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PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME / Ubisoft / PC
Sands of Time represents a "reboot" for the venerable Prince of Persia series; certain themes and characters are retained, but what little ongoing story there was from the first three games is entirely forgotten and we start anew with the adventures of a new Prince.
Who is, quite frankly, a dickhole. Unlike the lovable ragamuffin who started out a poor commoner and platform-jumped his way into the heart of the Princess, our new Prince was born into his title. The game begins with him on a journey with the royal entourage to visit some Sultan or another, and along the way, your dad the King just casually decides he's going to raid some Indian Maharajah's palace for presents like he's popping into Spencers or something. Dickhole Prince races ahead to be the first to loot the treasure vault, wherein there's a surprisingly poorly protected dagger and hourglass that have the power to manipulate time, and thus we have a game on our hands.
And it's not like this is some journey of personal discovery and redemption either. The Prince is basically acting in self-preservation the entire game, after the captured Indian Vizier tricks him into using the dagger to release the Sands of Time, some sort of evil force that wipes everyone out save a handful of people and turns them into undead sand monsters. In fact, the Prince's constant moaning and moralizing about the "treachery of the Vizier" comes off as more than a little silly when said Vizier is only in this position because the Prince and his Dad invaded his homeland, murdered a shit ton of people, captured all the women for sex slavery and burnt the place to the ground. Even sillier is that the Prince's voice is a somewhat effette, upper-class British accent and manner of speaking. Aside from the whole "um we're in the desert guyz" thing, the Prince and his people are basically a pack of savage barbarians, but his voice narration sounds like he's recalling the story to his dear auntie over a nice cup of Earl Grey and a watercress sandwich.
The game's story isn't really that much of a problem for it though, since ostensibly it's an action game. Sure, critics and fans have praised the "strong characterization" and "good writing" to the skies and both of those things are highly debatable, but more of a problem is that the gameplay is janky as hell and the camera is a frustrating mess - so much so that I have no idea how this game merited 90% scores and serious Game Of The Year consideration from anyone.
To be fair, the PS2 version is the one that seems to draw the most praise, so perhaps the console controls and camera are better. On the PC, they're a real problem. Like many 2000s-era PC action games, the game also does not get off to an endearing start under modern flavors of Windows thanks to config and driver problems. The game refused to recognize my usually infallible Saitek USB gamepad, for starters. There was bizarre mouse lag in the menus for some reason. The game also identified my modern system as a Pentium II for whatever reason. And the game completely locks you out of Windows once you start short of a CTRL-ALT-DELETE, so you can't adjust the sound volume with hotkeys and have to quit out of the game then restart. Joy2Key, ignoring the mouse lag until it mysteriously went away, ignoring the warning message that had to be clicked through when booting the game, and putting up with the sound issues were the eventual solutions to these problems. And on the whole, I have to say the game at least ran as intended without having to futz with drivers or install any patches or third-party workarounds.
Once you get into the game, however, you discover it's really pretty much a slow-paced "jumping puzzle" game masquerading as fast-paced sword-swinging action. To be fair, that is in keeping to some degree with the vision of the original Prince of Persia. The original two games, however, didn't have to deal with three dimensions and a camera system, which is where the bulk of this game's serious problems lie.
Loose, floaty control is a killer in a game that's all about precision jumps and instant deaths. The game is fundamentally a collection of rooms that are self-contained "jumping puzzles" - every time you solve one or two, you get a chance to save the game, and maybe a plot-developing cutscene. Repeat from outset of game to finish. Unlike other action-platformers, there's no real "exploration" element at all. Generally, each room consists of a rigid series of finicky steps required to get through it. You deduce the needed steps, you perform them as expected, and if you make a mistake along the way or go off the script it's generally punished with a plunge to your death.
This style of design tends to draw a niche market, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing. It requires absolute precision in movement, however, and no rude surprises in the control. This game lacks the former and has numerous examples of the latter. For one, the Prince has serious problems with simply jumping in a straight line, which is frequently fatal. You'll often find yourself on a ledge where you must run sideways along a wall in ninja style, but unless you approach the wall at a precise (and not always discernable) angle, the Prince will instead run straight up and do his cute little backflip off the wall that tends to send you plunging to your death over the edge of the ledge you were previously standing on. Things like these could be construed as minor issues if they weren't so frequently lethal.
So why did this end up being a major sales hit that spawned a Hollywood movie instead of a Devil May Cry-esque niche title for the "hardcore"? Chalk that up largely to the "time rewind" mechanics. Once in possession of the dagger, the Prince has a limited ability to reverse time, including lethal screw-ups. You can only do this a finite amount of times before needing to recharge, however. Additionally, there's a timer that begins when you fall to your doom, and if you fail to "rewind" events to a point of safety before that timer runs out, you're screwed anyway. It's a bit of a buffer against annoying "try and die" mechanics, but often not enough of one to keep things from getting tedious, as literally nearly all the game is a series of moves that kill you off if you experimentally choose the wrong one. Also, if you accidentally let go of the rewind button in the middle of a fatal portion of the rewind and have to initiate it again, it counts as a second use. When you've only got four for the early portions of the game, this really sucks ass.
The camera compounds gameplay problems. There's *sort of* a "free look" mode with the mouse (or can be mapped to the second stick), but the game frequently confines where you can point it for no apparent reason (often preventing you from looking up or down when that's where you really need to look), or slows down the movement of turning it, or snaps it back to a preset angle with this obnoxious wooshy effect. There's a first-person view you can use, but it fixes you in place while you look around (a la the original Metal Gear Solid from 5 years before this was released ...). The restrictions don't seem to serve any specific gameplay or aesthetic purpose ... I suspect it's just sloppy programming.
So here's basically the procedure upon entering any one of the game's long string of "puzzle rooms" - look around, get frustrated because the camera is confining you needlessly, start edging around and peering around using first person mode while trying not to fall off ledges. When you think you've finally figured out where you're aiming to go and see a rough path to get there, start trying various combinations of wall runs, pole jumps and et cetera. A lot of these are far from obvious, and nearly every mistake puts you right over a massive plunge to your painful demise, so get ready to fall and rewind time a bunch of times as you fool around trying to figure out what the designer intended for you to do next. Every now and again some simplistic combat is tossed in; it basically boils down to spamming the "jump over the enemy, slash then instant dagger kill" move over and over and over again just to put a timely end to things. Rinse and repeat for a few hours while a mediocre story starring some murdering slaving dickhole (who sounds like Lord Faunterloy) plays out.
I know popular doesn't equal good, I mean, Brittany Spears and American Idol winners and all that. And I certainly have been let down by gamer-praised games before, even from people whose opinions I regard quite highly *COUGHBRAIDSHADOWOFTHECOUGHLOSSUS*. But Sands of Time has left me in an unusual state of puzzlement as to why people love it so much. It reminds me of two games of the past that I always thought were irredeemably clunky but still seemed to draw a sizable fanbase and great reviews - Syphon Filter and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. Neither of those games attained the heights of popularity this one did, though, they certainly didn't even get considered for an Uwe Boll movie or whatever. All I can assume is that the console versions of SoT play more smoothly and have a more functional camera than the PC port does (though the critic reviews don't seem to suggest that.) To me, this game is just another in the lineage of clumsy action-platformer Tomb Raider knockoffs, one that happened to have a nifty gimmick that hadn't really been done before but wasn't nearly strong enough to compensate for the game's shortcomings. Your mileage may vary I guess, but I didn't like it at all.
"If you wish to assist me, find a kitchen and prepare me a sandwich."
Best bit of the game really
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