Game Name:  Prince of Perisa: The Sands of Time
Developer:  Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher:  Ubisoft
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  February 28, 2014

While there are many great gaming franchises, only a select few rise to the top of our collective consciousness like the Prince of Persia series.  Jordan Mechnar’s tale of a young man risking life and limb to save the woman he loves instantly touches the romantic center of most gamers.  The exotic backdrop of a long-forgotten Iran only adds to the allure.  This is a land of magic and mystery, made famous by the stories of One Thousand and One Nights.  And yet, it is a land that is increasingly difficult to imagine as the focus of a game.  I look at the modern industry trend, which only shows the Middle East through the eyes of an American soldier, and wonder if this series would even have a chance if it had not established its roots in the 1980s.  Is there room upon the gaming landscape for an Islamic hero?  This is the question I sought to answer by diving into Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (henceforth known as Sands of Time).  While I was disappointed to find the protagonist’s regional identity downplayed, between his English accent and nonexistent faith, the developers did the next best thing.  They gave the prince enough everyman qualities to let the player identify with him on a human level.  For this reason alone, the title is important.  The competent platforming mechanics, which are rare to see on the PC, and richly detailed world make it an enjoyable experience too.  There are flaws to be sure, but the good parts of this game are truly great enough to make it worthwhile to modern players.

That said, nobody would care if it were not for the excellent narrative in the Sands of Time.  At its core, it is a tale of personal growth, burgeoning love, and self-sacrifice.  Ignore the original reviews and their focus upon its more superficial elements.  Yes, an evil vizier, who is channeling Jaffar from Aladdin, does in fact trick the prince into unleashing a terrible curse upon the land.  Yes, this dark magic does in fact turn almost everyone into a mindless zombie.  And yes, the prince does in fact have a dagger that lets him control time.  These pieces merely provide a context for the real story though, and those who are disappointed by the rapid exposition are missing the point.  The seemingly long slog through the middle of the title is where we get to see the prince interact with Farha the most.  She is the enslaved daughter on an Indian king, and one of the few other survivors of the curse.  Through her shared adventure with the prince, we see him develop from a petulant and selfish jerk into a true hero who is ready to fight for what is right, even when there is no opportunity for personal gain.  Given this character arc, the developers could have taken the easy road and let the pair live happily ever after.  However, they were too smart for that, and the bittersweet ending we do receive is an emotional punch to gut; one that lingers with the player well after the story concludes.

None of this excellent character development would be possible if Farha were not believable.  Fortunately, the companion system in Sands of Time is top notch, and to its credit, the closest approximation I can think of is the amazing dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite.  Mechanically, she is everything we have come to expect from a computer-controlled character.  By being able to fit through small spaces, she is able to navigate the sultan’s palace without getting in the player’s way, and without emulating the nearly impossible acrobatic feats of the prince.  She is able to pull levers and press switches to progress through some of the title’s more elaborate puzzles, which are ripped straight from the Legend of Zelda series.  She is also an essential part of combat; providing offensive punch with her trusty bow, while also raising the stakes for the player as you position yourself to defend her.  It is her dialogue with the prince, though, that really stands out.  Something as simple as her pausing in a library to read you a poem both lighten up the game and sell the player on the prince’s growing feelings towards her.  As a general rule, I dislike games with dead worlds; where the player is surrounded by some sort of consistent and unintelligent threat like zombies or monsters.  Farha, and her interactions with the player, go a long way towards alleviating the problems inherent in similar titles.

Even during the low points in the Sands of Time, when the prince is entirely on his own, the game’s fantastic platforming mechanics are able to provide a sense of wonder and fun.  As one half of the overall gameplay experience, I am happy to say the developers nailed it by designing the prince as some kind of Cirque du Soleil performer.  This is not platforming as you know it from Super Mario Brothers.  Throughout your journey, you will hang from ledges, leap to distant platforms, and parcour up walls.  Despite these feats, the prince is not Superman so a careless jump will claim his life.  With this in mind, figuring out how to navigate up and down the myriad of rooms is where the challenge truly lies, because unlike the cartoonish worlds of competing platformers, these spaces are meant to look realistic.  Using the level to your advantage is the name of the game, and you will quickly find yourself running along walls to grab a flag pole that you can use to swing yourself onto a distant ledge.  The visuals and animations allow this piece to hold up well, even today.  Other than the frustrating maneuver that is needed to make the prince jump back and forth between walls, the controls are both easy and intuitive.  Before long, you will be combining them together into a string that dazzles the eye.

Equally impressive looking, but unfortunately very shallow, is the second half of the gameplay experience; the combat.  The reason I describe them as separate spheres is they really play out that way.  While there are many similarities between the Sands of Time and the Legend of Zelda series, a seamless world is not one of them.  Here, you will rarely solve puzzles and traverse the palace grounds while working your way around enemies.  Instead, when one of these creatures is encountered, the camera zooms in, middle eastern-inspired rock music starts playing in the background, and you enter into a kind of death match from which you cannot escape until all of the baddies are vanquished.  While this is really cool the first couple of times it happens, it feels very jarring and unnecessary the further you progress through the game.  It does not help matters that the combat itself is rather repetitive.  You attack the monster until it falls, use the dagger of time to suck the magical sand from it so it is destroyed, and then repeat.  If things get hairy and you are overwhelmed, it is as simple as using your dagger to turn back the clock to dodge an attack that otherwise would have killed you.  Normally, your use of this tool is limited to a set number of charges.  Since these charges refill with the destruction of an enemy though, there is never any serious challenge.  To top it all off, there are only a handful of enemy types so the lack of variety only adds to the monotony.

In hindsight, I am honestly kind of surprised that the combat is my only real complaint.  During my playthrough, it seemed as though there were a lot more.  After all, the prince was a jerk, the middle of the game seemed to drag on for way too long, and zombies have been so overdone since this title’s release.  Yet, each of these items was intentionally included in the design.  This game is like a well-crafted novel, in which every word is deliberately chosen for effect.  Only at the end, when the entire picture comes into view, can you appreciate everything which led up to that moment.  It also does not hurt that the stylized art design has allowed this game world to age rather gracefully.  I am still disappointed that the Prince of Persia is not more Persian, but I realize that even today’s gaming market is probably not ready for that.  Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an excellent title though, so at least we get to see an ethnic hero in a solid role that even today’s gamers would have a good time experiencing.

Verdict:  Recommended