Xbox | GameCube | Game Boy Advance | PlayStation 2[/c]
And everything old is new again.
Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia has never seemed particularly content to be a series, if you catch my meaning. The original is unquestionably a classic, both for unforgiving twitch gameplay, a strangely expert blending of platforming and swordplay, and for a level of gore that made it one of the gotta-have PC games when I was a kid. The sound it made when your nameless protagonist blundered into one of the jaw traps still haunts me to this day.
None of its sequels really captured the same flair. Before I sat down and researched the series to write this preview, I had no idea that there’d been two PoP games on the Super Nintendo (published by no less of a company than Capcom), or a Prince of Persia 3D on the PC. It’s an old series, with a fair number of games in it, but somehow, it’s flown underneath the general populace’s radar.
The Sands of Time probably won’t. It is one of those games that it’s easier to describe in terms of other titles than on its own merits; I’d call it Ico meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer with ninja on top, a side of zombies, and a dash of Blinx: the Time Sweeper. I’m aware that this kind of comparison usually winds up looking half-assed, like I was too busy doing something else to actually come up with my own terminology, but trust me. It’s a respectful descriptive shortcut, not a commentary upon a perceived lack of originality.
Your hero, a nameless Persian prince, is the narrator and hero of The Sands of Time, telling an unseen audience the story of his adventure. (This is the first game I’ve played that uses this narrative device both effectively and sensibly; for example, the prince will exclaim, “It didn’t happen that way!” when you screw up and fall to your death. Given how often that kind of thing happens, one can only assume that the prince has a stutter.) The prince’s story is of how he took part in an assault on the palace of a sultan, which is where you take control.
Alone, separated from his companions, the prince presses onward, searching for a magical treasure which is said to lie within the palace walls: the Dagger of Time. The search for the dagger takes up the game’s first few levels, as well as serving as a training mode.
In gaining the dagger, the prince also loses everything he holds dear, as the Sands of Time ravage the palace and all within it. The Sands reanimate the bodies of those long dead; living men wither away into sand themselves, while ancient Egyptian soldiers prowl the halls of the palace. The prince is one of three survivors, but the palace has many new dangers. Frequently accompanied by Farah, an Indian princess, the prince must defeat an army of the undead, master the new powers of the Dagger of Time, and escape.
Sands of Time is an extraordinarily polished platformer, on the face of it. The prince can shimmy up columns, inch along and hang off of narrow ledges, kick off sheer surfaces into a backflip, swing on horizontal poles, and run up and along walls for short distances. He is literally some kind of Middle Eastern ninja—note to self: not a bad movie title—capable of feats that defy both physics and common sense. I’ve never seen a game of this type raise its ante quite as quickly as The Sands of Time does, either; after the first few rooms, you’re already conducting remarkably complex gymnastics to overcome obstacles, and as you progress, you’ll find that your skill and timing will be tested to their limits. I keep looking back at cleared rooms, using the free-look mode to glance around at what I just did, and being completely unable to believe I did it. It’s not unfair (although the triangle-jump gimmick has remarkably unfair timing, which I would hope would be corrected in the retail build), especially since newly encountered save points will hint at what you must do to proceed, but it is amazingly demanding.
Farah, your companion for a decent amount of the game, is armed with a bow and arrow, and she’ll frequently back you up from afar with sniper fire. Many of the game’s more cerebral puzzles have to do with using the prince’s acrobatic ability to circumvent an obstacle, and then doubling back to find a way for Farah to continue. The palace aviary, for example, involves the prince climbing a tree, and using a handy branch to swing out and over a wall. From there, he can drop down and hit a switch to raise a gate, so Farah can join you. She’s frequently only worth keeping around for her sarcastic rejoinders, and because it’s a lot easier for her to shoot down flying enemies than for the prince to stab them, but she’s not a complete load to have around, either.
The prince retains his traditional PoP fragility, in that short falls will damage him, but a longer fall will kill him outright, and there’s remarkably little difference between the two. If you find a pool of water, you can hold R1 to sip at it and regain your stamina, but you’re only likely to take appreciable damage during fights.
So, he segued, let’s talk about the fights! The fighting in PoP is as acrobatic and ridiculously well-animated as the platforming. You fight a variety of opponents in The Sands of Time, ranging from ordinary human soldiers to reanimated scarab beetles, using your trusty scimitar and, later, the Dagger of Time. Initially, swordplay is a simple matter of block-attack-block, searching out an opponent’s vulnerabilities and quickly exploiting them. If a spearman or swordsman is blocking too much, and you can’t get through his guard, run at him and hit X, and the Prince will run up his body into an overhead flip that can lead into a devastating sword blow from behind. The game helpfully goes into slow-motion when this happens, for maximum cinematic effect. It looks good, and plays simply but effectively, with the prince coming across as a guy who throws a lot of flips and twirls into his combat style just because he’s that damn cool.
When you add the Dagger of Time into the mix, the combat becomes a bit more complicated. Not only does the Dagger have powers of its own, such as the ability to freeze an opponent in time for a surprisingly long period, but it’s the only weapon that can permanently destroy the zombies and reanimated soldiers that stalk the halls of the palace. This is where that Buffy comparison comes into play; the prince must stab a downed or stunned opponent with the Dagger to finish them off, resulting in an explosion of colored ash and glittering light.
The Dagger’s most useful effect is also the most profound, in that I literally cannot believe that a game can do this. You can collect sand to power the Dagger of Time by finishing off undead opponents, or by plunging it into the occasional groundswell. Each charge within the Dagger can be used, with the L1 button, to selectively rewind or fast-forward time for the prince. Did you just miss a jump? Hit L1, and the prince will run backwards in mid-air, sailing back to his point of origin. Were you just killed by an attack that you really should have blocked? Hit L1. The Dagger’s utility, and the sheer unyielding badassery of this effect, cannot be understated. I can already tell this ability’s going to be a horrible influence on me, as I was hitting L1 to try to take back my mistakes in Disgaea about an hour ago.
Between the gameplay effects of the Dagger, and a smooth and fluid engine that rewards precision while horribly punishing mistakes, The Sands of Time is shaping up to be an extraordinarily addictive and immersive game. I’d hope to see a bit tighter control in the retail build, particularly, as noted, with the triangle jumps, but that’s a minor criticism. Platformer and adventure fans may officially start chomping at the bit for this game, which comes out on November 7th.
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