I’m at about the 70% mark in regard to completing the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a game I decided to re-play after finishing the more recent Prince of Persia (2008). I’ve mentioned that I’m loving the older version much more so than the recent version, but that doesn’t mean the older version is a perfect game. Before anyone thinks that I’m incapable of criticizing a good game, let me take a moment to discuss a few of the areas that definitely could have been better in the Sands of Time.
(By the way, even though I haven’t finished the game, yet, this is going to be my last post on PoP as I am anxious to move on to writing about the Force Unleashed, a game I started playing today.)
The Camera: This is probably the biggest flaw in the Sands of Time. Basically, the camera follows close behind you and, using a camera mesh, tries to dodge out of the way of any obstacles in the area. As you move through the game, however, the camera shifts to more cinematic views, or views that highlight areas in a specific way to clue you in about the puzzles. For example, you might move into an alleyway of sorts — and the camera will zoom out and pan up, so that you can see there is a ledge at the top of the alley, cluing you in that you need to climb up the walls to the ledge above. Sometimes, though, the camera zooms out so far it’s hard to make out details (even on a big screen, HDTV — let alone the more common SDTVs of the original Xbox’s day). And what you need to see might actually be off camera. Yes, you can shift into a first-person view to scan the area, but you don’t always realize you’re looking for an off-camera clue. This results in some of the puzzles becoming more frustrating than they need to be. Some might say it’s making the puzzles more cheap rather than more difficult.
The Art: Let me start this comment by saying that when I say that the art if flawed, I mean it exclusively in the context of what I was just talking about — the puzzles. More specifically, let’s say you’re dangling from a rope. There appears to be two directions you can swing. Both lead to small alcoves. There appears to be nothing in the alcoves but due to camera difficulties, you’re not quite certain. It took you some effort to get to this location, and a 50/50 isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. Worse, what if neither of these alcoves are where you need to go? That’s when you realize (if you’re patient and observant and maybe lucky), that there’s a third option. There’s a nearby rope dangling from the ceiling to which you can leap. The problem, though, is that the rope blends in with light streaming down from the ceiling. I’m not saying there needs to be a glowing arrow pointing at the rope, but it seems to me that swinging from one rope to the next isn’t much of a puzzle, and hiding the rope is more of a cheap tactic than a clever puzzle.
Sound Balancing: Oh. My. God. The sound balancing is awful. Just awful. There are a lot of games that use 3D sound when they should be using 2D sound, and this is one of them. Be more clear? OK. Let’s say you’re in a room where you need to figure out where to go and how to get there. The camera has shifted to an interesting new angle to provide (or obscure) clues. But then! Farrah says, “You need to –” and then you can’t hear the rest because her character is so far away from the in-game “microphone”. You frantically rotate the camera or switch to first-person mode, and it works. She’s loud-and-clear now. Unfortunately, it’s too late. You missed her clue. You’re going it alone. Frustration. There’s a sequence I just got past where you’re re-directing rays of light with mirrors and crystals. Thankfully, the puzzle was pretty obvious — because this was a great example where I heard her talking for about 20 seconds but couldn’t make out a single word. Maybe I should have checked if there was a sub-titles option. But the fault still lies with using 3D sound when the audio designer should have set that dialogue as 2D, ensuring I could hear it loud-and-clear from any location.
The Combat: Oh my! The combat? Wasn’t I just saying in the prior post that combat is amazing? OK, let’s slow down a moment. I’m not saying the combat is broken. It’s superficially flawed. Many opponents hold their block so well that the most efficient way to get past their defenses is to back up against the wall and spring off of it, performing a flying dive at the foe. Only one opponent I’ve come across has been able to block this attack so, unfortunately, many of my fights consist of me performing this feat. I’m of the mind that combat works best in a rock-paper-scissors format. The system, here, is to flank you with opponents because they are at their most dangerous when you are surrounded. This forces you to focus on movement and evasion, which is likely how the designers want you to go through combats. But when one attack always works, the system breaks down. That said, I can’t help but almost feel the need to apologize for my comment because I am having so much fun with the fighting and tend to resist the “best attack” for other attacks that look better and are more fun. Still, this is a flaw. The game should force you use different tactics and not let you cheap opponents out.
And now I’m going to break the train of criticism by bringing up a few things that I liked but didn’t mention earlier.
The Music: The music itself is fine. I don’t know a lot about Persian music so I can’t say if it’s “correct” but it fits with my idea of the theme and I like it. But what’s more, it’s not constant. During a lot of puzzles, I find that the music turns off. In a lot of games you get these endless loops that exacerbate the frustration of failing to see how to solve a puzzle. But during one chunk where I couldn’t figure out where to go next, I realized I had been playing in silence. Not only did that silence save my mind, but it also added to the atmosphere. It evokes a loneliness that works well as I play without Farrah by my side.
The Pace: The new Prince of Persia advertised itself as a much quicker game, smoothly transitioning from encounter to encounter. It is indeed. So is the Sands of Time slow? Yes, actually. But it’s a good thing, for me. I find myself, frequently, standing in a room looking around in first-person mode trying to determine what my next option is. In many platformer/puzzle games, you see the goal and then work your way backward from there to create your route. Or you keep following the road until it eventually syncs up with the goal or you get stuck, and try to work it out from there. But in Sands of Time, you often cannot see where you need to get to, and it looks like there are multiple places to start from where you are. I like this. It’s very thoughtful. It’s a different kind of game, of course, but I appreciate it. By the way, slow does not mean lacking in tension.
The Balancing: So how do we get the tension high in a slower-paced game? Easy. We raise the difficulty level. I’m finding that any one-on-one fight in the Sands of Time is easy. Fighting a half-dozen opponents, even, is easy. But fighting a half-dozen at the same time? That’s a little more tricky. And what about fighting a half-dozen at a time en route to a fight against twenty or thirty in total — which is more often the case in Sands of Time? Now we’re talking tough. Sure, you might only take a shot here or there, each causing a small amount of damage. But they add up. Sure, you can use the dagger to slow time or rewind time or freeze opponents or even outright annihilate a dozen foes, but you can only use it so many times. And I’m finding that at the end of each fight, I’m usually spent and have barely gotten past it. That’s perfect balancing. And it’s not just combat. The platforming works the same way, too. There are hidden sand fountains scattered about the levels that re-fill your dagger and give you a small bonus. As you run into spikes or fall into a pit or miss-time your jump, you rewind time to correct the course — which means using up your sand. Again, it’s often at the moment that I have run out of sand and am worrying that I’m going to die and trying to play even more carefully that I find a new fountain and can take a breath of relief. Perfect balancing.
The Puzzles: I’ve touched on it a few times already, but the designers have put together quite the collection of challenging, fun puzzles. Yes, sometimes that means hiding a dangling rope in a stream of light, but at other times there are more creative puzzles — such as not letting the player climb a wall while wet so you have to find a way to drain water first or to use crates that you can climb up on. I would never think that I could get stuck as many times as I have in a game of this type, and for that I am thankful.
Farrah: She helps you during fights by stunning opponents, setting them up for easy chops that leads to kills. She points out little clues regarding the puzzles (when you can hear her). She accidentally shoots you with an arrow in the back or watches you take a tumble and then asks if you’re OK — as if she cares and is worried. And she helps you get through puzzles by crawling through cracks in the walls and pulling levers for you. She comes across more as a partner than a game mechanic. She doesn’t communicate much with the Prince, but I dig how the Prince reflects (via an inner monologue) and analyzes her word choices and comments. I get more of a sense that these two are falling for one another than I often get while playing through a game’s romance.
OK, so the point of this post was to focus on the bad — but even then I end up rolling back to the good. What can I say? It’s a good game and it leaves me feeling positive about its design choices. If only they could all be as well done.