*Ubisoft Montreal Studios. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”:http://www.mobygames.com/game/sheet/p,14/gameId,11185/ 2003. Ubisoft Entertainment. Gamecube, PAL.*
This game spent a long time on my “currently reading” pile (okay, so you don’t _read_ a videogame, but there are books on that pile, too), unplayed, and then the latest issue of “Edge”:http://www.edge-online.com (#146) published a reminiscence on the game and gave away the ending, in which the hero rewinds time to the game’s beginning in order to avert the death of a lover who will no longer remember him. But _Edge_ has gushed about _The Sands of Time_ for ages, giving it a 9/10 in the review, talking about it ever since, and finally complaining about how the developers turned the Prince from a BBC-accented aristocrat into a trash-talking bad-boy for this game’s ‘edgier’ sequel: _Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within_, and this reminiscence was no different. How could I fail to be affected? After all, I hadn’t left the game alone because it was bad: I just had other things to do. I didn’t feel like doing any writing yesterday, so I picked it up again.
Now that I think about it, I played it pretty much all day: from about 08:30 to 23:30, when I finished it. There was a small break to play with Ubuntu Hoary, decide to repartition my Powerbook’s HD to get rid of it (see “Wiping Linux off my HD”:http://benhourigan.com/index.php?p=12), to cook dinner, and talk to my Dad, who stopped by, but for the most part, yesterday was just a big block of videogaming.
I never liked the original _Prince of Persia_, or _Prince of Persia 2_, for that matter. They lacked pace, the swordfighting was too difficult for my early-teenaged brain and its mediocre fine-motor skills, and as with many action games of the time, their plots were so thin you could measure their depth in nanometres. When I heard that the series’ IP was being resurrected, I thought the new game was going to be as lame as when Infogrames renamed themselves Atari.
But _The Sands of Time_ is different. Unlike Infogrames, who seem to have forgotten that Atari went down like the Hindenburg in a massive videogame-market crash over 1982-83, _The Sands of Time’s_ developers have noted of the lessons of history. It’s a contemporary game, and it borrows well from some of the finest titles of recent times.
This game, like its eponymous hero, is a bit of a thief, but it is at least a discerning and skilled one. In large part, _The Sands of Time_ is a rip-off of _Ico_, which is itself sort of an updated version of the original _Prince of Persia_ . The game takes place in a single, if massive and labyrinthine, locale which gives the game most of its charm, and its hero, like _Ico’s_, has occasionally to protect an only somewhat helpful female companion. The game also steals from the _Blood Omen_ series, adopting its practice of having the hero give often snide voice-overs that indicate how he perceives his world, what he thinks of the people within it, and what he’s currently doing. This last feature is an elegant rebuttal of the implications of “Jesper Juul”:http://www.jesperjuul.dk/ludologist/ and Markku Eskelinen’s arguments in the first issue of “Game Sudies”:http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/: that interactivity and narration are mutually exclusive. Sure, you can’t rewrite the dialogue, and it doesn’t change as a result of your in-game choices, but this is a _narrative_ game: the hero narrates it while you play, usually without interrupting the action. Fortunately, the narration is witty, subtle, and in the end, touching.
One of the greatest pleasures of videogaming is exploring finely crafted imaginary worlds, and _The Sands of Time_ excels in this area. Pushing on towards the end around 22:30 last night, with the Prince climbing the Tower of Dawn, I really started to remember what it’s like to be awake in the early morning, seeing a sunrise and breathing crisp air while you’re concentrating on something more pressing. Together with the fine narration, and controls that allow the player to execute the Prince’s acrobatics effortlessly, environments such as these (see the screenshot below) make the game feel like a finely crafted work of art.
It is, of course, flawed in parts. Battles can be too long, and the fact that enemies will respawn until you kill a number of them that the game knows, but that you don’t, means that repeated death can leave you without hope that you’ll ever get past a fight sequence. Climbing the Tower of Dawn at the end, without the Dagger of Time that lets you rewind to avoid death, also results in a final platforming sequence in which you are repeatedly sent back to the last save point without any idea how far you were from the next one when you died. I did, however, experience no problems with the famous difficulty spike which occurs early in the game when fighting the Prince’s zombified father, and which reportedly caused many players to give up permanently (well, at least according to _Edge_).
I’m glad my videogaming prowess is better than it was in the days when I was defeated by the early levels of the original _Prince of Persia_.