Behold the dawning of a new standard in action/platforming.
The Good“Most people think of time as a river, flowing swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of time, and I can tell you they are wrong: Time is an ocean in a storm. Sit down, and I will tell you a tale like none you have ever heard.”
The persian king Shahraman and his army return home after a great victory over the indian maharajah, with bags full of treasures and new women for the king's harem. In the way they stop to visit the rajah's palace. As a sign of friendship, king Shahraman gives the rajah an enormous and beautiful hourglass. The rajah approaches it with wondering eyes. “Why are the sands glowing?”, he asks.
The former maharajah's vizier, now at king Shahraman's service, steps forward and explains: “These are the Sands Of Time. Inside this hourglass there lies a marvel like none ever seen by any man. But alas, only the Dagger of Time can unlock the hourglass...”
The vizier stares at king Shahraman's son. The Dagger is the treasure the young prince claimed as his own.
Farah, daughter of the maharajah and now a prisoner of the persian king, makes an attempt at a warning: “Don't do it!” --but it's too late. The prince of Persia already sank the dagger in a key-lock mechanism on the hourglass.
As the hourglass opens, something is released with the sands. Whatever it is has certainly never been seen by any man... but it isn't any kind of marvel either.
Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time (from now on we'll just call it PoP, shall we? there's a 20KB limitation for reviews at this website... which I'm now closer to clash with, thanks to this pointless observation) takes the flag of an old side-scrolling platformer created by a wiz called Jordan Mechner, which made history with its incredibly realistic character animation, imaginative platform puzzles, and complex sword-based battle system. In 1989 Prince of Persia would set a standard in platform games, being in time followed by the likes of Another World and Flashback. Even though there have been one or two official sequels to Prince of Persia in the past, none of them managed to cause the shock the first one did.
Now, in this era of floating-point calculated 3D environments, massive poly-count motion-captured character models, and multiple programmable per-pixel shading effects, Ubisoft Montreal comes up with another heir to the legend, trying to set new standards.
THE VISUALS: The mandatory DX9 bells & whistles
Talking about good looking graphics is almost a waste of time nowadays. Even in those rare cases in which the character models don't sport mind-bendingly huge amounts of polygons, the programmable pixel and vertex shaders allow a fairly easy implementation of a sheer amount of special effects.
PoP is a good example of the above sentence. The models actually have a VERY low amount of polygons (more on this in a minute); but the textures, the shadows, the lighting, the special effects, the design of the environments, the details in the decorations --they are all impressive enough as to divert your attention and even make you think: “Wow, this game looks amazing!”, not noticing that the maharajah's daughter doesn't even have fingers in her hands.
There's an option to apply a lighting effect called "bloom", which gives graphics some sort of misty quality and works as a surprisingly effective inhibitor for the infamous jaggies, and at the same time adds nicely to the general Arabian Nights' Tales theme.
Furthermore, there's the treat of watching it all in motion. It's simply amazing. The camera makes all these crazy zooms and pans and whatnot, transforming each jumping puzzle in a small action movie. In this regard, the cutscenes show a brilliant direction and sport all those effects we are so used to see in modern action movies: Odd camera takes, slow-motion movement, physics-defying acrobatics, et cetera. There are a few pre-rendered cutscenes (at the beginning and near the ending), but the ones with in-game graphics have little to envy from them anyway.
SOUND & MUSIC: Iran Rocks!
I don't usually pay much attention to music in games, since only in a few, rare occasions I found a soundtrack I considered worth of mention. Well, PoP is one of those rare examples.
As I said many times before, I suck at describing music, so I'll go through the heresy of calling these "some sort of mixture between typical arabian music and rock n' roll guitars".
That might very well not tell you anything, but just stay on me: The music is great, it matches the action perfectly, and it's so good you might consider hunting down the soundtrack. After you beat the game the credits roll with a beautiful vocal song that alone makes the whole experience worth it.
Finally, I played the spanish version of PoP, which is fully dubbed. Whoever played the spanish version of any game knows how awful the dubbing actors usually are, and if you can compare, it's heart-grindingly painful to hear how badly they butcher the original acting --well for the first time ever I don't have a single complaint about the voices.
I ignore who did the spanish dubbing in this game, but they did a solid work.
GAMEPLAY: Define "smooth"
Simply put, PoP offers the smoothest gameplay system ever --EVER.
Oddly enough, you get to perform a lot of combat movements with one single attack button, depending on contextual circumstances such as the direction you move while attacking, or the position of the enemies around you: Slash one enemy in front of you, and move the stick back pressing attack again, and our good prince will perform an elegant counter strike manoeuvre against whoever was lurking behind him. Move towards an enemy and press jump, and the prince will vault over him and land right behind, blades shining, ready to give some soup. Run towards a wall and press jump twice, and the prince will rebound-jump off the wall, vaulting over the nearest enemy. Press the attack button repeatedly while pointing towards each enemy around you and, as long as there are targets at hand, the prince will engage in a deadly and elegant ballet of hack & slash combos, taking down everything in his path. Block an enemy blow in the exact moment the blades clash and press the attack button, and the prince will kick the enemy and take him down with his sword.
At times, you get to pull so many different moves in a single fight that you might wonder whether you're actually playing or just pointlessly shaking the sticks and hitting buttons to an awesome cutscene.
For the better part of the game you'll enjoy the company of Farah, the maharajah's daughter. She will help you solving some puzzles, and as she has a bow and arrows she'll also help in the fights. Farah happens to be a fairly good fighter, so this is one of those extremely rare games in which your sidekick not only is far from a burden, but she's actually useful! Oh the shock!
All the fantastic combat moves I just talked about are nothing when it comes to the prince's abilities to face the platform puzzles.
This agile lad can walk, run, jump, hang from ledges, climb up / slide down ladders and columns, walk across tightropes, swing on ropes, swing on flagpoles, shimmy across ledges, rebound-jump off walls, and my favourite: Run up and along walls.
Yep, our man in Persia can actually walk on walls. Neo was a fag.
As you might have guessed, all these movements can be combined in order to come up with some outstanding acrobatic combos, and in fact you will be required to do so, as the game focuses heavily in progressively harder platform puzzles.
For example, let's say you come doing the merry shimmy across a ledge, until you a see another ledge above you. Jump, grab, pull yourself up. Solid ground, phew. But then walk a few steps and, crap, a large chasm, across which you can see a flagpole. So you take a deep breath, start running along the wall (while running you come across a few hanging banners, which will nicely wave as you run by them), and once you're in the right spot you rebound-jump off the wall and grab the flagpole. Swing on it, and jump off towards the nearby wall, off of which you'll rebound-jump and grab a ledge above the flagpole. Turns out this ledge is right at the bottom of a narrow chimney-like vertical space, so you'll jump forward, rebound-jump off the wall, and you'll start a rebound-jumping-spree between enclosed walls until you climbed high enough as to grab another ledge. Pull yourself up. Phew, solid ground again...
The design of these platform puzzles is simply brilliant, basically requiring you to solve them in two stages: First figuring out the course you'll have to take, and second actually running through that course.
As you progress in the game, the platform puzzles will grow larger and more complex, requiring you to combine more and more acrobatics in order to beat them, and eventually featuring timed sections so properly timing your movements becomes a factor as well... rest assured you won't get bored easily.
But there is more! Throughout the game there are a number of "regular" puzzles, the kind of massive room-sized puzzles we found in Soul Reaver 2. Much like it happens with the platform puzzles, these are cleverly designed as to be challenging but never annoying. You can figure these puzzles out pretty easily from the get-go, but the actual work comes in putting the pieces together.
For example, at one point in the game you need to re-arrange a number of mirrors in a large two-stories library in order to get a thin stream of sunlight to trigger a certain photosensitive device. Fairly easy to figure out, it does require some thinking in the actual solving, as I think every puzzle should be.
Of course, maybe you're like me, and you still want more --well THERE IS MORE!
From the moment you get the Dagger of Time, you'll be granted access to its several time-bending powers, among which count the ability to freeze enemies, slow down time (yep, much like Max Payne's bullet-time), and roll back ten seconds in time, thus gaining the opportunity to save the prince from a miscalculated jump or a treacherous back-stab, and even resurrect him from a recent death.
You can't possibly imagine how handy this last feature comes when you screw up the last jump of a long platform puzzle.
Finally, one thing that made me remember the recent Legacy of Kain - Defiance: The camera. While I recently said elsewhere that the "cinematic camera" in Defiance enhances the action greatly, I also admitted it wasn't without a number of problems, enough to even get some people to understandably hate it.
PoP, on the other hand, simply sports the best camera ever seen. Not only it makes some nice-looking cinematic shots by itself every now and then, but you can also control it at every moment.
And I do mean CONTROL IT.
You can zoom out to the point the whole scene looks like a 3D version of Lemmings or you can zoom in as close as to see the hair in the prince's ear (ah, OK, maybe not THAT much). You can examine the area from a first person perspective, you can make the camera turn 360º around your character... You be the director.
Reading all this, you might think: “Jeeesus Christ in a motorbike! How complicated can be to perform all those things!?!”.
Well, it is not.
Controlling the prince and getting him to chain up the craziest combo of acrobatics while at the same time fighting four enemies could only be any easier if you could just project your mind onto the prince and command him through pure thought.
Barring that, playing with mouse and keyboard is as smooth as it gets. No control interface designed by a human being so far has been more user-friendly than this. Period.
Furthermore, if you're the lucky owner of a dual-stick gamepad, rejoice: You're in a gamer's paradise.
THE STORY: A cheese-free love story
When I started playing the game I thought of the story as a predictable and unsurprising "The Prince vs The Evil vizier" cliched tale. Since the gameplay was so enjoyable I didn't really care to think much more about it.
Then Farah showed up and we formed this team, and as the game progressed, these guys started this childlike push & pull, constantly going forth and back between fighting and flirting. Whenever I was left alone with the prince, his voiceovers made clear the way his feelings towards the girl were growing deeper by the minute. Granted, the outcome of this relationship could be guessed from the get-go, but the tale was told with so much class, a few humorous moments, and a surprising lack of cheap cheesiness, that it was totally enjoyable.
In fact, this "troublesome love story" sub-plot was much more enjoyable than the "main" story arc itself... until all of a sudden, in the last five minutes of gameplay, I came to understand the full joke. The whole "chase the vizier and lock the infamous hourglass" was in fact the sub-plot, merely a vehicle for the love story.
At the end of the game it all ties up and connects with the very beginning, closing a perfect circle with a major twist which, however predictable, oozes style as few things I've ever seen.
The ending itself, meaning the very closing phrase uttered by the prince -not without a delightful touch of bitterness, by the way- is brilliant in its own simplicity. In fact, this has to be one of the most rewarding endings I ever came to enjoy.
And then there comes the beautiful vocal song I mentioned above to which the credits roll, and you can't possibly deny that the whole package spells perfection.
This game has to be the first in a good while in which I can't find a thing to complain about. Everything I usually care about in a game is nicely covered here: Everything I just described performs quite nicely in my awfully low-end box, and I haven't found one single bug or glitch of any kind. Not even the ever-present clipping issues.
The one thing I could whine about has to be the poly-count, especially when it comes to character models. The prince is fairly good, but the other characters have a noticeable low amount of polygons.
This can be understandable in the enemies, given the huge size of the environments, the massive amount of actors showing on scene at once, and the brief life they're going to have anyway; but Farah's model suffers from the same problem, and it tells. Especially since she doesn't even have fingers in her hands, and you will see those disturbingly hideous hands in some close-ups during certain cutscenes.
The Bottom Line
I'm not into medieval mid-eastern settings at all. In fact, I neglected this game for as long as I knew of its existence, despite the multiple praises I kept hearing all over the place. However, the moment I got a chance to test-drive it, I could only think of one thing: I HAVE GOT to own this game.
Without actually inventing anything new, PoP simply puts together the most challenging and imaginative platform puzzles and the smoothest combat interface I can remember.
On top of this, a simple yet beautiful love story told with a stylish narrative, and a conclusion to remember for years to come.
After I finished this game, and as the credits started rolling to the beautiful song, I felt a fulfilling sense of satisfaction as I felt few times before. Only a few of MAJOR storytelling masterpieces such as Silent Hill 2 and Soul Reaver 2 made such a deep impression on me, and even about those I had several issues to complain about.
PoP undoubtedly deserves a honor seat among my favourite games ever.
Finally, as some have said, the game IS short. However, I don't think of this fact as PoP's fault; but as a downside of every other game out there, for not offering half of what this one does.