Sands of Time is Still Arsekicking

Can you believe this game came out in 2003? I played it in January of 04, buying a US copy and Freeloader for GameCube; I was just that excited about it. I remember the announcement way back in 2002 and the details were basically: Jordan Mechner returns to video games, new Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell team. I already had a boner but a little while after, when the first render of the Maharajah’s palace was released, I ejaculated everywhere. So yeah, I was that excited about it and I was still completely blown away by every aspect of the game.

So yesterday as I dwelled on the fact that I didn’t have anything capable of running the new Prince of Persia and with my new A/V cables arriving for my PS2 (I had since sold all my non-PAL GameCube games and re-acquired the game on PS2) I threw it in again, intending only to test out the A/V cables. Anyway, so half an hour ago I beat it. Holy shit. I’m dehydrated or something, everyime the Prince drank from water I wanted to drink, but the kitchen was too far away so I stayed put. Anyway, let me go through my thoughts on this game 5 years after the event.

Visually I remembered the game looking better than this. Now, a lot of this could be due to the fact that I’m replaying it on PS2 which we all know was a DVD-capable Dreamcast. I definitely recall there being a lot more bloom lighting on the GameCube. Now despite what I’ve just said, the game still looks incredible. I totally forget that they included a button mapped to L2 that is there just to show off the graphics. You hit it and the camera zooms out and puts itself at an angle that just lets you appreciate the fantastic art that went into this game. Every single area looks absolutely first class and is polished to perfection. Nothing looks bland; nothing looks out of place; the game is spectacular throughout. I’m just certain it used to be even more of a spectacle.

Level design is amazing. I would enter an area and it would all be familiar because I’ve played it before, but it was still a challenge because I didn’t remember how. I’d be all “oh cool this is the giant aviary bit” or “oh the mess hall” but it was fun going through it all again because the specifics were all hazy. What really makes the level design though is how organic it all feels. Every single area feels like it could be a legitimate part of the palace. It really struck me how you could look at the room and it would look real, yet hidden in it was the video game’s platforming path. The rubble that might help or hinder your path through any given room never seemed out of place although the occasional crate did. Crates are always big problems in games and to their credit, Ubisoft – sorry, I mean Jordan Mechner – only included about, oh, 4 in the entire game.

Game combat was as dull as I remembered, although the order of enemies felt different for whatever reason. I dunno, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t vault over this many enemies last time and had to resort to wall jumps. Also, I swore the final guys you fought all blocked wall jumps but they were blocking vaults for me this time. I was all confused. Perhaps the game adapts to your playstyle! Somewhat related to combat is the whole mess regarding collecting extra sand. Throughout the game you can stab your dagger into these glowing things to increase the size of your sand vial. This gives you more opportunities to rewind time whenever you die, insult Farah and so forth. However, it also makes it much much harder for you to execute the Mega-Freeze, by far the most useful combat ability. Instead of using a set amount of power, the mega freeze uses ALL your power. So early on in the game you can pull it off, collect sand from 8 fallen enemies to refill it and do it again. By the end of the game, you might do it at the start of a fight and then not have enough baddies left to fight to use it, or any ability for that matter, again. I guess that can help with the difficulty but it almost serves as a reason to avoid collecting more sand vials.

Actually, just an aside here. The parallels between Sands of Time and 2002’s ICO are incredibly strong. Both have huge, realistic feeling environments, both have monotonous, simple combat against pretty much the same enemies throughout, both have large scale puzzle solving. Both won Penny Arcade’s prestigious We’re Right awards. The big difference in terms of game design is that Sands of Time had some. Like, if you’ve played ICO, you’ll know that you can explore free range, with very little inaccessible and what not. The problem is while you can explore, there is nothing to find and all these extra areas are boring. Sands of Time cuts all that bullshit out, keeping you focused and in the right direction while piling on it’s carefully scripted, carefully paced awesome. Fuck ICO – I can’t believe I just gave it the compliment of being compared to Sands of Time.

The relationship between the Prince and Farah is still fascinating. It’s the best love story of any video game I’ve ever played, if only because of how subtle it is. Early on in the game, if you glare at her with the first person view, she’ll get all uppity and tell you to stop staring. By the end, she’ll comment on the colour of the Prince’s eyes. And of course the Prince’s thoughts on her that he expressed while they’re apart as just as funny and brilliantly written second time round. He tries to hide (from himself) his feelings for her through – shit, my vocabulary has failed me. I’m not good with feelings. He acts full of himself through chauvinism and because his country just kicked her country’s arse in war. He acts like he’s doing her a massive favour just by existing but deep down you can tell he feels guilty for what he’s done and feels intimidated by her. Classic writing and well acted.

Oh and the game’s ending. I remember the first time, when it pulled it’s twist on me I was blown away. If you haven’t played the game by now you probably never will so I’m going to ruin it for you: At the very start of the game, like you don’t even think about it, it acts as if it’s part of the menu, you walk through some curtains and a cutscene plays as the Prince narrates a tale, talking in the past tense. Throughout the game you’ll hear the narration over the gameplay and humourosly whenever the Prince (or Farah) dies he says something to the effect of “wait… that didn’t happen, I didn’t fall off.” When you pause he’ll ask “shall I continue?” Now it’s natural to assume that you, the player, is the Prince’s audience. Maybe you might also see it as a nod towards 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights, as if this story was just one of those 1001 tales. In the game’s gripping climax, the Prince plunges the Dagger of Time into the Sands of Time, resulting in the rewinding of time all the way back to the night before the attack on India that serves as the game’s tutorial. The opening cinematic plays again but this time is elaborated on. As the Prince utters the same words he used to begin the game you see that he is in fact telling the story to Farah, in order to warn her of the attack and the traitorous Vizier. It is so, so clever. The Vizier then comes in to ruin everything and you have a terrible final boss battle against him. It’s neither difficult or fun, but that doesn’t matter because there is still time for one last, piss funny, use of the dagger of time to end the game. The credits roll and you get to hear a great song, it’s like Portal, a full fisted, tightly directed game with a song at the end.

Anyway fuck yeah this game is unbelievable. Time to play through Warrior Within and Two Thrones and see if they’re as bad as I heard. I don’t have much faith since neither involved Jordan Mechner but we’ll see.

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