Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, Prince of Persia or ICO? Looking at the question from a purely objective standpoint, Jordan Mechner's original take on the Prince clearly came first, but the matter isn't as simple as that.
Released in an earlier era of gaming, the first Prince of Persia it was hailed at the time for its smooth animation and innovative play. Featuring platform action and puzzle elements in an unusual setting, it possessed almost hypnotic appeal. Its success inspired a number of other games that emulated its slower, more premeditated style such as Out of this World and Fade to Black. Although it used only two dimensions, the first Prince was clearly instrumental in paving the way for both industry phenomenon Tomb Raider, and the grossly under-appreciated, singularly touching ICO.
While ICO shares the same core concept as the original Prince of Persia (an agile character, complex environmental puzzles, and a huge, holistic game world) it greatly expanded and enhanced every possible aspect, incorporating unsurpassed cohesive level design and gripping emotion in the form of an ethereal girl you must protect throughout the game. Rather than simply getting from point A to point B, the ability of the game to invoke true feeling from players transformed ICO from yet another effort retracing Prince of Persia's steps into something that not only paid homage to it, but also surpassed it on every level. It was clearly a new milestone set squarely atop the foundation that Mechner built.
This brings me back to the initial question regarding chickens and eggs. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is obviously an updated incarnation of its former self, but it can also be called ICO's spiritual successor. Sharing many of the same artistic and technical elements that gave ICO its unforgettable essence, Sands of Time is an interesting case of a landmark creation influencing an even greater work, and that work in turn inspiring the recreation of the original.
Ubisoft's creation casts the titular Prince (no other name is given) as an immensely athletic, acrobatic hero. The game takes place in a monstrously large castle the Prince must conquer by using a wide variety of techniques like running on walls, swinging on ropes, leaping from ledges, and using every piece of architecture within reach to get to his goal. Along the way, he will also have ample opportunity to flaunt his other abilities. At his disposal are an unbelievably smooth (and flashy) combat system and the Sands of Time themselves, which can grant an array of slow- and fast-time options.
Starting the analysis portion of this review in a typically uncharacteristic fashion, I'd like to first focus on the control system. Despite the industry-wide shift to 3D, very few developers have ever devised interfaces that approach anything close to true satisfaction. Very often, fluidity and ease are sacrificed for stability (or vice versa) leading to many instances of less-than-optimal experiences. However, Ubisoft has scored a major coup with the solid, logical, and utterly reliable means of navigating in three dimensions. After the thrill of scrabbling across the side of a wall to avoid a pit of spikes, leaping from that wall onto a ladder suspended in midair, climbing it to the top to leap an absurd distance onto a rail-thin balcony and then finally scaling a sheer wall to safety—all without breaking a sweat or straining your fingers, you'll wonder how you ever played adventure games before Sands of Time.
I have no hesitation in stating that this is without a doubt the best control system of its kind ever created. With impossible grace pulling off complex and fantastic maneuvers and never sacrificing the precision so crucial for true ease of play, this is how it should be done. I've always been a believer that the challenge and enjoyment in the best games comes from the things you do, not overcoming problems in actually doing them. This game is the perfect example.
Continuing this review's slightly unorthodox approach, I think it would be a terrible injustice to gloss over the incredibly high quality and taste in the visuals. The atmosphere is art, with an emphasis on soft lighting and elimination of sharp-edged secularism. Complementing the loving care that radiates from every viewpoint, the animation of the Prince himself is nothing short of stunning. Rather than a created character being piloted through hallways and rooms, the Prince is more comparable to a lithe panther, flowing over, under, and through the confines of the castle. The painstaking work that must have gone into blending his movements and creating naturalism in how he relates to his surroundings pays off in spades. You won't catch me saying this often, but the wondrously lush graphics are a substantial asset that add to the overall energy of the experience significantly. Screenshots simply do not begin to approach the power of seeing the game in motion.
It's not an overstatement to say that the levels of craftsmanship and production have created controls and appearance that are nearly without equal. However, as regular GameCritics.com readers well know, it takes more than technical values to elevate a disc into the top tiers of our review archive. Make no mistake, Sands of Time is a great game, but there are a few traits in its persona that give me slight pause. Specifically, I feel that the game's narrative elements and world design are slightly weaker than its outstanding appearance would lead you to expect.
The plot starts well enough with the Prince tricked into unleashing the malevolent Sands by a crafty vizier, causing the death and decay of the surrounding lands. While in the process of undoing what he has done, he meets a princess along the way and they join forces to save the day.
Perhaps it's not the most original concept, but other fine games have been built on less. However, the characters are so thinly written and so little happens to them aside from traversing the levels it's hard to feel a real connection to either of the pair. It also doesn't help that progress relies heavily on impossibly convenient cracks in walls and doors, reducing the slender princess to little more than a sentient key instead of a true partner or companion. This lack of human depth undercuts the impact of the overall adventure, and makes the inexplicably blossoming romance and late-game intimacy scenes seem vastly less compelling than they could have been.
Another disappointing aspect of the tale, the main villain is oddly absent throughout almost the entire adventure. As such, there are no feelings of tension before or vindication after you topple him at game's end. Without being given much reason to actively work against him, he is reduced to being a bland plot device rather than a fearsome (or even vexing) opponent to be bested. The result is that the game takes on the identity of "Prince figuring out the inert castle" instead of a more emotionally involving "Personal quest to stop the evildoer." It's a subtle distinction, but a significant one.
Such lukewarm stars and middling conflict might not be such large factors if not for the game's pacing and overall design. At approximately ten hours the game is short by most standards, yet even this relatively brief length occasionally feels a bit slow and padded.
Certain scenes and events are exceptional on their own, but the castle as a whole never shakes the feeling of being videogame set pieces and puzzles strung together rather than a convincingly believable environment the way that ICO's cold labyrinth was. In particular, the far-fetched architecture and size of the interiors are too contrived to be anything but showcases specifically designed for the Prince's abilities. Ubisoft obviously wanted the Prince to tackle breathtaking maneuvers and thrilling tasks, but I believe a little more realism in crafting the levels would have made him seem even more heroic and larger than life when actually making use of his skills. As it stands, some peripheral locations could have been excised and the obvious nature of the settings more concealed to make disbelief easier to suspend.
In spite of these high-level issues I'm not particularly fond of, Ubisoft's release remains an exemplary achievement in many ways, and is without a doubt one of the finest games of its kind. The level of production has rarely been matched, and it contains a sense of style and spirit that cannot be denied—delicious frosting atop the cake of astounding aesthetics and virtuoso control mechanics. In short, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes Jordan Mechner's framework and amplifies it to the Nth degree for what can only be described as a joy to play.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.