TBT – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Retrospective
The greatest action-adventure game of all time. This isn’t a difficult choice to make; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time remains a flawlessly-executed paradigm of combat and platforming. It is as familiar as it is inventive, its functionality ideally suited to reward the player for their experimentation as they progress through its myriad of complexly-designed levels.
But TSoT is more than just a basic platformer with combat scenarios interlaced between. What allows it to maintain its vitality despite its age and legacy is its rather simple design philosophy. Fluidity is the most important aspect to the overall construction, and it’s easy to note how focused the developers were in crafting an experience that never threatens the player’s engagement with any given objective.
Manipulating time is the most innovative function introduced to the player, and it cannot be overstated just how brilliantly effective it is. Whereas most platformers threaten a player’s failure with forcing them to start a level or sequence from the beginning, TSoT allows them to immediately backtrack from the moment they mess up. Managing this fluidity instills complete control and a lack of frustration, as well as implements a quick-thinking momentum towards overcoming obstacles. It’s instant gratification, supplied by a player’s understanding of the methodology placed before them.
So many games of recent years have been designed around instilling as much a cinematic presentation as possible. Uncharted 2 is absolutely lauded for proffering this concept, which baffles me considering how little interaction the player is actually awarded. The greatest trick Uncharted 2 pulls is deceiving the player into thinking they’re having an actual impact on the action sequences; the reality, however, is that they are often instigated by merely pressing forward on the controller stick or pressing the jump button at the right time.
This does not make for an effective interactive experience, no matter how exciting the visuals and aesthetics look. All satisfaction is lost when the player realises there are no real stakes to the gameplay, aside from the plethora of repetitive shooter sections which seem more of a distraction to keep interest aside the more exciting setpiece situations.
In TSoT, all control over the outcome of the platforming scenario is granted to the player. It gives each platforming encounter great heft and involvement, and each obstacle overcome such a satisfying developmental outcome. Ascending a tower by shimmying across ledges, performing acrobatics on flagpoles, vacillating between walls, even occasionally manipulating triggers and pressure plates; few games provide as thrilling and mentally-stimulating an experience. But the real genius is in providing a quick way to resolve one’s mistakes, through use of the time dagger, eliminating any disruption of the inherent fluidity baked into the core gameplay.
Levels can seem so daunting a task at first, when a brief cutscene introduces each new area as players stumble into it. But the controls are so precise and delightful to engage with, it’s genuinely exciting to jump into the action. TSoT — arguably — largely functions as a vast puzzle game of sorts, with the Prince’s abilities being the keys to solving platforming riddles which flow one after the other, provoking anticipation and hasty consideration from the player.
It was during my venture into the caverns when I realised how perfect an action-adventure experience I was engaging with. An exciting sequence of events, quite reminiscent to those in Uncharted 2, features the Prince jumping between large stalagmites and crumbling boardwalks, having to work quickly as they succeedingly collapse into the depths. There’s a genuine sense of tension, given the ability to genuinely fail these dramatic sequences — as opposed to Uncharted 2, in which ‘failing’ often equates to missing a timed jump or button prompt — and successfully managing them results in utter vindication.
The game constantly pits the player in the role of the theatrical hero, but demands demonstration of their abilities provided through limitations. Every method of control is thoroughly designed; every scenario masterfully crafted to suitably accompany the progressive methods provided. Few games feel so tightly constructed, without ever contradicting its free-flowing stride.
As a game, it’s nearly flawless. It’s philosophy underpins the significance of crafting suitable levels to accompany the gameplay, without ever undermining the tight focus which allows it to excel all throughout. Which is shame, then how flawed this masterpiece remains, especially with age.
Where TSoT succeeds in delivering a manageable system of mechanics throughout a ceaseless tide of various locales to execute them, often it fails to provide the necessary subtextual motivation to continue forward. Progress develops through the simple bliss of interacting with the game’s functionality and environments, by ways of experimenting with every new ability or platforming concept. Harnessing the ability to retrace one’s steps only further instills the quick-thinking mentality required to progress through the litany of fast-paced platforming segments.
However, while the locations are properly complex and engaging, the connotations surrounding the setting fail to live up to the potential of its worldbuilding endeavors. The rigorously-complex puzzle aspects, providing the structure of these dilapidating towers, gardens, caverns, and palaces alike, simply fails to accommodate for any notion of context.
Compare Azad to other settings such as Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion, the home of an ambitious though mad scientist, whose labyrinthine homestead represents the inherent evils manifested within the innocuous visage of both him and his abode. The sequence of events which plays out through RE is directly facilitated with the gameplay scenarios. Solving a puzzle brings Jill/Chris one step closer to unraveling the greater underlying scientific mystery, simultaneously delving deeper into the mansion, into the mind of a madman, and into the conspiracy gripping Racoon City.
TSoT revels in its perplexing city setting, but forgets to give reason behind its intricate construction. Levers and pulleys open hard-to-reach doors; scaling walls presents a precise method of linear progression; entire libraries and bedrooms are designed with rigorous puzzles to solve, requiring the dexterity and strength of no normal citizen. None of these situations, which the Prince consistently finds himself in, digs deeper into the mythos involving the greater context presented: be it time manipulation, the Prince’s character arc, or the underlying subtext involving a city’s decay as history ceaselessly presses forward.
Especially a shame is how the world’s concept fits the gameplay design, but lacks a richness in lore which could bring the subtextual narrative to greater heights. Instead, we are left with a fairly straightforward tale which often appears as if it is about to delve into more philosophical ramifications involving the chief time motif, but the aim always backfires unsatisfactorily.
“Most people think time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction, but I have seen the face of time and I can tell you they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm.” So speaks the Prince, in a narration introducing the game’s clear thematic intentions. The story wants to say something about the convoluted passage of time itself; perhaps remark on the unreliability of others. Placing trust in another’s word requires a connection to that person, something only time spent together can ever forge. Strip away your experiences together, and that sense of faith perishes.
But one must really stretch the implications to arrive at these observations. Ultimately, a heavier focus on establishing nuance in the story may have detracted from the production of the gameplay and world design. It’s just a pity how the potential for a captivating story remains unfulfilled, especially given that the basis for such is fortified within the first cutscene, alone.
But these flaws speak volumes as to the developers true intent with TSoT: much more focus is placed upon providing as concise a gameplay experience as possible, with the narrative functioning as a simple basis through which the more impressive moments may surface. I do wish the story tried harder; went a bit further with the more interesting implications involving the concept of time manipulation. Even the romantic plot involving the Prince and Farah is incredibly half-baked, not to mention quite offensively misogynistic throughout.
However, TSoT is practically a wholly-realised game. It can be forgiven for dispelling any notion of narrative triviality, for in doing so it may have risked otherwise distracting from the core fluidity provided the player. Combat functions as a retroactively developing system, introducing new abilities nearly every level. It presents its mechanics, and the courses through which to exercise the player’s understanding of those mechanics, clearly and considerately, to simply allow for the most approachable and stimulating a gameplay experience to be had.
It is a shame, then how combat can often fall short in regards to enemy design. Most are just uninteresting in appearance, fitting the setting well but failing to live up to the wonderful world designs presented. Fortunately, the zombie-like soldiers prove interesting mechanically, providing quite a worthy challenge to the Prince. Their varying movesets force cautious consideration of a combination of offense and defense.
But most other enemies seem more akin to distractions from the platforming experiences, rather than interesting scenarios in and of themselves. Massive vultures will descend upon the Prince, forcing him to the ground unless he blocks and then counters the attack to immediately kill them. It is a laborious system, intended merely as fodder to fill in the spaces between.
The worst of all are the swarming bugs which only take a few hits to kill, mostly because they offer no engaging patterns to recognize and learn. Just mash the attack button until they disappear, a far cry from the various combat methods permitted to defeat the more humanoid enemies. Not to mention the bats which swarm the player whenever traipsing along ledges or cliffs, which take three successive hits (at least) until they finally back off.
It’s tempting to call TSoT a flawed masterpiece; though perhaps it’s more accurate to consider it a catalyst for perfection. It’s a blueprint for a game that could be fleshed out into a far more cohesive experience. For now, the game stands as a bafflingly unique title, its successors and imitators failing to capture or recognize just what makes its vision so appropriately timeless.