Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is an action-adventure game delevoped and published by Ubisoft in 2003-2004 on Game Boy Advance, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC and mobile devices. It was also remastered on PS3 in 2010 alongside the two other games in the trilogy. This review concerns itself with the non-portable version of the game.
Following a raid on a local maharaja, the titular nameless prince finds himself in possession of an artifact known as the Dagger of Time. While visiting the Sultan of Azad alongside his father, the Prince gets tricked into using the dagger to unleash the Sands of Time that they also took from the maharaja, dooming everyone in the palace aside from himself, the maharaja's daughter Farah and the vizier that tricked him to become sand monsters. Dead set on undoing this mess, the Prince ventures through the palace alongside Farah to find the hourglass where the sands were sealed.
The story of Sands of Time is simple (I went though most of it in the preamble), but executed very well thanks to good characterization and a nifty little framing device. To really sell the Arabian Night's theming, the Prince narrates the whole story (even calling the player out should they die and ruin it). Yuri Lowenthal really sells the lovable rogue angle as the Prince goes from being a snotty rich kid to a decent human being.
Beyond getting a reality check after causing countless deaths, the Prince is helped along his character arc by interacting with Farah, who is justifiably pissed at him for stealing and misusing the Sands of Time. As such, their relationship starts very rocky, since the Prince considers women little more than potential property and Farah only interacts with him as much as is necessary to get through the palace. But after spending most of the game's cutscenes talking, they do manage to reconcile in a satisfying manner.
Beyond that dynamic however, there really isn't a lot to dig into here, since the end goal never shifts from "get through the palace and seal away the sands". The Vizier is as one-dimensional as the name implies and there isn't any interesting lore to learn about the palace or the sands either. I appreciate the focus the story has on its strongest elements, but if you're not down for banter between the Prince and Farah, then the story has little else to offer, beyond some neat moments here and there.
The platforming of modern Prince of Persia is a very unique beast. The original game gave birth to cinematic platformers like Another World and Flashback, but the platforming in Sands of Time onwards has seen very little direct usage outside of Darksiders 2 to my knowledge. It did influence the free-form climbing in Assassin's Creed of course, but it's not the same thing.
What separates Sands of Time platforming from the platforming in other 3d games is the focus on a linear flow of events with next to no focus on positioning. Instead, it's almost all timing-based. This means that in most circumstances, it's kinda difficult to miss a jump unless you're obviously jumping in the wrong direction.
The challenge comes in when the game asks you to avoid traps or string together moves to reach a timed gate. You can walk on beams, run on walls, wall jump and swing on poles to name a few moves. It all flows together quite nicely, even if it isn't that difficult for the most part. But with all the potential lethal pits in the game, the designers were kind enough to provide you with assistance should you fall.
Thanks to the Dagger of Time, the Prince can rewind time about ten seconds, thus letting you undo mistakes as long as you have Sand Tanks to spend. This neatly solves a common issue in games with platforming, where falling down a pit kills you, no matter your health. I imagine this is done to maintain immersion to some degree, as warping back up and taking a hit's worth of damage wouldn't fly in most settings. Not so here, thus not making it scary to try a complicated jump.
The game also features a fair deal of puzzles intermixed with the platforming. A lot are simply linear interactions with environment, but there are some real show stoppers as well. Most of these are sadly pretty slow box pushing puzzles, but I still enjoyed my time with them in spite of some unclear goals from time to time.
To get through all the sand monsters in the palace that stand in your way, you're of course gonna have to fight them. A lot. So much so that I'm of the opinion that every battle in the game would be better if there were only half as many enemies. Hell, for some fights, just a third would suffice. Things can really become that tedious, especially if you aren't aware of the intricacies of combat or haven't found a lot of the Sand Tank and health upgrades hidden across the game.
The main conceit of the combat system is acrobatics, constantly shifting targets and a few special sand powers. It's an excellent basis, but there are some aspects of it that really sours things for me. But before I get to that, let me explain the basics.
To start things off, the Prince has a normal combo used for stunning enemies. Once an enemy is stunned, you can absorb them into the Dagger of Time to convert them into a Sand Tank by stabbing them with it, which you must do to kill them normally. You may also block, which doubles as a parry with proper timing. By jumping at an enemy, you can also vault over them to flank them (though some types are immune to this), or jump at a wall to get a knockdown strike. What bothers me at just this level of complexity is that I could not come to grips with how to reliably deal with blocking enemies for the longest time.
Just attacking hoping to break through doesn't really help, nor does parrying, even though I think a parry should be rewarded with a free counter against a block-happy enemy. What I eventually found out is that the best strategy is to wait for an attack and counter during their wind-up frames. Having to do this feels really off, especially when parries are more difficult to pull off . I think the game is bad at communicating what it wants you to do in this context using the behaviour/animation of the enemies. Plus, some aspects of the tutorials are poorly implemented as well, with important moves and strategies not being given the time they need to teach the player properly.
Another gripe of mine has to do with the sand powers. You have two resources beyond health, Sand Tanks and Power Tanks. The first kind is used to rewind time, letting you erase mistakes in battle as well as when you're platforming. I didn't really use rewind in combat though for reasons I'll explain later.
By instead spending a Power Tank (earned through absorbing enough sand and upgraded in the same way), the Prince can use the slowmotion power or the Freeze power. Slowmotion is as it sounds, it slows the game down temporarily. I didn't really use it much since the action in real-time isn't difficult to keep up with.
The Freeze power is more useful, as it freezes a non-blocking enemy (assuming the multi-directional aiming feels like behaving), letting you cleave them in two at the cost of not being able to absorb sand from them. This is a really neat balancing idea in theory, giving the player an insta-kill that might deprive them of resources they need in the long run, but it's undone by the mere existance of the Mega-Freeze.
I don't think this ability is ever explained properly in-game (though it is mentioned what conditions you must fulfill in order to use it), which I find maddening. That's because it lets you carve through at least half a dozen (if not more) enemies at once, which is vital in order to combat the sheer numbers you need to beat every fight. As such, all your efforts should be spent saving up Power Tanks (and upgrading them to match your Sand tanks, otherwise you can't use Mega-Freeze). By then burning all of your Power Tanks, you get to abuse Mega-Freeze for as long as they last. This obvious ultimate goal in battle undermines the intended free flow of combat a bit and makes the regular Freeze power not worth using since it can't compare to its big brother. Same goes for slowmotion.
It feels like a plaster meant to undo the tedious fights, meaning that if you don't use it at least a bit, you're gonna have a terrible time. I'm pretty sure I didn't even know about it in my first playthrough, which is probably why I have so many bad memories of combat in the late-game areas. If there were simply not as many enemies, then the Mega-Freeze wouldn't feel as necessary and could be cut to make room for the regular Freeze ability. Now I just want to mention a few more things about the combat, then I'm done.
Given that the player can erase mistakes, it should come as no surprise that enemies can hit really hard (and even lock you in an infinite stun-state if you get knocked to the ground at a bad time). But even so, I wasn't keen on using it. Both to save Sand Tanks for Mega-Freeze (you spend Power Tanks, but you still need your max amount of Sand Tanks for it to trigger), but also because rewinding time can get somewhat tedious.
I understand that due to technical limitations and to give people a fair chance to resume time where they want, it can only go so fast, but there were times where I just wanted to reclaim as much health as the rewind allows and try again. And at that point, you might as well just die and reset the fight, which I did a few times. A lot of this is on me for being stubborn and not accepting the mechanics for what they are, but I don't think the game is entirely blameless.
It's just so difficult to adapt to the rules here, even for me on a second playthrough years after my first. There was a boss early on that I thought was glitched, when in fact I just hadn't killed enough mooks yet, something the game didn't signal to me at all. Same goes for the incredibly vital vault combo (vault + slash + stab), which lets you insta-kill lesser enemies, which is never spoken of in-game in spite of how useful it is!
Now having proper understanding of the combat (until I forget about it again), I find it pretty engrossing, save for how much of it there is. But the journey to get here was much too harrowing for my liking. The combat system is cool, but if you're gonna make something this different from the standard, you need to teach it properly. If Ubisoft ever revisits this game again, I hope they invest in some better playtesting.