Game: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Yes, I said game, not movie.  I haven’t actually seen the movie, although I hear it’s on the good side of mediocre. That’s pretty high praise for a video game movie. I’ll probably blog some opinions as to why two of my favorite artistic/entertainment media can’t seem to get along, but that’s another post. Alternatively, the folks at The Escapist have some pretty good ideas on the matter. Anyway, to answer a second possible criticism, yes, I  know this game came out in 2003. I just got it and I want to talk about it anyway. Admittedly, I am not even 20% of the way through the game yet, so what seems fun now might get repetitive later on, but I’ll try to take that into account.

Here’s the story (sort of): you play as the Prince (of…Persia? It never really says, actually), a brave and acrobatic warrior whose father attacks an Indian Maharajah in order to plunder his famously rich treasure vaults, with the help of the Maharajah’s vizier, who is treacherous. On a side note, is that really a surprise? It’s always the vizier that’s evil. The Prince finds a glowy dagger full of sand and a huge glowing hourglass; he keeps the dagger, and his father brings the hourglass, along with the best maidens, to one of his buddies, whose name I forgot. At this point, the vizier (surprise, surprise) betrays the Prince’s father by tricking the Prince into “unleashing the Sands of Time” trapped in the hourglass. This turns everyone into zombies for some reason, except the Prince, the vizier, and the Maharajah’s daughter Farah (and, for some reason, a random guard). Having nothing better to do, I suppose, the Prince teams up with the girl to fix the situation and stop the vizier. Oh, and because the sand killed his father. That’s important as well.

So, how does an 8-year-old game based (sort of) on an older, crappy 3D game based on an even older 2D platformer hold up in these days of pretty-close-to-photorealistic graphics and top of the line physics engines hold up? Surprisingly well, I would say. Sure, it’s nowhere near as complex  as a BioWare RPG, for example, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t need to be. I’ll try to point out the game’s flaws first, and then move on to what makes it still worth playing.

Obviously, the graphics are much, much worse than what a Crysis or Mass Effect fan is going to be used to. The sky and farther away bits of the cityscape have a slightly painted-on look and, well, everything’s just a bit of a downgrade, which is completely understandable, given the time it was made. There are also some awkward pauses between lines of dialogue in some of the cutscenes that take me out of the moment a bit; you can almost feel the computer chugging away to the next camera move or animation before the main character will respond to his sidekick’s last question. The combat has been novel enough so far that it hasn’t felt incredibly repetitive. I can imagine it might get old after a while, especially since the “slash at enemy, jump over enemy, slash at enemy’s back, finish with dagger” combination is very easy to pull off with a little practice and is effective against almost all low-level baddies.

There are a few things about which I am torn; they are sort of annoying, but have redeeming qualities as well. First of all, there’s friendly fire. It’s really frustrating when you’re fighting sand zombies and die at the end because Farah shot you in the knee or something. On the other hand, it doesn’t happen often and it’s realistic, which is sort of the goal for this game (apart from the zombie and time reversal and all that). The second is the fact that you, the player, have to fix the palace defense system in order to move forward, setting up a bunch of spikes, saws and spinning blades that make your job a lot harder. That’s kind of cruel.

So, why would you want to play this game? Basically, everything I didn’t specifically mention is really good so far. The combat might get repetitive, but it’s flowing and acrobatic and looks really cool. The environments are beautiful. So far, I’ve been running around the walls of a besieged city while it gets destroyed around me, in several bizarrely beautiful dungeons, all around a ruined but still elegant palace, across roofs in unnaturally quiet moonlight, and to some strange, ethereal place with a magical fountain. The parkour platforming has a great sense of rhythm and is very smooth but also realistic (sort of. You can jump higher than most non-basketball players, wall-run 15 or 20 feet, swing around on horizontal poles [trust me, I’ve tried that, and it’s really hard to go one foot, let alone 10 feet across and a few feet up] and generally seem to be less affected by gravity than everything else except when you’re falling off a cliff. You can also take an axe to the head and not die. But this is pretty much par for the course and more realistic than other video games. Who needs realism, anyway? I’m trying to have fun). The story is also good, simple but well told. The Prince is kind of a jerk sometimes, but he grows a lot as a character. Farah is, unlike a lot of female characters in games, interesting and complex, neither a (to use Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s words) “Macguffin princess” or a “supercilious badass action girl.” Both exhibit human complexity in their interactions and respond in ways that make sense.

I’m starting to go into lecture mode, so I’ll close by saying this game has definitely stood the test of time (ha ha) and, if you can overlook some outdated graphics, it’s work a look. Besides, it’s about $5. That’s a deal.

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