obstacles, and then optimizing your run with big lines and combos. Players are rewarded in a concrete way, and you learn through doing more than being told what to do. Creativity and experimentation is not only possible, but rewarded.
Prince of Persia does something similar, even as the player’s goal is less about a high score and more about finding the path through the level. In the early part of the game, the player is taught the skills the Prince has, but crucially, what his limitations are. The Prince’s superhuman athleticism is the stuff of fantasy, but the animations and control lend the Prince a sense of weight and tethers him somewhat to reality.
The way the Prince’s wall run animation ends with the Prince kicking his legs faster even as gravity starts to slowly pull him down sells the difficulty of the feat, and gives the player a concrete sense of exactly how far the Prince can go before falling. The game never tells you outright when to jump off a wall, but does so with visual cues such as the placement of traps, banners, or even cracks in the wall, paired with what you know of the limits of the Prince’s abilities.
Once you have a feel for what kind of hazards the room has and what abilities you will need to utilize to avoid them, the player is then expected to link together lines of tricks to avoid traps, open doors, solve puzzles, and eventually complete the room in a way in not unlike putting together a massive combo in Tony Hawk.
This isn’t particularly novel game design, as much as it is a staple of how to make a great platformer. The Sands of Time is a masterful display of taking cues from other great games and executing them with it’s own unique flair.
Gameplay is only part of what makes games great, and thankfully, The Sands of Time is an aesthetic delight. Yes, it is obvious that it was initially released on the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox, but the strong art design, lighting, animations, and use of color means it is still easy on the eye 13 years later. The sound design is also top notch, and specific kudos has to go out to the Prince’s voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, who turns in an excellent performance.
He needed to deliver, because the game’s narrative is presented as if the Prince is telling a story about one of his adventures directly to the player. One of the many charming wrinkles in the game is that if you die, the Prince will say something to the effect of: “No, it didn’t happen like that.” It is a thoughtful way to reconcile the narrative with the fact that you are playing a game that has a fail state.
While we are on the topic, one of the more underrated aspects of The Sands of Time is the story, which is more nuanced and mature than it gets credit for.
The plot is pretty simple. The Prince has claimed the Dagger of Time during one of his military conquests, and is manipulated by the treacherous Vizier into using it to release the Sands of Time, transforming the entire kingdom into monsters. Only Prince, the Vizier and Farah, a princess from a kingdom that the Prince has conquered, are not transformed. The Prince must stop the Vizier, romance the girl, and save the world.
It is a standard swashbuckling adventure, but it is well executed, and subverts some of the expected beats along the way. Initially, the Prince is brash, impulsive, and arrogant, even if he does have skills to back it up. Along the way, the Prince develops more humility, responsibility, and learns that sometimes doing the right thing often comes at the expense of personal happiness. The ending of the game is bittersweet in a way not a ton of games were doing at the time.
As much as I rave about the game, it has a substantial weakness, which is the combat. I wouldn’t go as far to call the fighting bad. It is functional, but unexceptional. The Prince fights sand monsters, beetles (so many beetles) and monster birds with his scimitar and the dagger. Most enemies can be beaten by spamming the vault attack and finishing them off with a stab of the dagger. Certain enemies can counter this bread and butter combo, but taking them out isn’t harder, just more time consuming. Later fights can go on too long, interrupting the game’s flow. The game only has one true boss (you can probably guess who), and it isn’t anything to write home about either.
The later Prince of Persia games built upon The Sands of Time, but never again reached it’s heights. The series first veered off course with Warrior Within, which traded the light, but subtly somber tone of the first game for ultra violence, extreme objectification of female characters, and chugging, brainless hard rock music, ala Devil May Cry. That works for Devil May Cry because that is the aesthetic hook of the game and is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Warrior Within is brooding and self serious to the point of being laughable. The sharp change in tone alienated fans of The Sands of Time. That being said, Warrior Within is a much better game than it gets credit for, and in some ways improves upon The Sands of Time, especially when it comes to combat.
The Two Thrones capped off the initial trilogy and tonally hit somewhere in the middle of it’s predecessors. The Two Thrones is very good, but the narrative is a bit muddled, and the level design isn’t quite as tight as the original game. The series received a reboot in 2008, which is worse than the initial trilogy, but better than it is remembered to be, and finally returned to the world of the original trilogy in 2010 with The Forgotten Sands, which is an ironic title if there ever was one. There was also a movie, but the less said about that, the better.
I could go on about this title and the series, and probably will in the comments, but for now, I am going to wrap up with a simple appeal: If you haven’t played this game, do so now. And if you have in the past, play it again. It has aged as gracefully as the Prince free running through a ruined castle.
When I am not writing about games, I sometimes stream them at twitch.tv/omegaredpanda. Also, follow me on Twitter for updates on silly things I write and general musings about the dumb stuff I am interested in.