Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Gamestyle Archive Intro: a fine reboot of a classic gaming series and an excellent review from Daniel James. Very few games received a 9, never mind a 10, at Gamestyle. So when the site gave out such a score, you knew that it was going to be a high quality gaming experience.

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It’s been eight years since Lara Croft set foot into her first temple, in what was to become one of the finest examples of precise traversal through 3D space. The marriage of preset movements, cleverly-structured environments and wide range of manoeuvres gave Tomb Raider (and its audience) a unique sense of spatial awareness that no amount of ‘Lara-pimping’ from Eidos has ever managed to recapture. Basically put; 3D games got lazy.

Gamestyle only brings up the legendary Tomb Raider as an example, because it’s clear to see how Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia update continues with the ideals and themes of Core Design’s original vision. Indeed, if Tomb Raider was the natural progression of the original Prince of Persia motif, then The Sands of Time is the genre evolved. The Prince, son of King Shahraman, has acquired a magic Dagger; a mystical artefact that uses sand to control the fabric of Time. An unfortunate accident occurs when he is tricked by The Vizier (a traitor to the Maharajah’s service) into unlocking the Sands of Time from the Forbidden Hourglass, which proceed to devour the souls of the inhabitants of this medieval Persian kingdom. Thanks to the magical Dagger of Time, the Prince is able to avert death (by rewinding time to undo any further unfortunate accidents) or to wreak it (by thrusting it into the now-soulless evil inhabitants of the palace). But use of the dagger is secondary to the core dynamic of the game, which thankfully, is one of the most solid Gamestyle has ever come across.

There have been very few games that offer a sense of place like The Sands of Time does. Structured into individual rooms/sections, the Prince must navigate a series of environmental hazards laid out in precise arrangements that match his abilities perfectly. Much like the original Tomb Raider did, you can walk into a room and immediately recognise the route you will need to take based on what you know you can achieve. However, where Prince of Persia ‘evolves’ the idea is in the fluidity of how it all occurs: Lara was rigid – both her physicality and her personality. Precise as she may have moved, there was no panache, no style, no fluidity. You knew where you stood because she wouldn’t go anywhere else. Walk, run, stop, roll; all computationally preset. The nimble Prince doesn’t suffer from any such ‘robotics’. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal have done an exceptional job in taking Tomb Raider’s basic mechanics and articulating movement that fluently disguises the computational gymnastics. Ledges, precipices, swing bars, pillar columns, pits – all are positioned at precise distances from each other, as if to assure the player that their jumps, runs, climbs and swings will solidly connect. And they do; consistently.

Prince of Persia allows you to look effortlessly cool, running up walls, back-flipping, rolling, swinging and grabbing, all performed with style and precision. Indeed, it often feels as though the Prince knows exactly what you want to do even before you do. A tiny misalignment here and there will be ignored in favour of properly executing the desired move. Wall runs can be linked into jumps, jumps into grabs, grabs into swings, swings into jumps and jumps back into the perfect landing. Of course you’ll always run into the occasional problem, be that due to the (very rarely) obscured camera or simply a misjudged distance; but this is where the aforementioned Dagger comes into play and offsets any minor frustrations. When filled with sand, a tap of the L1 button triggers a ‘time rewind’ function (complete with impressive visual warping effect). Holding the button for a maximum of ten seconds can rewind your fate until you’ve sufficiently reached a safe section of your timeline. In this respect, any slight (and Gamestyle means slight) risk to the tentative nature of acrobatics can be overcome – or rather, your fear of them can be – by ‘undoing’ them. This encourages the player to take more risks than perhaps they normally would.

Considering the control and environments are so finely-tuned in the first place, the added bonus of less risky manoeuvrability places Prince of Persia into the upper reaches of classic game design. Where Prince of Persia chiefly differs from Tomb Raider is in its modular level structure. Though linked together throughout, the environment puzzles are very much self-contained in relatively small areas. Furthermore, a tap of the L2 button zooms the camera out to show a ‘landscape’ view of the current area – extremely useful for getting one’s head around the spatial puzzles. Another (far more noticeable) area where it differs is in the way combat works. ‘Works’ may not be a generous enough synonym for the combat system.

Unlike the Croftian method of draw-and-shoot, the Prince uses the more traditional sword (and dagger) weapon for close-range brawling, but borrows stylistically from contemporary sources such as The Matrix. The Prince can jab, slice and block (as you’d expect), but also launches and flips himself over enemies’ heads by running up and over them – flipping in mid-air and landing behind them, bringing his weapon down on their unsuspecting rears. He can also use the environment to his advantage, performing various wall-launched attacks (as well as rolling sideways or flipping backwards to safety). All this is performed with the same ease and agility of normal movement, and is very satisfying to watch. The Dagger is the only means of permanently dispatching undead foes, as thrusting it into their downed bodies absorbs the sand within them – and fuels the very dagger used to defeat them. And then there is the two-character dynamic, as mirrored by Sony’s own ‘Ico’. But rather than being a helpless and fragile angel, Farah (daughter of a conquered Indian Maharajah) is quite skilful at running and jumping herself (though not to the same degree as the Prince), and adept at using her bow for self-defense. Her presence is frequently required at signposted areas, and thankfully, the AI routines that govern her actions are solid (along with some tightly-scripted dialogue).

Prince of Persia doesn’t skimp on the graphics-side, either. In addition to the very solid character models are the natural-looking environments which feature swaying palm trees, crumbling stone balconies, and reflective rippling water. A luminescent glow constantly emanates from everything, and a rustic haze overlays every scene. The effect is quite beautiful, even before the supplementary zoom and special effects. The sound, whilst atmospheric, can sometimes be a little too quiet. Voice-overs aren’t as clear and crisp as you might expect, and music is either totally absent or quietly ambient rather than pronounced – but all sound is more or less above-board and quite in keeping with the atmosphere.

Ubisoft have presented this game extremely well; the tale – as narrated by our hero (in well-spoken Princely tones) – is paused, interrupted and continued, as if the story was being told in retrospect. When death occurs, the Prince will stop and correct himself on the misrepresentation of events, and when you save your progress, he informs you that the story will continue from there next time. Those save points (displayed as pillars of sand from the ground) trigger a future vision, showing the area ahead in vague glimpses, giving you some idea of what to expect between there and the next save point. This method of storytelling (and being led by the hand) gives Prince of Persia an almost linear structure, however in this instance, such a form is wholly welcomed. There is no getting lost at any time, no wandering without aim; just sequences of superbly-crafted 3D environmental puzzles and combat situations – and although a little on the short side, it is long enough to keep you enthralled but ends before boredom has any chance to set in. Forget the (forgettable) Angel of Darkness. Lara needs to be laid to rest in her last tomb; The Prince of Persia is everything that Eidos’ once illustrious heroine had sought to become (and more besides). It is one of the finest 3D games ever produced; nay crafted. At last, this is the ‘third place’… this truly is the third dimension. History has just been rewritten.

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

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