Full Review: If I could only go back in time to re-use the ?party like it's 1399' joke again?
From its original unveiling at E3 in 2003, Ubisoft's Prince of Persia has been hyped as the next big thing, the greatest game of the current generation, the savior to all mankind and of course the key to peace on Earth. With this tall glass of hype, the newest rendition of a classic gaming franchise has undergone much scrutiny in the months leading up to release, what with many game publications endlessly shoving the game down our throats. Being skeptical is easy with this game. Somehow, however, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time avoids being sucked in by the hype, as the game itself stands on its own as a great release and a worthwhile purchase. It perhaps didn't quite live up to the ?greatest game ever? hype, in the end, the classic 2D gameplay within a 3D world works well and it's yet another feather in the cap of Ubisoft, one of the fastest rising publishers in the entire industry.
As you might expect, the story of POP revolves around?the Prince of Persia. In full-on flashback storytelling mode, the prince waxes nostalgic about his attempt to earn respect from his father, the king, by acquiring the dagger of time, an ancient artifact that wields mysterious powers. When the prince is successful at acquiring this dagger, all hell breaks loose. The prince is set up, and when combined with a particular hourglass, the dagger of time ends up unleashing the Sands of Time, turning the entire population of the area into Tusken Raiders?err, sand people. Along with a enigmatic princess, the prince must go through the castle where this all went down, find the truth and reverse his folly, or be shamed to be a prince with a funny haircut and friends made of sand. With the dagger of time at his disposal, the prince embarks on his quest to reverse his gullible stupidity.
For the 3 of you who've played ICO, the layout of POP will definitely be familiar (not surprising since many ICO elements came right from the franchise). The whole game takes place within one castle, and the puzzles are laid out room by room, instead of having to backtrack all the time a la Resident Evil. Effectively, the game is puzzle-centric, with a decent mix of action and acrobatics to advance through it.
And when I say acrobatics, I mean it. The prince should save his talent for the circus, as he can perform all sorts of tricks, from running across a wall, swinging from poles, running up a wall, climb stuff, and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Numerous times, each part of the castle features puzzles that involve these tricks, since many times, reaching the next location requires finding the place to leap to or run across a wall to or whatever. Effectively, if you get stuck in a room and not know where to go, it probably revolves around using the prince's athletic talents to get you there. The Best part is that it's all laid out perfectly on the controller, meaning more intuitive actions instead of fumbling around to find the right combination to trigger the right skill.
The puzzles range from easy to ridiculous, some involving many steps and others involving a couple. You get a grip on the puzzles pretty quickly, especially when you have to do the first major one with the axels and the castle security system that is a multi-step process from hell. Much thinking will result from many of them, though once you do figure most of them out; it's a cakewalk to do it again if something should happen.
There's also the matter of the dagger of time. Not only can it be used to eliminate the sand people by sucking the sand into the dagger, the sands can be used to turn back time. Say you?uh?miss a ledge and fall to your death. If you have enough sand, you can actually reverse the process and come back to life without getting game over if you do it fast enough. Sand is always regained by defeating enemies and then remembering to hit triangle to actually absorb the sand, so it's not really at a premium. Also scattered around the castle are refill points, as well as areas where you can gain more room to hold more sand in the dagger ? like gaining another energy tank in Metroid, or whatever. It's not particularly innovative or anything, but the sands can be treated like a free life to use, or maybe 9 lives, like a kitty-cat.
It's the battle system that really is a pain in the ass ? it's just not all that great. Repetition sets in pretty fast, as you start whacking enemies, run off to regain health (by drinking water from a fountain), and commence attacking again. Remembering to use the dagger to get the sand is tiresome, especially when they just come back to life if you don't do it. Like you could argue that ICO's battles were a bit crappy, POP's are not exactly thrilling, and more bothersome than anything, and just an excuse to get more sand.
Still, POP has a certain charm to it ? the gameplay is ultra-polished and feels much like a classic 2D game in the progression of it. Everything is right there in your face to figure out what to do next, instead of figuring out what room has the trick you need to progress further. Along with great controls using the PS2 controller and the creative level design that tends to be deceptive and rewarding all at the same time, Ubisoft Montreal really did their homework when building this game. I could do without the haphazard battle system, but the rest of this game is solid gold with the only possible flaw being the oddball save system that doesn't space out really well ? sometimes save points are pretty close, other times you can go quite a while without finding a place to save. Balance is the key, y'know.
Graphically, POP stands as quite a looker. While not as good looking as the versions on the Xbox and GameCube, the PS2 version still looks great. Maintaining a dreamy, colorful look, the Prince's tale not only makes use of every color in the rainbow, it's animated and polished to near-perfection. The Prince animates and moves around perfectly, with no busted motion when flipping around or fighting, and there's nary a drop of slowdown at any time, even when you have a half-dozen sand people surrounding you looking for?well, really I don't know what they're looking for, they're not zombies so not brains?hrm. They just must want you dead. By all means, the PS2 conversion of Prince of Persia looks great and goes to show what can happen when a dedicated developer can do with this ancient hardware in the visuals department. And I must give props for using the same presentation font as Sega used in Panzer Dragoon Orta. Nice touch, even if it wasn't intentional.
The presentation is rounded out with a nice soundtrack that fits the epic scale of the game quite well, along with a solid set of voice actors to move the game along. The Prince in particular is well-voiced, and is a pleasure to listen to him when he tells his tale (or when you die and he goes ?no?it didn't happen like that, you idiot', only he doesn't call you an idiot). Otherwise, the game is rounded out with numerous ambient sounds and effects, from grunting and groaning sand people to the sound of water running down a wall or settling on a floor or in a fountain. POP is full of little touches that are hard to notice until you really pay attention, but they're there.
Few games live up to hype that can be best classified as instantaneous, but Prince of Persia: Sands of Time manages to do so, for the most part. While I really don't think it's game of the year quality (that would go to a certain High Summoner's latest adventure), it is a brilliant game that is well worth $50 bucks and round out that PlayStation 2 library. While the fighting aspect leaves something to be desired, everything else is excellent and playable, and that's really all you can ask for in a video game. It's fun, and it's infinitely playable. In that regard, The Sands of Time is a successful release, and props to Ubisoft for bringing this franchise into the 21st century in style.