I didn’t play the original Prince of Persia. I don’t think I could even pronounce the word “Persia” when I saw the box art on the shelf at a rental location. Prince of Persia debuted on the PC and what was so impressive about it was its beautiful and fluid animation that creator Jordan Mechnar adapted from his brother’s movements using rotoscoping techniques. All of that was lost on me though, as all there was to sell me on the game was still images on the back of its packaging that didn’t impress like the games I loved like Mega Man, and when combined with a title I couldn’t pronounce, it was a hard pass.
When the series was eventually shifted into 3-D – as was the style in the late 90’s – that too did little to change my mind that Prince of Persia simply wasn’t for me as Prince of Persia 3-D and its Sega Dreamcast port, Arabian Nights, were destroyed critically. Then in 2003, the Prince of Persia series was something I finally became interested in after magazines and websites were raving about another three-dimensional reboot from Ubisoft sub-titled The Sands of Time. Review scores were high, but sales weren’t there to match them and Ubisoft quickly bundled the game with Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell which is what enticed me, a poor University student on a very strict budget to finally give the Prince of Persia a chance. From the second I picked up the controller to play it, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time became a game I couldn’t put down and still even today is one of the single best video games I have ever played.
There are a lot of things that make The Sands of Time special, starting with the story and how the narrative is framed. The tale itself is simple: a headstrong Prince is tricked by an evil Vizier into releasing the titular Sands of Time and it’s up to you as the Prince with the aid of a mysterious female companion named Farah to set things right. It’s the way in which the story is told however that makes this very basic tale so timeless.
The story in The Sands of Time unfolds linearly, however it’s being retold by the Prince as a story. There are fully voiced cutscenes that set up key plot points and battles, but the bulk of the important storytelling is done via narration delivered by the Prince or through simple exchanges with Farah all the while you’re still in control of him. The developers at Ubisoft Montreal even managed to weave this cleverly into the Game Over state as it’s not the Prince dying, it’s simply him misremembering what happened.
Starting out the Prince is a pompous jerk, more concerned with glory than anything else, but as events unfold, he’s broken down and remade as a far more likeable protagonist. Initially he’s annoyed with Farah, but these feelings of disdain and indifference slowly whittle away to a mutual respect and eventually, love. The player is witnessed to the unmaking and rebuilding of the Prince, both through his words, and even via his in-game character model. Starting out he’s covered in royal garb which slowly starts to fall apart as you work your way towards the climax with the Vizier.
In the original Prince of Persia, you’re in a literal race against the clock to defeat the evil Vizier and rescue your true love, but in The Sands of Time, time is very much on your side. The Prince is in possession of a dagger that can harness the Sands of Time, and with it, you can briefly rewind your mistakes when you fall victim to a trap, bottomless pit or the sword of an enemy. This mechanic not only allows you avoid having to go back to repeat your progress from a checkpoint, but it also fits into the game’s theme of second chances. The player learns early not to become too reliant on restarts, as rewinds are not unlimited and can only be regained by collecting specific clouds of sand in the environment or from downed enemies. Second chances are precious, and the game wants to remind you of that.
Along with the unique ability to briefly turn back time, what impressed people with The Sands of Time when it was first shown off was its fluid, parkour influenced traversal. The Prince is a nimble character who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and leap back and forth between walls. At save points, you’re given a tease of what obstacles are about to challenge you, but every room in The Sands of Time is very much a brilliant constructed puzzle that the player must figure out how to navigate.
In an age of massive, go anywhere open-worlds, The Sands of Time comes off as quant today, but there’s something to be said about tight, well designed stages built specifically around the tools you’re given, and this game is a prime example of that. The obstacles you have to overcome are fairly simple starting out, but as the game moves on, you’re tasked with massive rooms that serve as puzzles to be solved and others that re littered with dangerous buzz saws and blade traps you have to figure out how to get around. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series – which started life as a Prince of Persia spin-off – would try to handle this within an open-world, but this type of movement has been largely downplayed as the series has moved on, with the peak blending of the two franchises occurring within bonus parts of Assassin’s Creed II that played out like mini-Prince of Persia levels.
Where the Assassin’s Creed series has always topped Prince of Persia is in its combat design, and that’s about the only place where The Sands of Time only real flaw comes from. There’s something haunting about fighting at least some of the enemies in The Sands of Time as they were once comrades of the Prince who have been overtaken by the Sands, but fighting is a chore and you’ll long for the second the Prince sheaths his weapon to signal a fight has concluded.
The combat never really takes advantage of the Prince’s skill set in any meaningful way, and you’re only ever fighting the same few handfuls of enemies over and over, dispatching them mostly in the same way by either leaping over them and striking them from behind, or launching off of a wall into them and absorbing them when they’re down. You do get stronger swords, and Sands powered abilities that allow you to quickly dispatch a room full of enemies, but this needs to be charged after use so it’s only ever best saved in case of an emergency. The Prince also lacks any type of ranged attack – though Farah has a bow and helps you in fights if she’s present – but this is of little help in a few minor areas where annoying birds swoop down and knock you into a pit mid-wall run.
With one game, Ubisoft changed a franchise I paid very little attention to, to one that I would get excited when a new installment was announced. The Sands of Time was followed by two sequels: two that took place after it and another that would come much later that would be sandwiched between the first and second installments. Each had their own interesting hooks, but none balanced their story telling, character and gameplay as expertly as The Sands of Time would. Whether you’ve never played it or haven’t touched it in a while, sit down and let the Prince tell you a tale unlike one you have never heard.