Sunday, 16 December 2012
In which Shim is alternately enthralled, diverted and thwarted by Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is – as the well-read Ferret presumably knows or can deduce from its colonated title – part of a series of fairly well-received puzzle-platformers. You play, surprisingly, a Persian prince trying to... hmm. You know what, let’s just exposit and get it over with.
Cutscene. You loot some Indian city with the help of the obligatory treacherous vizier, presumably just for loots and lulz. So you’re a warmonger, apparently, which might not go over especially well in your heroic protagonist. They sweeten the deal slightly by emphasising that unlike some people, you’re not going to try and impress people with the number of sweet kills you score; you’re going to claim yourself some particularly nifty bling instead, because looting someone’s best stuff while other people kill them for you is far admirable than risking your life in battle. You play through the raid and steal the fabled Dagger of Time; your people loot the Sands of Time in their mystical hourglass, which is big and heavy, and therefore presumably too much like physical labour for a prince to steal. You trot back to Persia to show off your phat lootz to your dad’s old mate, taking with you the treacherous vizier who let you inside, plus various women you decided to enslave, as one does. When you arrive, you let the vizier, who is obviously well trustworthy, like, con you into unleashing the Sands of Time and destroying pretty much everything. He disappears with the hourglass, you start trying to escape, and are quickly joined by Farah, formerly-kidnapped princess. At some point along the way, you seem to stop trying to escape and to start arbitrarily running through bits of the insanely-dangerous palace with no clear direction or ultimate objective – and this (to finally pick up the thread) is why I said “hmm”.
Basically, then, you’re solving platforming puzzles and hacking apart sand-people. Sounds good to me.
Playing the game
The game starts off well by making you feel like a badass. You’re genuinely pretty good at fighting, and the combat system makes it easy to do stuff that looks cool. My impression is that they didn’t really want the combat to be a major sticking point, only another obstacle in the succession of puzzles you face. There’s no levelling up or anything of that nature – right from the beginning my frantic button-mashing led to impressive five-way duelling, parrying, felling two with a single blow, and running up a bloke’s face to somersault over his head and insert Sword A into Spine B. You can leap six feet vertically, and twenty horizontally. You can run straight up walls, and straight along them, in classic Matrix style. Very clearly, you are an awesome dude and your purpose is to do awesome things with flair. The engine manages to sync combat pretty well, so in-engine attacks coincide with animations, and it’s usually fairly clear what’s going on.
As usual, I wasn’t entirely sure quite what kind of game it was, and tried to evade guards by sneakily going around them and dropping off a high wall. This resulted in ignominious instant death by gravity. This is not a game of sneaking around, evading combat or creating your own paths. It’s a game of solving the puzzles you’re presented with in the approved fashion, just like the early Prince of Persia games, except you seem better with a sword than I remember and you can run up walls. It’s a linear game with a focus on execution, not creativity.
There’s continuous ambient platforming mixed with what you might call puzzle rooms, where you’re generally trying to work out and then execute a route as accurately as possible. Since mistakes mean death more than half the time, that’s pretty important. You do have a health bar, it’s just mostly irrelevant outside combat. That being said, it allows you to absorb about one hit from a trap if you mistime things slightly. There are also some sections where you apparently have to absorb some damage to progress, typically from hard landings; more on that later...
About a third of the way into the game, they suddenly remembered that these are supposed to be characters, and start having in-game dialogue; the prince even starts talking to himself. Admittedly the stuff he says walks a shaky line between amusingly sarky and parodic grumpy teenager, but it wasn’t shameful. I’d have liked a bit more inner monologue, since it’s quite sporadic, but maybe they thought it’d distract you from the puzzles. Farah soon ends up directing their movements, and the prince chafes mildly at it. She’s pretty competent, and seems to know more about what’s going on than he does.
Then she suddenly falls in love with him – this guy who conquered her kingdom, is responsible for the deaths of presumably most or all of her acquaintance, captured her to be a slave, and brought about a cataclysm through misuse of the Dagger of Time. Mmm-hmm. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps? The prince starts musing on it; he’s presumably supposed to be a conceited, arrogant jerk, though from the way he responds, I’m inclined to read it more as someone so unused to admiration that he gets immediately carried away and imagines himself as some kind of Casanova. I couldn’t quite get a feel for the characterisation here; the prince’s attitude and dialogue were in this awkward halfway state where I wasn’t sure how much of it was intentionally laughable, and how much I was expected to take seriously. For example:
“I could marry her. She is a Maharajah’s daughter, after all. A conquered one, but still, her blood is royal. Besides, what better way to tame her impudence? It's not so bad for a woman to have a bit of spirit - it's a challenge.”
At the same time, as you get more dialogue with Farah, she actually seems to get less confident, and more in need of reassurance. I felt that was a shame, because in the earlier stages she came across to me as the hoopiest frood in the game, and not someone likely to become dependent on her enemy-turned-ally-of-convenience. Okay, there were some points where she went off on her own just when she would have been useful with you, and she got you to do the really dangerous stuff, but I can live with that, and frankly it suggests a degree of intelligence that the prince lacks.
Towards the end, Ubi decided to bring the romance to the fore, which I suspect was for a mixture of artistic and mechanical reasons. The old saw of incredible danger bringing together two people who initially disliked each other, and causing them to behave quite foolishly rather than getting on with the job in front of them, is too well-established for most people to resist. I got a slight feeling that subtle magic might have been an influence on their actions, since things really ramp up once they’re in the Evil Tower of Evil, with a rather odd slice of dreamlike gameplay and cutscenes culminating in them wandering off for sexy bathtimes, and then waking up in tombs, and then escaping using magic words Farah may have learnt from you in her past, which is your future. Yes, exactly. But I don’t think it’s explicitly stated that their unwise decision to hold off on the questing for some hot royal action is due to magic. This is the mechanical bit I mentioned – the cutscenes provide a handy opportunity for them to magically transport you elsewhere, deprive you of all your stuff, and separate you from Farah.
Anyway, that’s very nearly the last you see of Farah. She’s disappeared when you escape from the tomb, showing up occasionally in the far distance as you struggle around the ruins, and has the compulsory final dramatic appearance right at the end. You’ve probably guessed already that it doesn’t end well.
Objects In The Cockeyed Camera May Appear Closer Than They Are
When you enter a significant puzzle, the game pans around giving you a rough idea of the intended route and your objective. However, it’s quite easy to lose track of where you’re trying to go, partly because the geography’s very samey, and partly because you’re never going anywhere by a remotely sensible route. The third problem, as so often in 3D games, is the camera.
The camera in Sands of Time is... well, possibly not quite as annoying as the one in Beyond Good And Evil. Nonetheless, I realised pretty early on it was going to be a foe at least as problematic as the mooks. It features the same problems at BGAE, from arbitrary camera changes to screen-relative controls, except that what was annoying in an adventure game is frequently fatal in this full-blown platformer. The camera may flip 180 degrees as you move, so you turn round and walk straight off a platform or into a pit of spikes. Or rotate suddenly as you jump around a series of pillars, so instead of leaping to the next one as intended, you hurl yourself to your death in the void. Sometimes where it won’t let you see where you’re going, so time-dependent puzzles are rendered twice as difficult because you waste time walking straight into walls. There are sections where moving in the correct plane is virtually impossible because the screen is at an angle, making simple manoeuvres vastly more difficult for no reason. There are sections where a single camera angle is forced on you, so you can’t work out the geography of the place you’re trying to parkour around, or how close you are too the trap, or even whether that line on the screen is a trapeze bar or just a mark on the wall. The prince has died many unfortunate deaths in my stewardship, plummeting into the void because I wasn’t able to judge how far away a wall might be (too far), or whether I could safely fall the distance to the next platform (no), or because I ran into a solid object not visible when I started moving, and plummeted off the wall into a pit full of spikes.
I would have thought this was pretty obvious, but look: in a game with a fully rotatable camera, there is no good excuse for restricting the player’s ability to rotate that camera. In a 3D platformer that demands fast and accurate execution of fiddly manoeuvres, that’s even more true. A significant body of evidence exists to show that when developers force the camera during gameplay, they invariably do it badly.
Much of the problem, admittedly, would be solved if they’d allow the use of a character-relative control scheme. It doesn’t even have to be compulsory, if some fanatical body of screen-relativists lurks in some forgotten corner of the world; allow a choice of schemes on the menu. But please, don’t inflict their irrationality on me.
Time After Time
The big splashy gimmick of Sands of Time is, well, control of time. Your magic knife lets you rewind time if something goes wrong, allowing you to unfall off a building or be undisembowelled by a dancing girl, as well as pulling a couple of combat tricks. It’s certainly a cool idea. I’ve found the rewind mildly useful; it helps with bad luck in combat, and makes up somewhat for the checkpoint save system. Being able to pull back a run so it’s not spoiled by one slip or design flaw is handy, but I’m ambivalent about this feature, at best.
The combat tricks you get include slowing down time or freezing an opponent solid. Once I got the option, I found myself using them frequently – sadly, always by accident. The keys for both are close to the main movement keys, and are also bound to other useful actions, so misfires are inevitable. E, for example, will paralyze a target in front of you, but is also the key to coup de grace a defeated enemy and steal their energy, which is the only way to actually destroy most things, and so E gets a lot of pressing. Unfortunately, when another enemy steps between you and the downed target in the intervening second, or when the camera angle switches mid-fight, you can easily find yourself wasting loads of charges doing the wrong thing.
What the sand does, if you take an unsympathetic view, is compensate for flaws in the game by allowing you to minimise their effects. This is as true of using it in combat – to help minimise the slogging aspects – as of using it to platform. So while it’s a nifty idea and ends up useful at times, it’s not quite the unqualified asset it should be, and felt to me like it needed more work.
This feature funded by the Guild of Azadine Trapsmen
The trapsmiths of Azad are a cut above your ordinary architect, pleasant and diverting as his company may be. They approach their duties, not as some mere task to be fulfilled to plan and under budget, but as a canvas on which their very soul is poured out, their hearts beating in time with each whirr and click; a masterpiece woven from crude metal and stone, not for the condescending eyes of sultans and soldiers, but to satisfy and placate the wild artistry that howls within them. Such trifling limits as plausibility, practicality and common sense are mere chaff before the wind of inspiration.
The ordinary mortal, instructed to prepare a fiendish trap to defend the royal corridors, thinks certainly to place a row of spikes in the doorway, which by means of a cunning spring can be raised in unwelcome welcome to the careless invader; perhaps she even indulges herself with a scything blade, whose hasty protrusion from the ornate brickwork is liable to spoil both haircut and day in one. But she does not dream, she does not breathe the air of fervent invention. The Azadine trapsmiths are a different case altogether. “What,” they muse over their morning papers, “if a sudden earthquake should strike the palace, bringing down many walls and floors? All manner of new routes would be open to the canny trespasser, free of traps! My reputation would be ruined.” And without pausing even to finish their cups of tea, they are off. Spikes are placed lovingly underneath perfectly adequate floors, so that if the stones should happen to vanish overnight, a passing thief might fall into them. Whirling sawblades, each a triumph of the smith’s craft, are installed painstakingly in fourth-floor exterior walls, so that, should most of the building happen to collapse, any remarkably acrobatic intruder attempting to sprint across said walls with reprehensible disregard for gravity will be sternly deterred. Vast pits filled with spikes occupy large proportions of the library, without regard for the careless reader.
Admittedly, they have their faults, these trapsters. They might, perhaps, be considered a trifle haphazard in their reasoning. Picture a corridor, say, lined with murderous mechanisms, a door at each end. Once the defence system is activated, these doors close resolutely. A lever at the innermost end of the corridor opens the door at the outermost, but also rouses the traps into angry life. A minute or two later, the door slams shut once more, and the traps fall silent. Your keen mind will, of course, have already discerned the problem. A faithful guard eager to rush outwards – perhaps to bolster a faltering defence, or deliver a message, or take over the night shift – must traverse this very corridor. He first pulls the lever, then races at great speed along it, nimbly ducking, diving and rolling as he goes. Presuming that he is in good health, has been exercising regularly, has memorised the behaviour of the boisterous devices, and does not trip over his own feet at an unfortunate moment, he can reach the door. Should he make a mistake, if he is lucky, he will be able to go back and do it all again, perhaps a little lighter about the arteries. If unlucky, then his grieving mother and any little guardlings can take comfort from the Sultan’s famed generosity in the matter of pensions. It is not, perhaps, unreasonable for the guard to feel a little underwhelmed.
The invader, of course, has a rather different view on the matter. He first strolls to an outer door, pounding cheerfully to alert the guards inside. At some stage, prompted either by gullibility or resignation – for what else is the lever for? – they are bound to pull it. The lucky invaders then amble inside, and sit down with the sports pages while the traps put on their little display. Shortly the traps will return, panting, to idleness; the invaders will stroll through the corridor, as unharmed as if through a field of tulips, and defeat the somewhat bemused guards, who have no hope of escape through the iron door behind them. The system, therefore, serves to direct traffic efficiently towards the vital parts of the palace, most notably its security system; but it must be said that in other aspects it is somewhat lacking. That is to say: the Sultan is forced to retain a garrison of world-class acrobats with eidetic memories in order for them to survive their own defences; whereas an invader needs only the impulse control and capacity for reason of an average eight-year-old.
You’re A Lady, I’m a Man
By our court reporter, Abd al-Hazred
A little way into the game, you encounter Farah, a captured princess of the palace your armies, in the playful manner of their kind, have overrun. Luckily, like any true royal, after a preliminary rebuke, she politely puts aside some slight ill-feeling over such trifling matters as the conquest of her people, the destruction of her home, her own abduction and the murder of her father – any of which might reasonably be charged to your account – to jog around in your wake.
Farah, with the confidence of a royal upbringing, sees no reason why she should do all the work for you. Why should she pick off a shambling horde of sand-beasts from the safety of a high rooftop with a powerful bow, when you can run into their midst and battle them a dozen at a time with your scimitar? Her arms would get tired; and it is very bad for the back to be constantly stooping to retrieve arrows from the wind-dispersed remains of your vanquished foes. Besides, a prince is little-valued in these straitened times, particularly one whose education has so emphasised such old-fashioned topics as warfare and banditry; secretaries sneer at him openly, and employment counsellors receive his case with sinking heart and barely-disguised impatience. “Let him feel useful now and then”, her generous nature resolves, as she patiently observes you frolicking with a gang of enthusiastic horrors, pausing occasionally to loose off a reproving arrow at one or another when you slip over in yet another puddle of your vital fluids; “it is good for his self-confidence, and a little excitement should do him no lasting harm.”
At times, desperately flailing to replicate the Wall of Death along the walls of a pit filled with gigantic spikes, you will glance behind to see her sail effortlessly across the forty-foot chasm, and ponder briefly whether she might, perhaps, condescend to handle some of the heavy work; leaping across a shattered bridge, for example, rather than waiting for you to make your way around via a series of slippery rooftops interspersed with spinning blades. But a prince is a proud man, too proud to suggest that anyone might occasionally perform some trivial act to spare him a series of life-threatening challenges in pursuit of their joint survival.
Now and then, too, you consider the usefulness of the bow. The scimitar is a fine weapon, with a glorious history; but it must be said that beyond a few feet, its effectiveness is limited. It is a shame that, during years of the finest military training a sultan’s wealth can provide for his favoured son, you never quite got around to studying the weapon; a shame, too, that the capacious palace through which you hasten contains no bows whatsoever, nor do any of the palace guard carry them. Farah, admittedly, has picked one up from somewhere, since she arrived as a bound and weaponless captive, but it appears to be the one and only bow of the royal household. Perhaps this rarity explains her reluctance to actually use it. But a prince, of course, is too proud a man to request the loan of a bow simply to avoid the inconvenience of a few dozen swordfights against overwhelming odds.
The prince, too has a number of idiosyncrasies which Farah tactfully refrains from discussing. For example, he refuses to crouch or lie down, presumably having taken a vow of some kind in his youth; or perhaps he is reluctant to get his clothes dirty. He can be knocked down – indeed, it is a frequent occurrence – but under no circumstances will he prostrate himself voluntarily, even to shimmy under a swinging blade. Then, too, he is remarkably choosy about leaping. A row of pressure-plates in the floor, for example, loaded with spikes, he disdains. They present no challenge; better to scramble perilously across the wall, or test his dexterity by walking slowly across them. A small pile of rubble blocking a useful shortcut? Most certainly not. A prince does not scramble. A twenty-foot pit, however, is a different matter.
Another mystery is the cracks and vents through which Farah is constantly disappearing, bypassing entirely the complex puzzles and deathtraps of the palace. These spaces are, to the unbiased eye, roughly twice the diameter of the prince, and present no obstacle whatsoever to his admission. Nevertheless, he refuses. Claustrophobia, perhaps. It is politer not to ask.
Somewhere in the bowels of the palace, there is a warehouse. Much of it, admittedly, is occupied by trick staircases that would not be out of place in Hogwarts, but a small proportion of the room appears dedicated to warehousery. Mounted high on a wall, slightly higher than even you can conveniently leap, is a button that will open the next door. But fear not; for a pair of useful platforms can be raised simply by depressing a matching pair of pressure-plates. There are (at a conservative estimate) approximately one hundred billion crates in this room, alongside a similar number of casks. The seeker after heavy things to put on pressure-plates, however, will look in vain. The overwhelming majority of these crates are, in fact, merely stone sculpted to look like crates, after the prevailing “industrial” fad that swept palaces of the era; they cannot be moved. The casks, meanwhile, are of honest wood, but have been firmly bolted into place, perhaps after a slew of thefts by students of Khayyam’s verse taking too great an interest in the cups of wine. They can be shattered into splintered fragments, but not an inch will they move. You might, perhaps, spy a crate atop a platform over the door, and spend a healthy hour or two in increasingly-athletic attempts to reach it. No physical exercise is ever truly wasted, of course, as any good doctor will tell you – but certainly your crate-acquisition plan will remain unfulfilled.
Eventually, the cogs of your brain click into place. This whole room, preposterously contrived as it may appear, has admirably demonstrated Farah’s ability to work in harmony with you. The solution is obvious. You carefully place a crate on one plate, and the princess’s sharp mind will discern the need for her to stand on the other.
You do so. She does not. The prospect of leaving her comfortable platform to walk on the common floor holds no allure for her. She yawns faintly, and adjusts her robe.
Alas, the only solution to this apparently infinitely-solvable puzzle is for you to locate the only two authentic crates in the warehouse, and place one atop each plate. The door opens, the princess cons to descend, and you may proceed.
The puzzles are an odd mixture. Most of them are what you might call organic puzzles, navigating through the ruins of the palace by climbing, jumping and swinging. You can accept these without too much suspension of disbelief. However, at times the game creeps (or hurls itself with gay abandon) into jarring blatancy; not only does it mar the natural tone, but its efforts to explain the puzzles just end up lampshading them.
For example fairly early in the game, a guard asks for your help in activating the palace defence system. It’s a simple but contrived puzzle, rotating and moving a platform to align parts of a machine that’ll trigger the defences. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t make any sense. A security system that’s slow and fiddly to activate, but requires only common sense and trial-and-error, is exactly the wrong way around. You want something quick and efficient that only authorised people can activate, so it can be used in a hurry but the riff-raff can’t tamper with it. The guard laboriously explaining the whole thing to me was just icing on the cake. Moreover, the guard hung over the balcony as I worked, occasionally interjecting to correct me. Since he demonstrably knows the routine exactly, and he’s the one who wants the thing activated, he should just shout out instructions. On completing the puzzle, your reward is that traps are activated all over the palace that’ll make your life several times more difficult. As I touched on in a previous GOGicle, forcing the player to provide their own predictable undoing is bad. It’s the equivalent of “stop hitting yourself”, or being blamed by your boss for obeying orders: it makes you stupid as well as penalising you. The fact that the prince later lampshades it with a little speech about how it may have been a mistake really doesn’t help matters. It was also completely unnecessary from a game design standpoint; all that was needed was a quick cutscene of the guards desperately activating the defences before being overrun.
I think the problem is that Sands of Time gives the impression of being an immersive ‘realistic’ game, and is full of cutscenes and dialogue apparently designed to reinforce that, but the puzzles frequently make no sense in context. It’s by no means a huge issue – I’m in this game for the puzzles, after all – but it does throw off the tone of the game, and I’m sure that can’t be intentional. This sort of thing is why the ‘secret fortress constructed by a mad sociopathic wizard’ trope is so popular.
I Get Knocked Down
Combat is fun in small doses, due to the aforementioned badassery, though I felt like it became too much of a feature later in the game.
Repeated waves of the same two monster types suddenly materialise to attack you. You can’t do much fancy footwork to divide and conquer, since all enemies can teleport at will, which also prevents any constructive planning. There’s a trick or two to handling each one – some are vulnerable to face-jumping, others will blat you out of the sky with a halberd if you try it. I tended to find that fights devolved into edging around the room in parry mode, trying to create an opportunity to pull off a kill without any of the other four opponents catching you off-guard. While pwning three or four is a refreshing break from platforming and gives you a chance to look cool, the lack of variety or room for creativity meant that after the early levels, combat lost its appeal for me long before the end of each fight. It can be quite frustrating at times, as you’ll put a monster down for a coup-de-grace, only for another to step on top of it or stand vaguely in the same direction, making it impossible for you to target the downed monster before it regenerates. The time to regeneration is only a couple of seconds, which means if you take out two monsters at once, you can usually only finish off one before the other resurrects. Simply removing the teleportation, and allowing the prince to use each room’s terrain tactically, would have made a big difference.
The other problem is that even before you reach the halfway point, the monsters start to get irksome. They’re not very varied, and quickly pick up quite powerful abilities like knockdowns. What this means is that you end up fighting three waves of six enemies, all of which knock you down on a successful hit, can teleport at will to catch up with you, regenerate health, and are immune to one of your two useful attacks (face-jump or wall-jump). It’s an obvious recipe for stunlock, or rather downlock; what tends to happen is your coup-de-grace gets interrupted with a knockdown, at which point it’s more or less impossible to get to your feet without being knocked down again by one of the five monsters surrounding you. Meanwhile, the sixth wanders off to attack Farah, who can’t actually kill anything and is apparently incapable of running away, and you lose the game by escort failure. I’m not sure if the designers realised this, but spending twenty minutes repeatedly being knocked down by the undead isn’t actually as much fun as you might think.
I Keep On Falling
As you progress, the platforming gets steadily more challenging and harder. I’m going to define the first as ‘requiring more skill’ and the second as ‘being more difficult to do successfully’. Certainly the game adds extra challenge, including new mechanisms. About halfway in, they introduce balance-bar mechanisms; sadly, a WASD-based system for a camera-relative control scheme isn’t especially felicitous. A bit more thought has to go into solving each puzzle, though honestly there’s rarely more than one thing you can actually do at any point (well, survive doing).
They also move gradually away from the early slow thoughtfulness, introducing timed puzzles, collapsing platforms and the like so the pace of play increases. This brings a bit more variety to the game, and adds a sense of increasing urgency, which aligns well with what’s going on narratively, though for some reason it mostly vanishes in the endgame. On the downside, it exacerbates the existing problems with making sense of your environment. When you have all the time in the world to faff about using alternate camera angles to establish exactly where two platforms lie in relation to each other, you should eventually be able to work out how to move between them. If you’re running for your life along a collapsing platform and trying to jump onto a stalactite, that’s not really an option. I died thirteen times attempting that jump; I tried just about every angle it’s possible to jump at, and sailed off into the void regardless. This is a perfect example of ‘harder’: I knew what I was trying to do, and I’d had plenty of practice at executing jumps, but I simply couldn’t interpret the environment well enough to make the appropriate jump.
This is the equivalent of the adventure game’s fail-by-verb: it’s not really a matter of skill, you can’t work out how to translate “do X” into the key-presses the game demands. Some other puzzles just seem a bit ill-judged: there’s a timed puzzle involving loads of balance-bar work, but because the balancing is slow and frustrating, all a timer adds is the depressing knowledge that if you’re too slow you’ll have to do it all again. The prince usually auto-catches himself if he falls off a ledge, but you mustn’t get reliant on it, as in some places he’ll quite cheerfully hurl himself straight into a pit of spikes.
The warehouse section is frustrating because they specifically train you to do tandem puzzles, then defy your expectations for no reason. There are other puzzles that cry out for her to do something very simple, and she refuses. If you’re going to have a tandem puzzle mechanic, then it’s needlessly daft not to have either a companion who automatically contributes to every puzzle where it would be reasonable, or player ability to at least partly direct the companion in those same puzzles. Having a companion who half the time is incredibly proactive and daring in puzzle-solving, and the other half of the time stands by yawning while you rush about trying to keep several buttons pressed at once or perform complex acrobatics before the crank you wound unwinds, just annoys the player and ruins any sense of immersion or attachment to that character. Similarly, having a companion who theoretically helps you fight monsters, but in practice needs to be constantly guarded so you don’t lose, just makes combat more difficult and disrupts any attachment you might be forming. Especially when in one fight in four she shoots you in the back for a massive chunk of HP... Rather than “this character is helpful and appealing,” you’re thinking “I wish that pest would stay out of my way and stop shooting me!”.
Another oddity is the use of audio cues as a crucial mechanic in one solitary puzzle towards the end of the game, with no prompting. The cues aren’t particularly noticeable either – they’re dripping noises in a room with a pool of water, and given you’re likely to be charging around searching for a way out, you’re making plenty of noise yourself, some of it watery. Nor is there an obvious connection between the watery noises and “missing princess” or “way out”, while there are random audio cues of Farah actually calling to you, which confuses the whole issue. Audio cues are a perfectly decent idea, but the endgame is not the time to be throwing such a divergent mechanic at the player, with no prompting. All they needed to do was use sound earlier in the game as a clue to what’s going on, and I can’t think of a single instance where it was anything but ambient. Frankly, this is pretty damn poor design.
Checkpoint and Mate
As a puzzle-platformer, Sands of Time falls firmly into the closed-world school, to the point where plot doors close off each section, preventing backtracking. Were I the prince, I would shove some of the omnipresent rubble under those doors as I head out... It doesn’t cause a huge amount of hassle, but there are a few spots where you can end up very short of health, especially due to falling or traps, without any way to heal up before a fight or a very tricky puzzle. In a few cases I ended up running into the midst of enemies and frantically gulping water from a pool, trying to heal up a bit before anyone skewered me, with mixed results.
Where this proves a particular problem is when it coincides with the falling damage issue I mentioned earlier. I’m sure this occurs elsewhere in the game, but for me it erupted during the Observatory level. Here, you swing between some bars to an unavoidably hard landing, and if you begin with low health – perhaps because, just before the last checkpoint, you were set upon by thirty-odd sand-mutated guards while your
I gave in and repeated the library puzzle, wasting only fifteen minutes and three lives because I knew what I was doing this time. This time I managed to save afterwards. I got badly injured in the fight and couldn’t expect to survive more than a single fall, so I’m wasn’t in the mood to risk ten minutes of platforming in the hope that there’s only one (there isn’t). On my third, fourth and fifth fights, the same happened. On the sixth, Farah shot me for half my hitpoints during the very first wave, and I reloaded. On my ninth attempt, I made it to the second wave of enemies with most of my health, and then got beaten to a pulp by three halberdiers when the camera flipped mid-attack and turned my retreat into a face-jump, to which they have an unavoidable counterattack with knockdown. At each of these attempts, I was forced to watch a cutscene, pull a lever, run through a closing door, watch an cutscene, run down a corridor, and watch another cutscene. It’s surprising just how annoying twenty seconds can become when you’re forced to watch them over and over again.
On my twelfth attempt, using the cheesiest combination of AI exploits, cowardice and wall-jump spamming I can muster, I finally survived the fight. I admittedly lost a third of my health to two unexpected respawns right behind me, and another third to Farah once again shooting me in the kidneys at point-blank range, but the puzzle looked feasible. After rushing to save my fragile-but-historical-best at the checkpoint, I attempted the puzzle. As predicted, two unavoidable hard landings left me teetering with a quantity of health barely measurable with the best in available detectometry. Already fed up of this room, and finding the tangle of astrolabes hard to make out, I resorted to a walkthrough. After four sand-resurrections, I realised the walkthrough was factually wrong, which improved my mood no end. Nevertheless, I made it to the end of the puzzle, burning two more sands in the process to save the prince from sudden inexplicable impulses to hurl himself off the scenery. In the next room, I was inexplicably not greeted by a checkpoint, but by a long, complicated series of deathtraps. Admittedly, there’s a water fountain; it’s hidden behind some traps, but I made it there and healed myself. Then, while Farah inevitably slipped through a crack to safety, I headed down the corridor. Less than a minute later, I’d made it through across three lethal rooms, burned through my remaining sand and been eviscerated nonetheless. The nearest point to respawn was back at the start of the observatory puzzle.
I close Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, mentally extract the imaginary CD, pop it back in its imaginary box, and place it on the tottery, dusty pile of games I never quite got round to finishing. 71% complete – it could be worse.
Okay, I left the game for a full 24 hours and wrote an exasperated article before giving in and firing up POPSOT again. This isn’t the first time that’s happened. I don’t like not finishing things.
The rest of the game was actually okay. There’s a tediously grindy fight in a lift, and all the weirdness of the romance cutscenes I mentioned earlier, but it’s not especially frustrating, and you know well you’re near the end. You have to scramble up the tower without the aid of your dagger, which is a bit hairy if you’ve got used to sanding yourself to safety, but basically fine and it’s a pleasing return to the environmental puzzling of earlier on. There’s a couple of weird bits where you only find out by dying whether you’re supposed to go up or down... but on the whole, not bad. At this point, you’ve also picked up a new sword that’s actually useful, which blats sand-things effortlessly, so you can finally treat the combat as the irrelevance it basically is.
I was frustrated, though, by Farah’s final appearance. Guess why before you read on.
Okay, hands up everyone who predicted a tragic and unnecessary death? Gold star. A cheap shot, and once that didn’t really make sense either, given they were actually holding the Dagger of Time; retrieving the situation would have made better use of the narrative resources they’d drawn up. There’s no reason to abandon the actual finale of the game, either. Having them shatter the Hourglass anyway to prevent all the unnecessary death and destruction would have allowed for the relationship to be lost tragically as a heroic sacrifice from them both, and they could have kept the final cutscene unchanged. And again, Farah has been continually shown to be amazingly athletic and gung-ho, and is vastly more likely to have clambered up the prince to safety than to do a suicidal swan-dive to... I dunno, reduce the amount of injury to his hand? It really wasn’t clear what that was about.
I did quite enjoy the actual ending, though, even the prince’s doomed attempt to resurrect his romance with the princess he’d met who’d never met him. In hindsight, I feel like they could have done substantially more with the narrative end of things – what actually happened with the invasion in the new timeline, what about his reunion with the father he’d had to kill? – but it was okay.
I thought, in the beginning, that this was going to be a completely positive article. The stylishness of the early game impressed me, it gave a well-paced introduction to its mechanisms and made me feel pretty cool. It throws up dramatic vistas across the kingdom, and the eeriness of the abandoned palace. There’s even a female character who is, on first evaluation, much more sensible and competent than you are (combat failings aside). Unfortunately, what they ended up doing with her was somewhat disappointing.
On the whole, I found it very compelling. Just a bit longer, one more puzzle... it did its job of keeping you hooked and challenged, and left me short of sleep for quite a while. It felt like I was doing cool things. I liked battling flashily through mobs of sand-beasts, even when I’d have preferred using my brain to overcome them. I liked performing nifty acrobatic tricks, even in pursuit of arbitrary puzzles, or when a more sensible solution seems available. There were plenty of things to nitpick, and a few moments when things fell flat, but for the most part the gameplay was genuinely fun, and genuinely compelling. I’ve written a lot of sarky stuff, but it’s not entirely serious, and plot-loopholery in a puzzle game is to be expected.
Gradually, though, the awkwardness of the control scheme and camera built up, to the point where things got frustrating. Unlike Beyond Good and Evil, which had the same issue, there isn’t enough story to draw you on regardless. On top of that, the control issues in BGAE were mostly a problem during combat segments, since the platforming was death-proof. Because Sands of Time consists exclusively of platforming and combat, both of which are regularly fatal, an unreliable control scheme is a much bigger problem. I seriously considered giving up several times, after repeated cheesy deaths, and the game seemed to hover in the Too Annoying zone fairly regularly, which isn’t what you want. I used both in-game (sand burning) and metagame (walkthrough) means to overcome problems in evaluating the puzzles, and neither should have been necessary.
There’s a whole host of little gripes, too. Unskippable animations, most of which you see repeatedly. Flying baddies, which are annoying in every game ever (also bats do not shred people like piranha no not even giant bats which eat fruit exclusively thank you bye). There are no maps, arrows, or anything else to help orient you mid-puzzle, or guide you towards destinations; frequently, the only way you know where you’re going is that it’s the only route that doesn’t kill you. It may be in completely the wrong direction from where you want to go, with no indication whatsoever that it heads towards your alleged goal, but the prince miraculously knows it’ll work out. Bonus points for those puzzles where the correct route does, in fact, have a good chance of killing you the first couple of times.
Don’t let me put you off. I had a lot of fun with Sands of Time, and a lot of irritation, and the one left me playing late into the night, and the other made me repeatedly swear off it forever – but I came back. If you like action platforming with modest puzzle elements, and have a lot of patience, you may appreciate this game more than I did. At the same time, I'm disappointed. It seems like a lot of potential was wasted by some bad design decisions, coupled with dodgy implementation that breaks what should be the smooth flow of a platforming game. The challenge of a puzzle should be solving it, not identifying its parameters; the challenge of a battle should be winning it, not controlling your character. This is an adequate game, with strong moments, but it could have been a great one.