The Sands of Time
Jenny just recently rediscovered the joys of Tetris, so last week I found myself in the unusual position of hanging around with time on my hands while she was wrapped up in a game. I looked around the room for something to do, and spotted Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time sitting on a shelf unopened. It’s probably been there for a good three years; I don’t really go near the ol’ XBox much anymore. But with nothing to lose I finally cracked the seal and popped the game in.
Turns out this game is a spiritual successor to the amazing cult classic Ico. The visual art direction isn’t quite as lustrous, but there are a number of strong parallels. Both games are essentially puzzle platformers in 3D with lots of climbing, jumping, switch triggering, and crate-stacking required to move from one area to the next. And both take place in and around the sprawling ruins of an abandoned castle. Most of the action is in the interior chambers, but occasionally you’re forced to crawl along a ledge or scale an exterior wall where a nicely executed skybox gives you a glimpse of the surrounding — also deserted — countryside.
I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg here. Ico came out a couple of years before Sands of Time, but the original Prince of Persia game was depicting thoughtful, acrobatic platforming in 2D way back in 1989… years before development on Tomb Raider even began. There are elements of Sands of Time’s presentation that seem too similar to be coincidence though — like the way the camera pulls out and gives a long dolly-shot traversal of each new area as the Prince enters.
The interplay between the Prince and his female companion is what really triggered my Ico deja vu. She follows you around and interacts with you not only to solve some of the puzzles, but to provide a bit of an audience for your exploits. She gasps when you slip from ledges, shouts warnings and encouragement to you during battles, and occasionally reinforces the plot by remarking on challenges & achievements (“that’s not the same sword you were using earlier!”). The Prince’s own grunts and shouts have some of the same evocative simplicity as Ico’s, and the way every footstep or falling rock echoes through the cavernous setting is familiar to Ico as well.
The game designer in me would love to know how much these similarities were due to direct inspiration, and how much is just coincidence. But as a game player, I’m just glad that they both showcase a lot of the same engaging elements. And the game is far from a clone anyway. The combat mechanics and “rewind” capabilities make levels play out quite differently in SOT, generally with more of a focus on successful execution of a related chain of trials before the clock ticks down. I’m not going to say much about the basic gameplay here (you can check out reviews at Gamespot or IGN), but I do want to touch on a couple of other design choices that make the game so great.
It’s immediately obvious how simple and intuitive the game is to play. The prince has a dazzling array of acrobatic abilities at his disposal (supported by graceful, fluid animation), but you don’t need either complicated button sequences or split-second timing to pull off dramatic action sequences. That’s because all of the basic controls are context-sensitive. For example, the “jump” button not only makes the prince leap, it also pulls him up onto ledges when he’s hanging, somersaults him forward when he’s running on unbroken ground, performs backflips over standing enemies in combat, launches him off a nearby vertical wall (if his sword is drawn and he’s standing close enough), etc. etc. It’s a far cry from the demanding dynamics of Ninja Gaiden, and in my first fifteen minutes of play I was constantly impressed by how good the game made me look, translating a few simple button pushes into a masterfully animated sequence of moves that flowed naturally together.
SOT is also fairly fault-tolerant, so you won’t spend hours trying to master one of the hundreds of puzzle chambers. If you don’t jump in time when running towards the end of a platform, for example, you’ll slip and catch the edge instead of sailing off to your doom. Jump targeting is auto-hinted, too — if you’re trying to leap towards that rope hanging over the chasm, just getting in the general vicinity is good enough to ensure you grab it.
The level design pulls all of these elements together into a rewarding experience. You almost never find yourself in a situation where more than one of your context-sensitive actions makes any sense, for example, so the overall experience is of a very smooth, responsive game play. And most puzzles are designed around a 4-point compass (with an occasional diagonal thrown in) so there’s not a lot of guess work involved about how to approach an obstacle. That’s not to say you won’t spend some time figuring out how to traverse an area. But by taking some of the pressure off precision in execution, the game encourages longer stretches of flat-out running, jumping, and swinging without having to worry too much about the price of failure. It’s nice to be confronted with a lattice of multi-leveled flagpoles, pipes, and pillars stretching across a gaping void and leap ahead thinking, “Oh, this is going to be so cool!” instead of “Wow, looks dangerous, better find a save spot first.”
So that’s it in a nutshell. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time isn’t as aesthetically polished as Ico, but it’s still nicely done. It’s an engrossing puzzle platformer that offers enough challenge to stimulate without often becoming frustrating, and it inherits enough of Ico’s style and character to feel inspired by the latter but not defined by it. On top of that, the combat and parkour-style acrobatics of the prince give it a more traditionally rewarding action flavor. The game is quite a bit longer than Ico too, so you’ll have plenty of time to revel in your nimble adventures. Overall score: 9.0
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