Replay Value: 8.2
Without the original Prince of Persia, the action-adventure genre would probably have looked a lot different today. Partly inspired by the introduction sequence in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, the game's creator Jordan Mechner created a tense adventure that took place in an exotic setting. Almost 15 years later, he has returned to craft a follow-up that makes up for the two previous, uninspiring entries in the series. Working closely with Ubi Soft's Montreal studio, Mechner has managed to produce one of this year's better games, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I wasn't always sure it'd turn out as good as it did, since I never really fell in love with Splinter Cell, Ubi Montreal's last game. Even if it clearly had the feel of a polished title, the missions and the events that took place in them felt a bit too scripted for my tastes. To some extent, Sands of Time shares a couple of these issues, which I'll explain later on.
After the introduction sequence, which takes place during a war campaign in India, our hero, the prince, stumbles upon an ancient treasure called the dagger of time. After returning home to Persia, the prince is tricked to use the dagger on another battle souvenir, a huge ominous hourglass. Bad move; with the exception of the prince, the vizier and a captured girl, the entire palace and its inhabitants turns into ghastly looking sand monsters. The Prince quickly learns that the trademark evil vizier is responsible for this mess, and so he begins to make his way through the palace.
During the playable opening raid in the prologue, you will already have learned that the prince is an acrobatic fellow. Not only can he jump pretty far with relative ease, but he can also do such gravity-defying stunts as running along the sides of walls. This fits in perfectly with the game's mystical atmosphere, and thus doesn't really require any long-winded explanation of why it's possible. Instead of wasting time doing so, the developers spent days (and probably lot of late nights as well) designing the diabolical levels found in this game. Each room is designed like a big obstacle course, often filled with a variety of traps, and the main objective is figuring out how to get to the other end of it. You'll often have to combine different moves - wall run, then bounce off onto a pillar that you can slide down to safety from.
The game makes the way you play look really good, but the problem is that despite the clever design, there's really only one possible route to follow. This makes it rather apparent that it's not the you, the player, improvising your way through the palace, but rather that you're being directed through it the way the creators intended. The "visions", that precede each new area and give you not-so-subtle hints on how to progress, enhances this feeling of linearity. Granted, most games hold your hands and lead you through them via a given path, but then again, many titles do a better job of creating a certain illusion of freedom. The game's platforming sections are made pretty easy because of the dagger of time, which can be used to rewind time, taking you back to a safe location in case you screw up an important jump, for example. It's a nice substitute for a quick-save feature, because the dagger only allows for so many uses before you'll have to refill its sand tanks, thus retaining the sense of danger. I often had to rewind twice though, because my finger slipped of the trigger or something, therefore ending up with me using double the amount of sand tanks for the task. This makes me wonder if it hadn't been better to simply allow the player to start and end the rewinding with a quick click on the trigger rather than having to hold it down the entire time.
Another downer is the combat sections, which thankfully don't occur all too often. When they do, you're frequently being put against multiple enemies. Targeting different foes is done with relative ease, but the camera is a bit too nauseating at times. The prince's special attacks can also be a bit frustrating to pull off, at least in very intense battles. The absolute worst part about the combat scenes is that you can never skip them, forcing you to stick around until you've killed all enemies on the screen.
Although these are complaints that could sink other titles, thankfully, the other qualities of Sands of Time do a lot to make up for it. The inclusion of Farrah, the Indian maharajah's daughter, adds a lot of human elements to the game, not to mention that she plays an extremely important part in the story. Comparisons with ICO are inevitable, but it's the first thing that comes to mind as Farrah and the prince are helping each other make it through the palace. Their conversations are mostly handled the way they should be done in more games, by having the exchanges of dialogue going on directly in the game, not via a letterboxed screen, or two talking heads superimposed onto a black background. The writing is excellent, even though the end result suffers a bit from the muffled quality of the voice acting.
All in all, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a classic example of when the sum is greater than its parts. The enchanting, soft and glossy graphics will draw you in; the spot-on controls and level design come together with what's one of the best-integrated and most sophisticated storylines I've ever seen in a game, and will keep you there, stuck like a genie in a bottle. If you're willing to look past the slightly linear and repetitive gameplay, you have one of this year's most fulfilling action-adventure titles to look forward to.