Replaying Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
I first played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in early 2005, when it came bundled with my old Sapphire Radeon 9550 graphics card. It instantly became a favourite game of mine — Edge magazine’s retrospective Time Extend article on the game, which was published at around the same time I played it, nailed the appeal of its storytelling and time-rewinding mechanic.
Recently I decided to replay it. Sadly I had no luck getting my PC copy working again on either WinXP or the Win7RC. It would install fine, but then get stuck on the splash screen with no error message. So a few days ago, I bought a copy of the Xbox version. (GameStation Birmingham have massively expanded their Xbox range recently… presumably numerous other branches in the region have transferred their stock there?)
The level design is still fantastic — the puzzles are pretty straightforward, but the design takes you on some wonderful routes through each area, your paths round the big rooms making the most of each space, looping around on themselves and involving lots of vertical movement. The torture chamber section is one such sequence, first making you work your way down to the bottom, and then gradually back up to the top, your path crossing over itself all the time. The Hall of Learning is another highlight — I’m always a sucker for light beam/mirror puzzles in games! Although I did get stuck in exactly the same place in that room as I did five years ago…
I thoroughly enjoyed returning to it, but the game as a whole has definitely lost some of its sheen since my original playthrough. One reason is that I’ve since played Ico, which preceded Sands of Time by a couple of years and shares its beautiful castle and desolate atmosphere, but had more interesting puzzles and did a better job of the whole arriving-at-a-landmark-you-first-saw-ages-ago/looking-back-on-how-far-you’ve-come thing. (Normally I like my games split into discrete levels for easier time- and score-attack replayability, but that ability to look back on a continuous path through a full game is a great way of adding a wonderful sense of epic scale to even a sub-10-hour game. The Half-Life series also does it very well.)
The combat system is another element of Prince of Persia which impressed me at the time (thanks to its fluidity and spectacle) but has now been surpassed by something I played recently. The Xbox’s Ninja Gaiden was released around the same time as Sands of Time, and I remember Edge commenting these two games both, in quick succession, marked steps forward in making the simple act of moving around in-game a flashy and fun experience. I finally played it last year (in its Ninja Gaiden Black revision) and fell in love with the depth and intensity of its combat — very Halo-like in the way it made me want to master its challenges, and in the way success in combat is reliant on balancing controlled bursts of aggression and defensive movement into space, in response to almost-subconscious cues.
There’s no contest between a system like that and POP”s combat, which basically amounts to keeping track of how long it’s been since each enemy last attacked you, and blocking or dodging when you estimate one’s about to do so again. The only real variation between foes is that you can’t vault over some of them. Not that its combat rhythms and solid animation don’t still have their appeal — as that Time Extend article notes, a pure focus on doing a simple thing very well can have its virtues. I was just disappointed to find that the fighting is not as interesting as I remembered it, only a few steps above Fable (another original Xbox game I only played recently) in complexity.
Ninja Gaiden also takes wallrunning a step further — POP just lets you run in smooth arcs along one wall at a time, but Gaiden has that bit where you use a long succession of wall-runs between perpendicular walls to spiral upwards and out of a deep shaft. Nothing wrong with POP‘s approach; it suits its puzzle system just fine. But again, it’s just not quite as spectacular as it seemed five years ago.
And to make one final comparison: both games have horribly annoying bat enemies — POP”s more so, because you have to wait for them to flock around you. Plus they don’t even give you sand, but NG‘s do give out Essence. So again, no contest! 🙂
Speaking of annoying flying enemies, I don’t know who thought fighting those buzzards would be fun…
Prince of Persia‘s camera can be really awkward in places – worst of all in the Observatory late in the game. But save point placement is generally pretty sensible: usually they’re spaced only about five minutes apart, plus there are extra restart points outside those save points (usually after you enter a big room and the camera zooms through the scene). And there are few unskippable cutscenes – I think the only ones are those that rely on Farrah moving to a certain place before you can regain control.
As for The Sands of Time‘s one notorious difficulty spike, this time I completed the elevator fight towards the end first time. WHOO YEAH! But that probably had less to do with my experiences completing the notoriously unforgiving Ninja Gaiden Black (on Normal; go me), and more to do with the fact I gave myself a head start by beginning the fight with the Mega Freeze move…
I wanna play more Prince of Persia now! If I can get past the infamous changes in art/voice/music style, I might give Warrior “YOU BITCH” Within and Two Thrones a try…
 I’d like to throw in a mention of the Master System version of Ninja Gaiden here, partly because it was brilliant, but also to do my bit to counterbalance that annoying assumption on the Internet that any mention of an 8-bit console game means it must refer to the NES.