Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)

It’s been over 17 years since I played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In the years since, I’ve always had fond memories of it and it was always a good example of gameplay that was not just fun, but also exciting. Blending exploration, traversal, combat and even a bit of hidden secrets, it was something that I wanted to go back to forever.

When the game first starts off, you have a sense of Deja Vu, and rightly so. The game takes large swaths of Arabian folklore that we are all familiar with thanks to Aladdin. The prince is going to visit the Sultan of Azad, and while passing through a neighboring town, they've taken the princess and the Vizier to bring as a gift to the Sultan. In the treasure that is plundered, they have taken the Dagger of Time, which holds special time manipulating powers. As they meet with the Sultan, the Vizier tricks the prince into unlocking the Sands of Time, killing all the people and turning them into sand monsters.

One of the reasons I haven’t gone back and play through these games is that the PC port has some pretty bad camera issues, but also the Steam version had some weird fog and effect problems when played on modern PCs, the resolution of the original game also couldn’t go very high, so with a couple mods provided and using the GOG version of the game, Sands Of Time now looks gorgeous in even the most extreme of resolutions, going beyond 8K at 8192 x 4320 at 60 frames per second. Pointless to have the game at that high of a resolution, for sure, but just to be able to say that I did, and also show that there are diminishing returns when a game is that resolution, there is near zero difference between 1080p, 4K and downsampled 8K displayed at 4K resolution. There is also the weird issue that there is a post processing filter that is unable to be disabled, that makes everything a bit blurry and hazy. Which is an effect that is more artistic, giving the whole game a story/flashback feeling. With a simple mod, that effect is disabled and makes the game much more clear.

One of the main gimmicks in the game is the Sands of Time, allowing the dagger to slow down or rewind time. It’s a really fun mechanic, but really only helps in one of two circumstances, either when you miss a jump and fall to your death, or when you get absolutely slaughtered in combat. Rewinding when a jump is missed really makes you feel powerful, but in combat it feels a bit cheap as you can just rewind out of a possible death. But that isn’t to say it is cheap, because it does only allow you to use the daggers powers several times before needing to refill it, so you can’t just spam the rewind power as many times as you want.

The game has breath taking locations as well that have always stuck with me. Certain locations like the Sultan’s palace gardens or an underground waterfall and cave system are big and beautiful locals that really feel like a place lost to time, with the palm trees swaying in the cold breeze of a blue lit night skyline. Other places like the Sultan’s bathhouse feel warm and inviting… if it wasn’t for all those pesky palace officials turned sand monsters.

Another one of the reasons why Sands of Time stands out is the way the story is told. The Prince literally is narrating the game as if told as a story to someone, fourth wall breaking without being overly obnoxious, like when you fall to your death because you missed a jump and a game over screen appears The Prince exclaims “oh no no no, that’s not how it happened” Or even when you want to quit the game, The Prince says “Do you wish me to leave without finishing my story?” It’s small touches like this that let you know how much care went into the writing of the game and it’s characters.

The Princess, who’s name is Farah and her interaction with The Prince over the game changes and evolves. As she merely seems like a helpless damsel in distress at the beginning, but soon shows that she can not only take care of herself, but take care of you at the same time. Farah was one of the first examples in a game that I can remember where the sidekick wasn’t a complete nuisance and caused more issues than helped out. There was only a single time that I had her die in combat which resulted in me having to restart the battle. Most of the time she helped me by shooting an arrow in the back of an enemy that was about to slice me down with a sword.

Farah and The Prince’s attitudes and dialogue also go a long way in helping establish their characters, and by the time the game wraps up, you see there is a real relationship forming. The Prince starts off as a stuck up kid who thinks everything he does is right. As the game progresses, and The Prince’s ego is chipped away at, he also becomes more battle hardened, and his clothes rip, allowing him to discard pieces more and more as the game goes on. Near the end, The Prince is scarred by battle and shirtless, with no headdress, far from what he looks like at the start of the game. The Prince continually talks to himself and mutters things that make him feel more fleshed out and like a real person instead of some fantasy character that always has something pithy to say.

The combat was something I remember being talked down about a bit when the game came out. I never had much of an issue with it, but as I played through, there were definitely small parts that I must have just forgotten about. Some of the controls felt a bit off, like launching off a wall like a dart into an opponent, only worked a handful of times, as I quickly ditched the move in favor of something easier to pull off. Vaulting over opponents is always a blast and the way the camera moves around and slows everything down, allowing the player to marvel in some of the beautiful animation is just a joy. The camera is also a really big problem. It constantly moves when it shouldn’t and will block everything by getting right behind a pillar. There were other times where the camera would not stop moving, even when in a huge area where the camera should have been static. It also has lots of changing from dynamic to static shots when entering different areas, resulting in going forward into a room only to have the camera change and The Prince change direction and run right back out again, then have to repeat it a couple times. Something that I’ve never liked in games and a huge reason why I never cared for the static cameras in the Resident Evil series as well.

With only a couple real issues with the game, I remembered exactly why Prince of Persia is one of my favorite series in games. The tech that showed off cloth physics in a way no console game had, the amazingly refreshing way a games story and narration could be and the way both combat and traversal could be blended into a game that also incorporated many puzzles, all come together into a beautiful game and experience.