Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Year: 2003
Platform: Xbox, PlayStation2, GameCube, PC
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 9/3/04
Rating: ***

Having been absent from the scene for a few years, the "Prince Of Persia" franchise strikes back with a vengeance, delivering a hardcore gamer's dream and garnering "Game Of The Year" status from nearly every major publication. I really wanted to like this game. Really. Unfortunately, after spending two increasingly frustrating months on it, "Prince Of Persia" pissed me off so bad that I actually stopped playing video games altogether. It will probably take something really big (like the next DOA game) to get me to take up a joystick again, but until then, I'm still angry and on hiatus.

The game opens as the Persian army is plundering a castle. The brash and arrogant prince breaks away from the fighting to do some looting and comes across the Dagger Of Time - a magical relic that has the ability to reverse time. Unfortunately, the sneaky grand vizier has plans for the dagger and the prince unwittingly unleashes a plague of doom that turns everyone into sand demons. Only the prince (who is protected by the dagger), the vizier, and a kidnapped harem girl named Farah are unaffected by the curse. After realizing his horrible mistake, the prince attempts to correct his wrongdoings, and an uneasy alliance forms between him and Farah. Through the course of the game, their alliance starts blossoming into love, which gives the story some depth and a great emotional hook. Much like the tender character interactions in the superbly crafted "Ico" (2001), you genuinely care and feel for the prince and Farah, and want to see them triumph over the obstacles they face.

Unfortunately, this desire to see them through to the end of their quest is what eventually drove me to madness, since the game is too freakin' difficult to play. After getting about two thirds of the way through the game, I ended up deadlocked, coitus interruptus, without a hope in hell of finding out the end of the story and the fate of our lovers. I curse myself for buying the Xbox version of the game, since with the PS2 I could have just used my GameShark to give me an advantage. I suppose I could go back to the PS2 and start all over again, but like I said, I'm so incredibly angry with the game that I don't want anything to do with it anymore. The fact that it took me three months just to even write down my impressions of the game is telling enough. Of course, my friends just gaze upon my gaming incompetence with disbelief, wondering how anyone could have as much trouble as me. The "Prince Of Persia" games have always been known for their punishing difficulty and elite fan base, all the way back to the glory days of the Amiga. "The Sands Of Time" is easily the most accessible and forgiving game of the series, but it's still way too hard for the average casual gamer to tackle. But let's not continue to dwell on my deficiencies...

Apart from the intense difficulty and steep learning curve, "Prince Of Persia" is an excellently crafted game. The graphics are stunning, and the enormous castle is reminiscent of the level design in "Ico". The music is also very good and really helps to set the tone. Like any royalty, the prince is whiny and annoying, and emotionally flat. However, what he lacks in charm and personality he more than makes up for in his athletic ability. He runs, jumps, climbs, swings, and flips with such incredible grace and agility that he is poetry in motion. The controls are also very tight and intuitive, so controlling the prince is fluid and natural. The prince's interactions with Farah are entertaining and increasingly touching. The only problem is that the audio mix on Farah is so low that you miss about 80% of what she has to say while you're frantically fumbling for the volume control. Puzzles are pretty straight forward and consist mainly of unlocking doors, jumping exercises, time trials, and hazard negotiation. While most of the puzzles are of reasonable difficulty, some of them are devastatingly punishing.

Combat is the real sore spot in the game. At first, the combat is fairly simple and straight forward, and the prince has an amazing arsenal of fighting moves at his disposal. During the second third of the game, the combat difficulty ramps up considerably, with tougher foes that show up in increasingly larger numbers. The prince's fancy moves don't work on these guys, so you have to resort to more defensive tactics. Some battles can take over thirty minutes to finish, which is exacerbated by the fact that healing during combat is nearly impossible. Things get even more difficult when Farah gets thrown into the mix, as she needs to be protected and has the tendency to run right into the midst of the fray. In several places I had to exploit quirks in the game design to get Farah to safety before facing my foes unhindered. In the final third of the game, the combat reaches such insane levels that the game becomes unplayable. As if one guy with a double-edged halberd isn't hard enough to fight, how about facing thirty of them all at once? Or how about forty? The combat is also overly repetitious, with only half a dozen varieties of enemies and no real boss encounters to speak of (although I can only imagine how tough a boss battle would be in this game). Sadly, as compelling and captivating "Prince Of Persia" is, it crushed my spirit and defeated me utterly. Hey, aren't games supposed to be fun?