Friday, July 29, 2011

Best Game Ever: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of TimeWhen I first encountered Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, little did I know that Jake Gyllenhaal was about to lead me on the finest cinematic experience since Citizen Kane...

Ha! Just kidding. That movie blew. I'm talking about the 2003 video game, which is one of the finest ever made.

Early on in the game, a gang of palace guards confront the Prince. I hit the attack button, and instead of merely swinging his sword, the Prince vaulted over the hapless guard's head and impaled him from behind. All slow-motion, Matrix-style.

Was that awesome? Yes it was. Was I hooked to the point of playing until the wee hours of the morning for several days straight? Yes I was.

I've returned to the game several times over the years—one of the key indicators of a classic in my mind—and even purchased the game again on PC once I bid a final farewell to my GameCube and Wii. The Sands of Time is a near-perfect marriage of gameplay and story.

You play as the unnamed son of a Persian king in the mythical past. The king conquers an Indian maharajah, taking his daughter, Farah, a treacherous vizier, and two magical artifacts: The Sands of Time and The Dagger of Time. Once back in his homeland, the king is tricked by the vizier. The Prince unwittingly releases the Sands of Time from their hourglass, and they destroy everyone in the castle, except the Prince, Farah, and the Vizier. The rest of the game involves the Prince's adventures trying to restore the sand to the hourglass and stop the Vizier's nefarious plans.

Something's not quite right here...
The Start Game screen shows the Prince sneaking out the rain into an unknown person's opulent window. This is located somewhere away from the game's arid desert setting, and it's implied that the Prince is relating the events of the game to whoever resides in that room. When you die, for example, he says in voiceover "No, no! That's not how the story goes!" You get the impression that he's relating the tale to loved ones from the safe remove of the future.

But that's not the case.

Near the game's climax, Farah plunges to her death. Unsurprisingly, the Prince and Farah have grown to love one another through the course of the game. In his grief, the prince plunges the Dagger of Time into the the Sands of Time and reverses time to the night before his father invaded her father's kingdom.

He's sneaking into Farah's window and frantically telling his unlikely story before the game happens in order to save her life. The Vizier busts in and confronts the Prince, and the final battle takes place before any of the events of the game.

When I saw how neatly the story and even the game mechanics folded back in on themselves (every death is simply a poorly remembered part of the tale), I fell in love with the game all over again. This was a twist that worked on every level, one which M. Night Shyamalan wishes he had thought of.

It's not in any way a realistic story, but it's a story well-told. Few games spin a tale so well.

The game plays smoothly throughout, with an elegant combat system with enough special moves to keep things interesting. The Prince is acrobatic and is able to do things most people can't, such as running along walls, and he uses those skills when he fights. He flips over his opponents or launches at them from a wall or even uses the Dagger of Time to stun them. It's all very organic, and hit the sweet spot of difficulty for me: easy to learn, hard to win, but never too hard.

The game's biggest strength, of course, is not combat but platforming. There's so much leaping over spiked pits, dodging swinging blades, running along walls, and swinging from ropes, that you might be forgiven for forgetting the story altogether. I have not seen it done better in a 3D game, although Assassin's Creed's free-form parkour does rival it for pure fun. (Both games are from Ubisoft.)


And I must not forget the Dagger of Time. It allows the Prince to reverse time for a short period, depending on how much "power" he has acquired for it through the game. It does not make you invincible, but it helps you try that badly timed leap again without having to start the level over from the beginning. I found it particularly useful in intense battles where I was running low on health. I could take back that last blow that put me near zero and off my feet and rethink my strategy.

The game shows its age in its graphics, which were ground-breaking at the time. I remember being awed when I finally emerged from a nighttime making my way through a dark castle to seeing the sun rising over a ruined city and misty mountains in the background. Breathtaking. It still works, but pales in comparison to modern games.

Ubisoft has never really been able to recapture the magic of this game, though its Prince of Persia games always sell relatively well. The two immediate sequels to Sands of Time took the series into much darker territory and changed some of the key game mechanics. Even the 2010 "reimagining" of the story left a lot to be desired. Fun game, but more on rails than its predecessors.

Will they or won't they?
(they will)
These sequels don't have the heart, the charm, or the wit of their predecessor.

Farah and the Prince keep up a faux-hostile repartee throughout the game. It's light-hearted, but never forgets the danger they are in. That's a surprisingly hard trick to pull off.

I remember that this game was recommended to me by a friend, who also recommended Beyond Good and Evil, which I played at the same time. Beyond Good and Evil was fun, but ultimately a cutesy trifle compared to The Sands of Time.

Pros: Fun, well-told story; superior combat mechanics; clever puzzles and platforms; time-rewind mechanic

Cons: Graphics are dated

Verdict:  What are you waiting for? It's available on Steam and PlayStation Network and a bunch of other places.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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