Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – A Masterclass in Action-Adventure


By all accounts, “action-adventure” is an incredibly broad genre that can encompass many different games, with a variety of subgenres to go along with it. Whether it be platformers, shooters, and everything in between, the entire genre of action-adventure has given birth to plenty of iconic heroes and titles. However, one of the earliest, and easily one of the most iconic, is the Prince from the “Prince of Persia” series. 

Starting off with the original “Prince of Persia” in 1989, a puzzle platformer where players take control of an unnamed Prince as he tries to save a princess under a strict time limit, the Prince and his introduction quickly garnered a huge following. It spawned several sequels, starting with “Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame” in 1993. Both games were developed by American studio Broderbund, with Jordan Mechner serving as the main designer. While the first game and its sequel would garner critical acclaim, its first foray into fully 3D graphics, the aptly titled “Prince of Persia 3D” would not fare so well. While its graphics were considered impressive for the time, it was marred by clunky controls and a general lack of polish. Unfortunately, Broderbund would close its doors in 1998, and the Prince of Persia license was acquired by Ubisoft three years later. The French publisher’s first move was to completely reboot the series, with Mechner serving as a creative consultant for the next game in the series: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”

By doing this, Ubisoft created one of the finest puzzle platformers ever made. With an engrossing story, memorable characters, fun combat, unique gameplay gimmicks and some of the most satisfying platforming of any video game, “The Sands of Time” is undoubtedly one of Ubisoft’s best titles, and a landmark in the action-adventure genre. 

“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ” was released in November 2003 for the Xbox, Playstation 2, Nintendo Gamecube PC, and Game Boy Advance. The game was developed by Ubisoft Montreal, and published by Ubisoft. Ignoring the events of the past three games, “The Sands of Time” serves as a clean slate for the Prince, sending the franchise in a new direction. It would receive high praise from critics and fans alike, and while sales were initially slow, it would sell well over the years. 

“The Sands of Time” became the first in a trilogy of games within the same continuity, starting with “Prince of Persia: Warrior Within” in 2004, and “Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones” in 2005. Ubisoft decided to reboot the franchise again with the 2008 release, simply titled “Prince of Persia,” before returning to “The Sands of Time” continuity with 2010’s “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands.” Although the series lay dormant for years, a new game in the series, “Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown,” was revealed in 2023 and is slated with a January 2024 release date, featuring a brand new protagonist and story. A remake of “The Sands of Time” is also currently in development, with as of yet no definitive release date. 

“The Sands of Time” follows an unnamed Prince, who rides along with his father’s army as they go to visit the Kingdom of Azad in Ancient Persia. While passing through India, they decide to sack a nearby city at the behest of the treacherous Vizier, in order to find the local Maharajah’s treasure vault. While exploring the vault, the Prince discovers an artifact known as the Dagger of Time, while his father’s men collect a massive hourglass containing the mysterious and otherworldly Sands of Time. While presenting the Sands to the Sultan of Azad as a gift, the Vizier tricks the Prince into opening the hourglass using the dagger. This unleashes the Sands across the palace, turning all of its inhabitants, including the Prince’s father, into vicious sand monsters. Left as one of the only survivors, the Prince allies himself with Farah, the Maharajah’s daughter, and scales the palace as he tries to contain the Sands and correct his mistake, all while making extensive use of the Dagger’s time-manipulating abilities. 

From the beginning, the stories for “Prince of Persia” have been inspired by classic swashbuckling and adventure films, such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” The story in “Sands of Time” is certainly no exception. While it does have its fair share of dark and serious moments, it is balanced out by fun writing, great character moments and an overall lighthearted tone. I would best describe the story in this game as being akin to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; a fun, enjoyable ride, with dark and even scary moments, contrasted with a fun sense of adventure, an excellent and memorable protagonist, great villains, and an excellent ending, with a blossoming romance at the center of it all. 

One of the main focuses of the game is the relationship between the Prince and Farah. The two start off distrusting each other, and for good reason; the Prince was one of the big reasons behind the fall of Farah’s kingdom, and his father was going to sell her into slavery. Despite this initial mistrust, they gradually grow closer and ultimately fall in love as the game nears its end. It’s a romance you see develop firsthand through the eyes of two interesting, fully-developed characters, making it that much more enjoyable. Sure, the story is full of plenty of tired tropes; the hero hesitating at the last second, or the hero and his companion getting separated for weird reasons, but it never takes away from the experience. 

The Prince, as a character, has gone through numerous versions over the years, considering just how many revisions the series has gone through. However, I think this version of the Prince is the definitive version, and one that is a joy to both play and watch. Sure, the Prince did commit a pretty despicable action at the beginning of the game, and he radiates the arrogance and entitlement you would expect from someone of his status. Despite his flaws, however, he has so much charm and charisma that it’s hard to hate him. His arrogance also gradually fades away as the game progresses, brought on by his relationship with Farah and his realization of the greater good. He’s a great protagonist who experiences genuine development as you play through the story. He is amplified by an excellent voice performance from Yuri Lowenthal, who gives the Prince plenty of charm, attitude, and genuine heroicness. The Prince also serves as one of Lowenthal’s earliest roles, paving the way for an excellent career in voice acting. 

Now, the main area where “The Sands of Time” stands out, aside from its story, is its gameplay. The “Prince of Persia” series has always been considered a landmark in the action-adventure genre, and “The Sands of Time” just solidified its place in that category. While the original “Prince of Persia” games were side-scrolling puzzle platformers, “The Sands of Time” is a fully realized 3D puzzle platformer, which corrects the mistakes of “Prince of Persia 3D” and then some. The entirety of the game sees the Prince using various acrobatic abilities to navigate the palace, while also fighting the sand-infected inhabitants. 

Combat, while simple and admittedly a bit clunky, can still be quite fun and presents some unique gimmicks. Players can vault over enemies, as well as jump off walls to strike them. In order to kill the enemies, players must use the dagger to consume the sand infecting them while they are knocked to the ground. Farah also assists the Prince during combat by shooting arrows at enemies, which can come in handy when surrounded; however, players also need to keep an eye on her, as if she dies, the game is over. You also need to be careful, as her arrows might even hit you if you get in her way. All in all, though, there are cool and interesting elements that add to an otherwise simplistic system. 

The platforming is where “The Sands of Time” truly shines, however, and it is the part that has aged the best gameplay-wise, despite the game being 20 years old at this point. Outside of the combat sections, you’re going to be spending most of your time scaling various parts of the palace, solving environmental puzzles and dodging dangerous obstacles. The Prince uses a variety of different moves to accomplish this: wall running, wall jumping, swinging from poles, balancing on beams, jumping from ledges, swinging from ropes and much more. All of these moves feel incredibly smooth and satisfying to pull off, which can be chalked up to the reported 780 animations the Prince has. Because of this, everything he does feels polished and realistic, making it that much more fun to pull off genuinely ridiculous acrobatic feats. 

What makes “The Sands of Time” distinct from other titles in this genre is the use of the Dagger of Time. By collecting sand from enemies or by finding various Sand pillars hidden throughout the levels, the Dagger of Time’s power bar will fill and increase. This gives the player access to time-manipulating abilities they can use throughout the game. The first, and easily the most recognizable, is Rewind; if you make a mistake during gameplay, whether you miss a jump while platforming, get hit by spikes or spinning blades or stumble during combat, you have the option to rewind up to 10 seconds in order to correct your mistake. Later on, players also gain the ability to slow and eventually freeze time, giving you a greater edge over combat as you can freeze enemies in their place. 

None of these abilities are get-out-of-jail-free cards; however, you have a limited amount of both sand chambers and power gauges, which are used to freeze enemies. When you run out and make a fatal mistake, you have to restart at a checkpoint as normal. In the game’s final chapter, you even completely lose the Dagger, and therefore lose your time manipulation during one of the most difficult platforming sections in the game as well. It is a unique and incredibly cool system that has been implemented, giving it its own identity while also incentivizing players to use it wisely. 

As much as I love this game, there are some areas I’m more critical of, although admittedly, one is much more egregious than the other. The first shortcoming is the final boss…if you can even call it that. Yes, the final boss battle against the Vizier is beyond easy, and you’ll beat it in a matter of minutes; however, while this is an area I think the game falters, it’s not really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. “The Sands of Time” did not really have any true boss fights; the closest the game got was an early battle against the Prince’s sand-infected father, although he was merely a much tankier enemy.  This is not something like “BioShock,” which had so much buildup and focus on Frank Fontaine as a character, only for the final boss to be beyond disappointing. Rather, the lack of a cinematic or difficult final boss makes sense given the type of game “The Sands of Time” is, and plus, the Vizier didn’t get a lot of screentime – just enough for us to know how evil and treacherous he was. So yeah, it is a bit of a weak spot, but far from a dealbreaker. 

However, the second big criticism is much more annoying. Being a PS2-era game, there are certain levels of jank that can be expected when you pick up this game. Some of these I’m more than willing to ignore; Farah getting stuck on some geometry when she’s supposed to be avoiding enemies, or an annoying but ultimately harmless glitch where walking into a save point results in an instant game over. However, one aspect that is not so easily forgiven is the camera. Often in these older games, the camera can be a bit cumbersome to control, and “The Sands of Time” is, unfortunately, one of the worst offenders. While it is fine 90% of the time, when it does decide to screw up, it’s at the worst times.

For example, while the camera will adjust itself accordingly for particular platforming sections, sometimes it just won’t move. You try to adjust it manually, but it still doesn’t get into the correct position. Needless to say, it’s very hard to jump to an area you can’t really see. Then, it decides to mess up during combat sections. There were some, not frequent but several, times when the camera would get stuck behind a pole or a curtain, preventing me from seeing the enemy and more often than not, getting me killed or knocking me to the ground. This will result in me getting stuck in a loop of trying to get up, and an enemy knocking me down again before I have to rewind time just to get out of the situation. While it thankfully doesn’t happen on a regular basis, it’s still an annoying problem that does happen. 

At the end of the day, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is still a worthwhile experience. Featuring an entertaining and charming story, a great protagonist, excellent gameplay and plenty of unique gimmicks to make it stand out, “The Sands of Time” is an amazing puzzle platformer, action-adventure title, and just as a game in general. Even with the passage of time, and certain aspects of the game not aging as well as others, The Prince’s journey is an adventure you absolutely should play through yourself.