To a certain generation of players, Prince of Persia is among the greatest casualties of Ubisoft Montreal's open world ambitions. The series was built on a bedrock of puzzle-solving and precision platforming. Its rhythmic action felt performative, as if you were executing scenes of loosely-rehearsed choreography through a series of self-contained stages – each as exotic as they were deadly. There was nothing quite like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003 and there is absolutely nothing like it now, 17 long years later.
Perhaps that's why seeing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake made me feel as if Ubisoft had rewound time itself. It may look a little rough around the edges, but it's as if I've been pulled back to an era before Assassin's Creed ruled the genre, where attention to detail held as much prominence in the design as commodifying distractions does today. Assassin's Creed emerged, famously, as an idea for a sequel to The Sands of Time; it carried the same ethos and stretched them out across entire city blocks – in doing so, its edge was blunted. It lost the pervasive sense of challenge that flowed so effortlessly through Prince of Persia, and the thrill that accompanied defying death as grains of sand slipped through the hourglass at your command. In 2021, we'll be able to experience it all over again thanks to the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake.
Winding back the clock
"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake will be the first Ubisoft remake ever," says Pierre Sylvain-Gires, game director of the release scheduled for PC, PS4, and Xbox One on January 21, 2021. "There are so many players that wanted to play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time again. It's something that they have kept asking about for years, and so Ubisoft has listened to the fans."
This Prince of Persia: Sands of Time Remake has been in development for two years, from teams based out of Ubisoft Mumbai and Ubisoft Pune. While the original release was built on a modified version of the Beyond Good & Evil JADE engine, the remake will use the iteration of AnvilNext 2.0 that powered Assassin's Creed Origins in 2017. That's right, a Prince of Persia revival has only been made possible because of the franchise that ultimately sealed its fate. Funny how these things work out sometimes, isn't it?
Sylvain-Gires tells me that the team is making small changes to the story, adding in additional dialogue "that was in the original script but not present in the original game" but it is otherwise as you remember it to be. That's the narrative of this remake, it's rigid in that sense. The studios behind it have been able to "stick to the gameplay and the matrix of the original game", focusing their efforts on giving the camera and controls a much needed overhaul to be compatible with the expectations of a modern audience. That's where much of the time is going, as the development teams attempt to "improve and enhance the velocity of the Prince, as well as the control and responsiveness for the player".
That's what will ultimately make or break this remake – the way that it handles. While it's all too easy to be cynical, to believe that games have only made incremental advances since the early 2000's, the truth is adventure games have been hit hardest by time's relentless march forward. Go back to the 2003 original now, or even the divisive 2010 HD Remaster, and you'll find that The Sands of Time actively wrestles against your memory of it. The scale of the world seems off, the camera is wiry and unresponsive, the movement jittery and unpredictable. This is a remake designed to address these issues and do little else: it's purpose is to bring an iconic game back to relevance while keeping its foundational structure in one piece.
With the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, Sylvain-Gires says Ubisoft has worked hard to emphasise "the balance between the platforming with the combat and the puzzles". For those of you that weren't there for it the first time around, the game had a pioneering free-flow approach to melee combat – one that had influence beyond Assassin's Creed, seeping into everything from Batman: Arkham Asylum to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. While I haven't had a chance to play this remake for myself, it only took seeing the Dagger of Time in action – a mechanic in the game that lets you wind back time to correct mistakes made in navigating its punishing challenge rooms, as well as having application in combat – to get me excited to join the Prince and Farah in their adventure against the Vizier once again.
Return of the Prince
The father of the Prince, Jordan Mechner – the original creator of Prince of Persia in 1989 (a genre classic which can be unlocked and played in this remake), and a principal designer on the 2003 revival, The Sands of Time – was consulted during pre-production this time around, although he isn't the only returning voice of influence. Yuri Lowenthal is reprising his role as the Prince, something I discovered as I joined my interview session and found him reciting lines from the game to a clearly elated Sylvain-Gires. It's a cliche to claim that this is a remake being made by fans, for the fans, but it would appear that that's the case.
"I could tell that as soon as I showed up on set," begins Lowenthal, speaking to his working relationship with the game director. "I could tell they had chosen the right guy for this, because Pierre and the rest of the team are so in love with the original game. You know, I wasn't available for the first few days of rehearsal and, when I got there, everybody was like, 'Man, you better be good, because this guy loves the Prince; he is the Prince,'" Lowenthal laughs, explaining that Pierre had jumped right into rehearsals in his absence and done one hell of a job with it too. "And that just made me so happy, that he loved the game as much as I do."
These days, many of you reading might recognise Lowenthal as the voice Peter Parker in Insomniac's Spider-Man PS4 game. He's a veteran of the video game and animation industries, and one of those versatile actors who you'd have heard a hundred times without even realising it. But of all of the roles he's taken on over the years, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time holds a special place in his heart. "It was the first time that I had gotten to play a lead character in a video game," Lowenthal recalls, noting that he felt a pang of hesitation returning to it so many years later.
"Returning has been nerve-racking, because I know the original game is so beloved. I was afraid of messing it up somehow. But the character has been so close to my heart for so many years. Returning to it has been like rewinding time. I get to go back and try to do it even better; that's not only exciting, but unparalleled in my career. I've had a long career but I've never gotten to do this before – nobody does," says Lowenthal, acknowledging the fact that he was rotated in and out as the Prince fairly routinely in the games that followed The Sands of Time. "I was grateful that they didn't try to find somebody else."
The battle begins
I'm keen to see how well the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has stood the test of, well, time. I'm concerned that this remake isn't launching on PS5, Xbox Series S, or Xbox Series X (something Ubisoft was unwilling to address; I did ask) and that it doesn't appear, graphically, to be as crisp or visually vibrant as the other games coming from the publisher in 2020 and beyond.
Still, this was always a game that had more going for it than its presentation. It's all about its rhythm – its motion and its movement. It's something that's unique to The Sands of Time, and its core strengths as a puzzle-platforming experience. Retaining that for a modern audience has been a challenge for the team, albeit one it's been only too happy to take on. "It's my favourite game. I grew up with that game and I think it gave me the desire to work in the gaming industry. So you just have to take the challenge head on," says Sylvain-Gires, adding, "it's been an honour to work on The Sands of Time."
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time Remake will launch on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on January 21, 2021