Way back when – back when PC’s were still young-ish and AAA-gaming was a little like indie gaming is today, there was a guy named Jordan Mechner. He wanted to make very visual, story-intense games. But the thing is, the hardware wasn’t quite at the point where he could do what he wanted. So, instead of making photo-realistic, beautifully rendered games – because he couldn’t – he made stunningly realized pixel-based games that had the most fluid movement you could possibly imagine.
His first design was the masterfully simple Karateka. Always go right. Flip between fight stance and run stance. Kill the bad guys. Watch the story unfold. As simple as Karateka was, it summed up Mechner’s way of creating games.
Between Karateka and Prince of Persia, five years would pass – and while the graphics got better, they were still not realistic. Which was fine. Prince of Persia was moody and simple – the motion of the prince was what was important. And boy was he fluid.
This doesn’t quite bring me to Sands of Time, but it does illustrate the main point I’m trying to make – a lot of Jordan Mechner’s games are about the fluidity of the body – and how beautiful it can seem when running or jumping or engaged in combat.
And that, in a nutshell, is where Sands of Time absolutely delivers.
In Sands of Time, you end up controlling the Prince who is part of an army. The prince decides that he’s not the kind of fighter that’s going to get down and dirty – his idea of gaining honor with his father lies mostly with the aquistion of artefacts. In the initial fight, he goes off on his own, scouts around the palace and finds a weird seeming dagger. He pockets this and heads back to his father where everyone’s jubilantly celebrating their victory. Except one guy. There always has to be that one guy.
In this case, it’s the Vizier – a man who tricked the Prince’s father into attacking this particular palace so he could get hold of the dagger. His plan? Unleash the sands of time and be the most powerful man alive.
It’s a simple story narrated by the Prince as you play. There aren’t many twists or turns to the plot, but it is satisfying and hits the right story beats as your platforming and fighting steer you ever closer toward undoing the damage you’ve done by plunging the dagger of time into the vessel containing the sands of time [thus unleashing the sands, sparing only you, a mysterious lady and the Vizier.]
While there are problems with the plot [it’s a little too simple, sometimes] it does come wonderfully full-circle and concludes in a satisfactory way – which is the theme for most of the game.
The good? The platforming is masterful – the control scheme is simple and [mostly] works. The fluidity with which you can chain platforming moves is fantastic and it looks exceptionally beautiful and fluid. If this had been made ten years later than it’s release date  the platforming would look even better and more life-like. It’s simple body poetry at work – the prince jumps, swings, runs and rolls in a very kinetic manner. This is absolutely a pleasure to control and watch.
The characters and location are also a rare treat – we don’t see a lot of games set in the East and something like this – which originally took inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights is a glimpse at both cultures and people we see very little of in gaming – which is a shame.
There is one minor hitch here in that, sadly, the relationships are awfully stereotyped – and somewhat backward. While this is historically correct, it’s a little sad, given that the two people you see the most are the mysterious lady and the prince. One would have thought that – given their ordeal and their proximity to one another over a stretch of time like this might have wrought more intesesting changes in – at very least – the Prince, but sadly, this isn’t exactly the case.
But these two things – the wonderful, fluid platforming – and the novelty of the setting – carry the game rather well.
The bad doesn’t kill the game, but it does plie flaw upon flaw until you’re left with a game that I can best describe as middling: there’s far too much combat. And all the combat is [mostly] hopelessly generic. “Kill blue guy. Kill red guy” with the very occasional variation of “kill the boss guy.” It’s overlong, tedious and drags the entire experience down a notch. Mostly, it just feels like filler.
The filler is – sadly – somewhat necessary – since as the game progresses, the designers take ever more liberty with their premise. You see, the game’s primary play loop works like this: the Prince loots the dagger which contains sand vials. The sand vials power the sands of time, which – when you hit the appropriate button – rewind time. This means that if you jump in an incorrect direction and fall to your death, you can simply spool back time and try again – until you run out of sand, of course. At which point you need…
…combat! Combat is a necessary evil, because downing an enemy gives you an opportunity to plunge your dagger [of time] into the enemy and steal their sand. Don’t do that and, well, the enemy sticks around obnoxiously until you do steal their sand. It’s not particularly graceful.
The design also becomes somewhat absurd: what was a sort of forgiving, easy-going game suddenly turns into “you have one chance to do this jump perfectly, screw up and you’re dead.” And it doesn’t take long to get there. The designers seem to believe that their premise [the sands of time] allows them freedom to do things that would be unacceptable in any other game and this is particularly frustrating, because it absolutely detracts from the kinetic, fantastic sense of forward movement.
I want to spend a very brief moment talking about the graphics and sound, because I haven’t really focused on that much at all. The graphics are wonderfully stylized, but it also tonally boring. A lot of this has to do with the setting. [it’s in a palace that’s slap-bang in the middle of a desert] – it could have used more colour.
The sound is also what I think of as “just functional.” The music, on the other hand is an interesting aural treat – some old-style Arabic flavour is modernized by guitars and drums and used to wonderful effect, but the problem here is that the game is mostly silent until you get into combat or are in a particular cut scene. This isn’t game ending and I understand the design choice [less is certainly more – plus, the music wouldn’t overstay it’s welcome this way] but it is a pity that this musical fusion isn’t explored more.
So, do I think Sands of Time is worth your time? [Did you see what I did there?!] – Well, it’s kind of a loaded question. If you enjoyed early Prince of Persia and want more, I can heartily recommend this. Don’t go in expecting anything terrifically mind blowing, but do know that you’re getting a very fluid, graceful-feeling game – which is Prince of Persia at it’s very best. For everyone else? This is middling. It also descends into “unfair platforming” toward the middle – and that might not be to your taste.