Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: Sands of Time

Having recently completed "The Two Thrones", I thought it'd be nice to look back over Ubisoft's "Prince of Persia" trilogy in a sequence of reviews. I'll be focusing primarily on story, gameplay and characters. Previous "Prince of Persia" games such as "The Shadow and the Flame" will not be reviewed.

Most people think Time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of Time, and I can tell you: they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm.

The series begins with "Sands of Time", the story of a young and naive Prince who participates in a Persian invasion of India. Victorious, he then visits the neighboring kingdom of Azad and is manipulated into unleashing a deadly plague upon the palace and all its inhabitants. Aided only by a mysterious Indian princess, the Prince must fight his way through the byzantine, demon-infested palace in search of a way to undo his mistake.

All three "Prince of Persia" games - the entire series, in fact, from ancient first to last - rely heavily on reflex, knowing when to jump, when to roll under a spinning blade, how to time a drop. But where the DOS games would send you all the way back to the beginning of the level if you slipped up (costing you valuable time which you couldn't get back), Ubisoft's trilogy adds a gameplay mechanism that allows you to learn from your mistakes: the ability to rewind time.

Very early in the game, the Prince acquires the Dagger of Time, a mystical weapon that serves two primary purposes. The first grants the player the ability to turn back time for about eight to ten seconds; if you jump too soon and plummet to your death, a tap of the proper key sends the Prince on a backwards trek. Each reversal consumes a Sand Tank, and the Dagger holds several of these (with more added as you progress). If you're killed without any Sands in the dagger, you'll be sent back to the last checkpoint, to repeat the entire sequence.

The Dagger's secondary function is equally vital: it is the only weapon that can vanquish Sand monsters. And I mean all Sand monsters. Except for various animals you infrequently come across, every single enemy here can only be destroyed by slashing them with your sword until they collapse, and then stabbing them with the Dagger to absorb their Sands (and prevent them from reconstituting themselves, which they will if you fail to strike within a few seconds). It's a nice little trick at first, but you'll inevitably reach situations where you're fighting ten to fifteen enemies (usually no more than three at a time; as soon as one is dispatched, another teleports in). And it becomes a bit tiresome.

The Prince himself is surprisingly acrobatic: he can run up or along walls, shimmy across ledges, leap over enemies to attack them from above, and rebound off flat surfaces to propel himself like a spear. In addition to all this, you'll gain additional Dagger powers the more Sand you absorb.

The combat system is also interesting. On the one hand, it's a bit tedious because you have to destroy every single enemy you encounter - save points will not be accessible until the surrounding area has been cleared. These save points offer brief glimpses of the terrain ahead, but leaving that aside, this is very much a game where you want to save at every opportunity. On the other hand, the fact that you can't not kill your enemies means that "leveling up" is inevitable - the Dagger gains additional tanks for every few dozen enemies slain, which means more chances to rewind, more powers unlocked, and so on.

Visually and audially, "Sands of Time" is beautiful: the soundtrack mixes Middle Eastern melodies and rock, adding mesmerizing vocals to several tracks. The game environment is suitably exotic and detailed, from the grandeur of the palace architecture to the decaying dungeons, to the magnificent sunrise as you near your goal.

With every other living being in the palace transformed into a Sand demon, the only characters with significant screen time are the Prince and Farah, the daughter of the conquered Indian Maharajah. Farah isn't a playable character, but she follows you throughout most of the game, reaching places the Prince can't and occasionally using her skills at archery to support him during fights. The banter between them is always entertaining, as are the Prince's monologues during gameplay. It's important to note that the interaction between them fills up a lot of "dead space" in the game that would otherwise be spent silently running and jumping around - this is a subtle strength that Ubisoft would not fully appreciate later.

Overall, "The Sands of Time" is as much a work of art as it is a game: rich, compelling, and worth the hours you'll spend shrieking in rage as you miss a complicated jump for the third time. :)