Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Ubisoft, 2003)

Ok, now that the introduction is out of the way, it's time for my first real post, my first review.

I've been putting a lot of thought into what game to use for my first review. When it was first suggested that I write reviews, I was in the middle of playing Risen, so I assumed that it would be my first subject. The problem was that I didn't actually finish it. I was enjoying it, and I hope to get back to it at some point, but it was having performance issues with the computer I was running it on, so I set it aside. Since I wouldn't want to review a movie that I hadn't seen the ending of, I  have decided not to review games that I didn't play all the way through. I know that this will limit the number of reviews I'll be able to write, but I feel like I'll be able to give a more honest review this way.

So, the next game that I played after that was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

I'm no stranger to the Prince of Persia series. When I was in highschool in the early 90's I used to play the original Prince of Persia (or the PC port of it at least) on my Gateway 486 that I had at the time. I was used to console platformers, but this was something entirely different. The rotoscoped animation, the thoughtful pacing, the intricate sword fighting, and of coarse, the gruesome deaths, they all added up to a unique gaming experience that was in a different league than the NES games I was playing. Shortly after, I got Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame. This sequel added a more developed story, more detailed graphics, and a better variety of settings.

Years went by and I didn't play any Prince of Persia games for a while. I remember seeing the commercials for Sands of Time when it came out, but for some reason I just never got around to playing it. At various points I collected Warrior Within for the Gamecube, and The Forgotten Sands on OnLive, and I even spent some time playing 2008's confusingly named Prince of Persia on OnLive's PlayPack service. But, I always kept an eye out for Sands of Time. Finally, last summer I picked up a Prince of Persia bundle on Steam during their big summer sale. This bundle had every game from Sands of Time on. Like most games I pick up on Steam, it just sat in my library for a while. After I set Risen aside, I looked through my library for a game that would run well on my Acer Iconia Tab W500 Windows 7 tablet. So, it was finally time to play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

To break the game down into simple terms, it's a linear platformer with hack n' slash elements, but this description really doesn't do the game justice. To try to expand further on that, I'll start with what the game got right. And what this game got right, it really got right.

The platforming elements of the game were revolutionary when it came out, and directly influenced many of the best platformers that have come after it. It pioneered a lot of techniques that continue to show up in modern games such as wall running and hopping between hanging pillars. The level design is simply inspired, useing the space in a way that allows you the sense of freedom to fully explore your environment, but at the same time leading you down a linear path. In the style of a Castlevania title, the game takes place entirely on the grounds of a single palace, but the sprawling estate with it's varied environments always have something new to offer, and never feel as if they were just stitched together in order to fit in the obligatory ice level or water level.

Of course the big twist in the gameplay is the ability to rewind time, allowing you to take leaps of faith that may or may not be suicidal without fear. This element continued in one form or another in every Prince of Persia game since, becoming a staple of the series. Navigating through the areas of the game's world requires a combination of puzzle solving, impeccable timing, and experimentation thanks to an almost endless variety of traps, such as spikes, saw blades, and guillotines that pay tribute to the early games of the series. It may seem odd for a palace to have such an elaborate security system, but it makes for a wonderful atmosphere, and great gameplay.

I have to admit that the controls at times felt a bit off, but that probably had more to do with how I had my system configured. As I mentioned earlier, I was running the PC version on a windows tablet. A console style platforming game like this really needs to be played with a gamepad, not a mouse and keyboard, so I was using an X-Box 360 controller. The game did have a gamepad section in the options menu, but I wasn't able to get it to recognize my controller, and instead mapped the controls using xpadder to mimic the original X-Box controls. For the most part this worked well, but using an analog stick to mimic the 8 directions of the WASD keys occasionally had me running along a wall when I meant to run up it or other such issues. Luckily, the ability to rewind time after an unexpected leap to my doom helped to keep the game flowing, and keep the frustration level down.

The story is simple, but serves well to move the game along without getting in the way. The short cut scenes get to the point and give the action sequences meaning without ever feeling like a distraction from the gameplay. And, as a rarity in gaming, the romance elements between the prince and Farah are handled in a subtle and convincing way, lacking the awkwardness displayed in most games that try to shoehorn in a love story, and even coming across more naturally than in the 2010 movie loosely based on the game.

The graphics are pretty standard for the time, nothing mind blowing, but very well done. I did like the little touches like having the prince's shirt get more torn throughout the game. It's a small thing but it makes the game's world feel more believable. It also directly influenced later games such as Batman Arkham Asylum that use a simiar technique.

The music is mostly orchestral middle eastern themes, but as the action picks up, modern elements such as drum kits and electric guitars are introduced. While not at all anachronistic, these modern touches never felt out of place and added an edge that made the combat sequences slightly more bearable. Yup, now for the bad news...

The combat started off fun. It was an acrobatic style of hack and slash fighting with entertaining combo moves such as running up and flipping over an enemy while attacking from mid air, or running up a wall and launching yourself into an enemy to knock it back. I felt like a bad ass ninja-monkey bouncing around the room. The problem is that any time you enter a combat sequence, the game does not advance until all of the enemies are defeated. Not all of the enemies are in the room when the combat sequences start, instead they are spawned into the area throughout the sequence. Since there's no way of knowing how many more enemies have to be defeated, the battles sometimes feel endless, and not in a good way. When the last enemy is finally killed, the sequence simply ends with no real sense of epic victory, just a quick cut scene of the prince sheathing his sword.

The enemies themselves come in a very small repetitive variety that doesn't get updated very often, and when it does, it's often just a palate swap. They tend to try to surround the player which prevents the effectiveness of most blocking strategies, but if you get too far away, they teleport to surrounding you again in one of the cheapest moves in combat AI history! This leads to a frustrating balancing act of trying to stay far enough away to not be surrounded, but not far enough away to be surrounded. Not to mention that each enemy actually has to be killed twice. First you have to weaken it enough to defeat it, then you have to steal its power with the dagger of time. If you don't take the enemy's power in time, it gets back up and the whole process starts over again.

The combat almost drove me to rage quitting more than once, but the rest of the game was so good I just had to see more of it. So I finally ended up installing a "trainer" patch to get past the combat sequences with one hit kills. Was I cheating? Yes I was. But I saw this as two games. First there was the puzzle/platform game that I enjoyed, then there was the combat game that I did not. So, in order to play the game that I enjoyed, I had to cheat my way through the game that I didn't.

So, overall I mostly enjoyed this game, and it was mostly great! Do I recommend it to others? Yes! Will I ever play it again? Probably not. The games that came after it retained all of the elements I enjoyed in this one, but with improvements in the areas that I didn't. I hope to play through Warrior Within soon to continue my trek through the Prince of Persia series, but for now, it's on to other games.

Since this is my first review, and is setting the precedent for future reviews, I'm not going to assign a number or letter grade or a graph breakdown of scores. I'm not expecting my reviews to get calculated into metacritic or anything. I'm just going to give my opinions my personal experience playing through the game and let the readers take from it what they want.

See you next time!

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