Wednesday, September 18, 2013

#64: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: Where it All Began

(This article is spoiler-free, for those of you who, like myself until recently, have yet to play a game from 10 years ago.)
As a child gamer, I was told of the greatness of the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Despite the praise, I had never played the games because I had somehow convinced myself (with reasons that I can no longer recall) that I would hate them. Last summer, the HD collection of the franchise went on sale on the PlayStation Network for about $7.50. Even then, I was not terribly interested in the trilogy. However, this time I was much more open to the opinions of others. Hearing recommendations from a few people and considering how cheap the collection was, I decided to finally throw caution to the wind and take the plunge for myself. Now that I have played all three games in the trilogy, I strongly believe that they serve as an interesting case study in game design from the PlayStation 2 era. Because of this, I will be running a series of articles discussing each game in the franchise, along with its positives and negatives. There is no better place to start than with the game that started it all, so without further ado:

The Sands of Time trilogy began, fittingly enough, with the 2003 release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. This game served as a reboot of the Prince of Persia brand name, since the original incarnations did not do terribly well in their day. Rather than shy away from its roots in difficult platforming, the game opted to embrace this tradition at the core of its design, setting the tone for the gameplay of the franchise henceforth. Death defying jumps, wall running, and various other feats of acrobatics and athleticism were par for the course. Fans of the platforming genre would be immensely satisfied by this element of the Sands of Time. However, the developers knew that they needed to do more than that.
Given that this was in the PlayStation 2 era, consumers were just beginning to shy away from the unforgiving style of older games. The mechanics of the game had to be updated in order to avoid the pain of constant failure states. This is likely what inspired the most well known mechanic from the trilogy: the ability to rewind time. In the beginning of the game, the titular Prince acquires an artifact called the Dagger of Time, which allows its user to absorb the Sands of Time into it and use them to manipulate time. With this weapon, players could rewind time up to 10 seconds into the past, allowing them to recover from receiving large amounts of damage in short periods of time and/or dying from a fall during a platforming section. In this way, players could recover from failure states, if only a finite number of times, and try sections again without getting a game over. Though this does not completely prevent the frustration caused by failing a difficult and long platforming section, it lessens the pain by giving players multiple chances to get passed troublesome obstacles with having to redo entire segments of play.
Another aspect of the game the seems geared toward limiting frustrations are the visions that the Prince receives throughout the game. Scattered throughout the game world are plumes of the Sands of Time that the Prince can step into. These plumes have two purposes. The first purpose is to provide save points for the player. The second is to give visions to the Prince. Visions give both the player and the Prince previews of future events, displaying a rough picture of what to do in order to complete the next section leading to the next save point. This removes part of the trial and error commonly associated with platformers of this type, especially when coupled with the ability to rewind time. As a result, the challenge of the game is preserved while stifling the unforgiving nature of constant game overs.

However, these elements cannot simply exist in a vacuum. Like any somewhat modern game, there needs to be a solid story to tie these elements together into a cohesive whole. Though I cannot be sure as to what the thought processes were behind the development of the game, I suspect the Ubisoft created the story to the Sands of Time in very much the same way that Naughty Dog created the story for the Uncharted franchise, which is the same way many industry veterans have done it. They created a set of mechanics and level designs, then wrote the story around them. Unlike many other stories generated in this fashion, it was very well received by those who played the game and stood out in its own right, for a number of reasons.
One of the smartest moves that the game made regarding the story was to present the entire narrative as a tale told by the Prince to somebody else after events have already unfolded. This alone serves multiple purposes. First, it allows the Prince to explain details of the plot that needed to be elaborated on, but the developers lacked either the time or resources to delve into. Like any good storyteller, the Prince is willing to fill in details and lampshade otherwise absurd notions in the story through his narration. Second, this gives an in-game justification for all of the countless deaths a given player will receive in a playthrough of the game. Although the game does a lot to keep players from reaching such a state, it is still possible, and quite likely, that players will achieve a game over at some point. When this happens, the Prince says something along the lines of “Wait. That's not right. I didn't die. Let me start again.” and the game gives the player the option to retry the section they died on. Instead of doing what most games do and making death something that never truly happens, The Sands of Time acknowledges the fact that it can happen and framed the story in a way that allowed it to account for player death.
Another intelligent choice made by the writers of the game is to only have a small cast of three major characters with only one or two minor characters. The Prince, his captured princess turned unlikely partner Farah, who players meet and befriend fairly early in the game, and the evil vizier are the only real characters who drive the plot. This allows the plot to be basic enough that any form of level or gameplay design can fit around it. Rather than complex politic intrigue and reputations with large factions, The Sands of Time chooses to focus on interactions between these characters and how their relationships and opinions of each other evolve throughout the course of the game. Instead of a global, world-spanning story, it is a personal one that, except for the prologue, takes place entirely with the Sultan's Palace. The way Farah and the Prince grow to respect one another is interesting, especially since they both have a snarky attitude that makes it nearly impossible for them to just come out and admit that they respect one another. Like the time reversal mechanics mentioned earlier, this lack of characters would grow to become a recurring element in the trilogy.
Lastly, the narrative is bolstered by a strong Arabian theme that is present throughout the entire game. Areas in the Sultan's Palace seemed ripped straight out of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. From the castle terrace to the caged gardens, and even the top of the Vizier's Tower all look distinctive in their own right while retaining a continuity of theme and setting. Another notable way that the Sands of Time establishes the Arabian theme is through the game's very impressive soundtrack. While many tracks utilize an electric guitar to an extent, they weave together Indian and Arabian instruments and sounds, resulting in a musical score than further immerses players into the story. Further selling the setting is the fact that the Prince can only regain health by drinking out of bodies of water. There are even special magical bodies of water players can stumble onto throughout the game that will increase the Prince's maximum health. In the desert, having a steady supply of water is very important. Making water a resource that players will need to seek out in order to keep themselves alive is a nice subtle touch that adds a layer of plausibility to the world. Together with the titular Sands of Time, these small, seemingly minor details form the gestalt of a believable Arabian setting.

However, despite the vast amounts of praise I can levy towards the game, there are a couple of problems. The biggest issue I have with the Sands of Time is its combat. The way combat works is that in certain areas of the game, Sand Creatures, humans and animals possessed by the Sands of Time, will spawn and strike out at The Prince. The easiest way to defeat these enemies is to attack them until they are downed, at which point The Prince can use the Dagger of Time to extract the Sands of Time from them and add those Sands to Dagger's supply of sand. Players can attack enemies with their scimitar in order to inflict damage, but they also have access to the usual arsenal of blocks, counters, and dodges. Since the Prince is an acrobat at heart, he is able to dodge over most enemies and strike at their blind sides. Furthermore, the Dagger of Time is given more uses than simple extraction and time reversal, which can be used to recover from battles that are not going in the player's favor. Other time powers that utilize the Sands include a freeze attack that leaves the afflicted foe open to an instant kill 2-hit combo and a move called Mega Freeze that drastically increases the speed and power of the Prince, allowing him to dispatch numerous foes in a short time.
Despite common criticism, I do not have a complaint with the combat system itself. In fact, I think it works. Enemies are not “bullet-spongy” and can be downed in a few combos (at the same time, so can players if not careful) and the system is enjoyable enough to make these sequences entertaining. The problem I had with the combat is the sheer amount of it that was thrown at players at any given time. While the system itself is fairly solid, anything can become a problem in excess. One of the first things I noticed when fighting Sand Creatures is that the moment I had finished dispatching of two or three enemies, another group had spawned in almost immediately. This would continue on until I was defeating at least 20 and possibly even 30 enemies in the same area in the exact same fight. Often times I was getting tired of fighting at around half that number of foes. The nature of the game's lethal play makes combat seem like it goes on for far longer than it actually does, giving off the feeling that combat is padding out the game. Although this seems like a minor issue, over time it makes an otherwise interesting combat system grow dull and repetitive very quickly.

The other issue is, by comparison, not as big of a deal. Towards the beginning and the end of the game, The Prince does not possess the Dagger of Time. As a result, the time reversal mechanic is not available to the player during these sections. This is an issue that is not particularly noticeable towards the start of the game. Since the game assumes that a given player has either no knowledge or limited knowledge of the game mechanics, the platforming in that section of the game is fairly easy to pull off. However, towards the end of the game, the game no longer has these expectations. In fact, some of the platforming segments towards the ends are some of the hardest in the game. When cut off from the time reversal mechanics that made failure states less of an issue, an otherwise simple platforming section becomes needlessly frustrating. While it is an interesting narrative and thematic choice to strip the Prince of his time bending powers in the climax of the game, the gameplay itself suffers as a result.

Overall, the Sands of Time was a fantastic game released during the PlayStation 2's lifespan. There are many, myself included, who would go so far as to call it the best game in the trilogy, if not the Prince of Persia series. So many things, both big and small, were done correctly in this game that the things it and its sequels did wrong strongly stand out simply by comparison. Going forward, all Ubisoft really had to do is refine the template laid out here and continue providing excellent platforming in an Arabian-inspired setting, with some slight refinements to the combat. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. As we will see in the next article, the sequel decided to go in another direction. A very annoying and stupid direction. Until then, see you next time!

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