Reviewed on PC
Nowadays, Ubisoft is mostly known for releasing Tom Clancy’s Tower Climbing Feather Collection 3 (pre-order now for enhanced deluxe edition DLC), but when I was young I enjoyed their more lighthearted and creative games, like Rayman and the one I’m reviewing today-Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.
Sands of Time is a 3D platformer with hack and slash combat. Set in 9th century Persia, it follows an unnamed prince who is tricked into unleashing the sands of time, which turn almost everyone into a horrific demon. The Prince then makes his way through a palace full of these creatures, along with complex traps, in the hopes of fixing the mess he has made.
The platforming makes up the majority of the game, and it’s an absolute joy. The Prince has all the staples of the genre, like jumping, mantling and shimmying around ledges. The game then throws in a bunch of flashier moves, most famously wall running. Press the special action button while running besides a wall and the Prince will sprint rapidly along it halfway up. This mechanic is most often used to glide over enormous drops or pits full of spikes, but it’s so satisfying that you’ll end up doing it whenever you see a flat wall. Other highlights are swinging around flagpoles, and bouncing between close walls to ascend or descent safely. Once you have a handle on the Prince’s moves, navigating your way through the rooms provides a fantastic sense of momentum and despite being completely linear, you feel a massive amount of freedom.
Sands of time shakes up the platforming formula up by adding time manipulation. Very early on you gain the ability to rewind time by up to ten seconds. This is possibly the most elegant anti-frustration measure in any game ever. 3D platforming can be very awkward and lead to plenty of annoying deaths, and this mechanic flips that fact on its head and makes it part of the experience. The opportunity to instantly correct your mistakes in an immersive way is absolutely inspired. By reducing the amount of times you actually die and are sent back to the last checkpoint, Sands of Time keeps a better pace than many games. I can’t stress enough how much of a benefit a time reversal is to both platforming and combat. A less unique-but still welcome-mechanic is slowing time, which gives you more leeway when passing through traps and lets you get free hits in combat.
The platforming and time control are fantastic, but the combat is where many complaints arise. As with the platforming, you have a wide range of moves; the system includes counters, backflip dodges and defence breaking kicks. Sadly, the potential is wasted, since the wall bounce counters blue enemies and the vault attack counters red enemies, and everything else is nowhere near as efficient. The combat encounters just throw repeated waves of the same few enemies at you, so you end up dispatching them as quickly as possible rather than having fun with the system. In addition, you have to finish every downed enemy with the Prince’s dagger. The problem with this is the attack is quite a long animation and you are vulnerable during it, so a poorly timed finisher can lead to you taking serious damage or getting knocked down. There is a glimpse of a fun combat system, that could have been capitalised on if the developers left out the finishers or cut down on the enemy swarms. Sands of Time also provides a new entrant to the list of enemies that can go fuck themselves: the bats. The only way to deal with them is let them swarm you and chip your health, then swing your sword wildly until they are gone.
That brings me on to my next complaint, the camera. The majority of the game has your usual 3D person camera controls, but occasionally it will unexpectedly switch to a fixed alternate angle. This changes the context of your movement controls, meaning you sometimes get stuck in a loop of running between two rooms because your forward button is a backwards button for the next two seconds. Eventually, you’ll end up playing more cautiously so you don’t have to rewind because the angle change meant you ran off a cliff. The camera can be hindrance in combat as well; it suffers from the common issue where your vision is obscured when strafing near tall objects.
On the bug front, I came across a few issues. The first is a common problem with modern rigs running it, where the screen will be covered in a grey fog. This is a simple fix, solved in a few minutes by changing three values in the files. At one point, I rewound time, but found I couldn’t move when I returned to the land of the living; maybe the paralysis from the huge drop carried over. When it came to vaulting over enemies, if the Prince happened to land on an elevation, he would jiggle about until he reached the floor. A weirder issue was the fact that water had the magical ability to both cure The Prince’s gaping stab wounds and massively lower the resolution of objects submerged in it.
All of these were minor distractions or inconveniences, but the sound mixing presented a much bigger issue. Character’s dialogue would often be absurdly quiet, no matter how much I tweaked the settings. This caused me to miss out on some of the amusing exchanges between The Prince and his companion Farah, the most annoying instance being an unskippable cutscene where the screen is blank and they have a long conversation. Also, a puzzle later in the game seemed completely impenetrable, until I looked it up online and it turned out you need to listen for a very quiet cue.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a must play for any platformer fan. Wall running, flipping and bouncing your way through the palace is just pure bliss; it’s one of those games that takes you back to a time when a game’s primary focus was being fun.