Let's do the time warp agaaaaain!
If you’ve read anything about Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor recently, you probably know that it borrows heavily from Ubisoft’s huge Assassin’s Creed franchise. Criticisms of plagiarism and stale gameplay are all well and good, but has anyone ever stopped to ask where those games took their ideas from? The answer, of course, is the Prince of Persia franchise.
Before we get into the main course of this retro reflection, I should probably clarify that I’m talking about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Ubisoft’s 3D update of the original franchise that flipped onto the PS2, GameCube, Xbox and PC back in 2003. When hack ‘n’ slash adventures were some of the most popular, profitable titles to develop, Ubisoft looked back to the original 2D side-scroller for inspiration, and carved out their niche in the market by giving us a game that truly revolutionised the concept of what a platformer should be.
Indiana Jones and the…Dagger of Time?
Before we get to gameplay mechanics, however, it’s best to start with the plot, which in the case of Prince of Persia was gripping and well-paced to say the least. The story follows the titular Prince as he journeys with his father through India to conquer a particularly well-defended city with the help of a local corrupt and traitorous government official. Enter the Vizier, the game’s main antagonist who, for all intents and purposes, both sounds and looks like he’s been lifted straight from the pages of an Indiana Jones script. During the attack on the city, the Prince, who is well characterised as both charming and brash, makes a beeline for the Maharajah’s vaults, and happens upon the dagger of time (anyone else getting some more Indiana vibes?).
Upon hearing of the dagger, the Vizier, who is obviously a bad-egg at this point, demands it as payment for his services to the King. Obviously the King refuses, and the power-crazed Vizier tricks the Prince into unleashing the Sands of Time, which creates a terrific sandstorm, turning the majority of the local inhabitants into husky sand monsters. And why might you ask does he do this? Well why does any Indiana Jones villain do anything? For eternal life of course! The Prince and his companion Farah, with whom he shares a poignant, believable romance story, manage to escape; and thus the quest to take down the evil Vizier ensues.
You Drive Me Up the Wall
Sands of Time demarcated itself from other titles on the market with its punishing, and yet oh so sweetly gratifying, platforming elements. The game didn’t just demand a pretty basic level of spatial awareness and moderate reflexes; instead navigating the sand-swept palace required unflinching concentration, excellent hand-eye coordination and reflexes that would make the Flash look like a stay-at-home Dad of four.
Players had to make use of the Prince’s notable acrobatic skills to leap, roll and wall-run around the various spike-pits, spinning blades and sweeping pendulums that pervaded every room and corridor of the building. Strangely enough, I’ve only now just stopped to question the inclusion of so many blatant health hazards in a palace, where a community of people supposedly lived and worked? Navigating these puzzles wasn’t simply a matter of knowing when to press ‘jump’, in fact players often had to carefully time multiple leaps, wall-runs and flips to avoid a litany of deathly obstacles, creating a sense of momentum that quickly punished those who dared hesitate.
Don’t Flip Out!
Combat built upon these staple aspects of movement and freedom. The aptly named Sand Monsters came in a few shapes and forms, but none were ever really a match for the agile, lithe Prince. Successful players combined sword attacks with an impressively responsive dodging system, which afforded them some much needed respite when surrounded by foes. They could also make use of the surrounding environment, scaling walls to deliver devastating attacks from below, and forcing enemies into the plethora of gyrating sharp objects around.
Farah would also attack from afar using her bow, but unfortunately developer Ubisoft forgot to turn her friendly fire setting off.
Upon vanquishing the assailants, players quickly had to absorb their ‘sand-energy’ (not a technical term) with the dagger, or risk having to trade blows with them again. In select areas the Prince’s love-interest Farah would also attack from afar using her bow, but unfortunately developer Ubisoft forgot to turn her friendly fire setting off. Boss battles, of which there were only two, unfortunately didn’t really stand out, but it was still fun to make use of the Prince’s gymnastic prowess against a different class of enemy.
Can I Get A Rewind?
That cultural reference was probably still current when the game was published, I promise.
The wordplay of course refers to the coveted dagger of time, the Prince’s sidearm that afforded players a host of time-bending abilities to even the odds against all those snares and monsters. In exchange for a set cost of sand-tanks, players could slow down time to avoid whatever spiky object was currently edging closer to their finely trimmed facial hair, whether said object was protruding from a wall or an enemy’s hand. In combat, they could also take adversaries down in a single swipe, and even use the dagger to stun large groups of assailants at once.
Most importantly, however, the dagger allowed players to briefly rewind time for approximately 10 seconds, permitting them a second (or fifth) chance at those murderous corridors. It was this power that truly set Prince of Persia aside, and offered players a new way to experience platformer games. The rewind mechanic made the punishing array of environmental obstacles out there a little less daunting, and encouraged lazy gamers (i.e. me) to give them just one more shot. In combat, rewinding time could bring you back from the brink of death, but obviously at a price. Resurrection in this manner usually meant that you came back from the sandy grave with only a smidgen of health left, making fights a tense game of careful avoidance and risky counter attacks. The plethora of ways in which players could influence time added a fresh layer of choice and strategy onto an already competent platformer experience.
It’s no wonder that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is sited as such a source of inspiration for the array of action-adventure games on the market today. Its combination of fluid, reactive melee combat and tense, thrilling platforming sections alone would have made it a standout title. The addition of the time powers then feels like the icing on top of the cake; giving players the ability to control time in such a variety of ways made platforming more accessible, and therefore more enjoyable. More than that, however, I still enjoy occasionally revisiting this game because it feels like a direct vein back to the original 2D franchise which, if you’re of my generation, you probably weren’t lucky enough to experience the first time around.