Friday, December 23, 2016

Why Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of my favourite games


Hey Hey everyone, Dave here. Welcome to the 4th episode of Dave’s Favourite games. So it was 2004 or 2005. The local Blockbuster had one of those deals where you could rent a PS2 game for 3 days. My friend Andrew and I regularly took advantage of this offer. We discovered many interesting game experiences this way. It’s how we first came across Fatal Frame. Anyways, I forget what influenced our decision, but one weekend we got together and rented Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I was excited to play it. Not only because of the hype that I had heard about the game, but I had played the previous 2D Prince of Persia games on my PC when I was younger. I loved the setting, the animations, and the mix of puzzles, platforming, and swordplay. I was expecting great things out of this 3D iteration.

I feel like I need to apologise to Andrew because here’s what happened. We played the game for hours the first day. We might even have completed it that day, but I do remember how we divvied up gameplay. Basically, every time there was a fight, I would hand the controller to Andrew, and then when there was a platforming section, I wanted it back. I feel guilty because I felt I was selfishly playing the best parts of the game, and having him play the frustrating parts. All these years later, having played the entirety of the game through multiple times by myself after that rental, I still feel this way. The setting, the narrative framework, the level design, and the thrill of the platforming… these are all marvellous. They hold up to this day. The combat on the other hand… well, let’s just say I know why they completely overhauled the fight mechanics and put an emphasis on them for Warrior Within. It’s also why I have never been able to get through that game despite multiple attempts.

Although there is a little leeway in my criticism of the fights this time around. The PC Port of Sands of Time was released before controller support on PC was standardised. To get the analogue stick to record movement properly, I had to download a third party program to change some settings as to how the game interprets input. Even with these fixes, running in a circle would be halted into a walk animation. What I’m saying is there’s a lack of smoothness and consistency because I chose to play the game with a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, and perhaps that is why a lot of the fights made me want to tear my hair out.

And I dislike being this critical about one particular aspect of the game. This is a favourite games video. I am meant to be celebrating the game in question. I will, but I feel I need to address this. The controller completely hampered my enjoyment. I have a feeling it was to blame not only for the issues I was having in the fights but often I would jump in the wrong direction, having to rely on a sand tank to correct the mistake, perhaps by changing the camera angle so I could adjust for the strange behaviour of the controls. Why I somewhat blame the game is that one of my criticisms of the game has always been the fights go on way too long. Before you obtain the dagger of time at the start of the game, you’ll come across groups of guards you must defeat. It can be a tough fight, especially when you’re surrounded, but once you are able to beat them, you feel triumphant. Once the sands have been unleashed, that same group of enemies is defeated, and then a new wave of foes arrive. And another… and another. Waves keep coming, and suddenly this short interlude between platforming and puzzle has become a chore. Each fight is ended with relief instead of triumph. Everytime enemies appear I could feel the pit of my stomach drop out. Especially because it’s so easy to make a mistake and suffer consequences that seem outside your control. Add Farah into the mix where you have to protect her, and a new level of anxiety is added. It culminates with the elevator ride at the end of the game. It took me 3 attempts this time. The funny thing is once that’s over, and you get the best sword in the game, fighting is supposed to be fun since you’ve become so powerful. This may be true, but once you remove the dagger and keep the controller issues, even one hit kills don’t stop the fights from being frustrating.

Ok, I think I have the criticisms out of my system. I still feel kinda bad since I love this game so much. It’s probably good it ended up this way. Some people have difficulty with the concept of criticising something they actually like. As if somehow you shouldn’t be finding fault in the things you enjoy. Of course, that is nonsense. My favourite books, movies, and especially games aren’t perfect, and sometimes by uncovering what isn’t working, it can make you appreciate what is all the better. So now let me just run through some stray thoughts from the game.

How great is it that so much of the platforming is baked into the level design? Especially the outdoor segments. I mean there’s the obvious example of climbing the tower without the dagger at the end of the game, but the caves, the sewer, basically any outdoor segment that involved flags, pillars, or disrepair leading to handholds. Heck, even a lot of the indoor sections. The library is memorable every time I play it for this reason.

How about how the best character moments are as you’re playing the game when either the Prince is talking to himself or him and Farah are verbally sparring? Yes, there are cutscenes, but it’s these audio files that play as you’re actually playing the game that endear you to these characters, and I think it’s a part of what makes the ending tragic yet bittersweet. The flash forward segments lend to this as well, showing late game narrative moments a lot earlier on, making the player wonder why they’re happening and what the context is for them.

How come nothing I’ve played in Assassin’s Creed or any 3D platformer since feels as cool as the wall run from Sands of Time? Maybe the camera placement has something to do with it, as in they knew how to frame each wall run and especially the wall run jumps for maximum cool. Not having consistent control over the camera with the right analogue stick was an odd feeling. When you’re used to something ubiquitous like that, stepping back in time before it was a general design rule can be tricky. I’ve had that get me into trouble before assuming older games had checkpoints and automatic saving.

And even with how frustrating I found the fights, there’s a fluidity and grace to the Prince’s movements that make them a joy to watch. Maybe that’s why the wall run is so memorable. Every action of his is elegant. It could be why the control issues and the fighting were so frustrating. When the Prince is failing, it still looks glamorous, so there’s this extra guilt heaped upon the player that yes, this is all your fault. Throw in controls and a camera you know aren’t perfect and anger can enter into it. “Great, the game is mocking me for failing when it’s doing its best to make sure I don’t succeed”. Next time I’m definitely going to try mouse and keyboard or go back to the PS2 version.

Thanks for watching.

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