With the writer’s strike still on, I’ve had more time to play games, and I just beat this game a few minutes ago. It got such great reviews that I’ve wanted to play it for a while. After finishing it, do I now wish I had a magic dagger that would let me rewind time to avoid ever playing it?
The camera is almost broken. They must have known, because they gave you three separate camera views to use at any time — but they’re all terrible. You have your normal right-analog-spin camera, a landscape camera, and first-person free-look. The landscape camera is often miles away, so you’re just a speck lost in the background. Yes, you can zoom, but it’s never the angle you want anyway. Free-look is often obstructed, so you just have to deal with the standard camera most of the time. It’s the absolute worst during combat, where you probably need it the most. It gets stuck behind walls, and spins around for no reason at all. You’re fighting the camera as much as the enemies, and can never seem to get that perfect view.
Here’s the concept: you can block, vault over enemies, jump off walls, and so on. Certain enemies can only be killed using one method, and can block certain attacks but not others. When enemies are down, they’re not dead; you must suck the sand out of them or they’ll get back up again. So you learn which attacks to use on which enemies, and learn to use the “quick retrieve” — it’ll take the sand directly, so you can be sure they won’t get up again. That all sounds fine, and sometimes it all “clicks” and works reasonably well. But that’s not what it’s really like in practice.
The enemies will keep spawning (not infinitely, but they won’t wait for the first group to die), so you’ll often have eight enemies of different types around you at all times. If you unblock so you can attack, you’ll get hit by one of the other enemies. Try to back up so they’re all in front of you? Nope, the enemies will teleport behind you. You will almost always be surrounded, getting hit from all sides.
Wait, it gets better. There is a girl, Farah, “helping” you with her bow and arrows; but she’s terrible, and when she isn’t shooting you in the back, she’s getting hit by the one enemy near her. She has a small life bar, so you must protect her as well.
You have a counter-attack you can use, and it will usually come down to you holding block until an enemy attacks you, so you can try to counter it. Again, if the camera actually worked, this all might be bearable. As it stands, you feel like you’ve been violated.
There are too many enemies in each battle, so they last for an excruciatingly long time. If the battles were broken up into separate rooms of, say, ten enemies each, with checkpoints between rooms, it would also be much better.
The “Dagger of Time”
You can rewind time if you mess up. During the puzzles, that’s great, even if the reason you died was due to the poor camera. It’s also nice to have during combat, as you can rewind ten seconds, which is more than enough time. However, there is a huge glitch in this system. Certain moves will reset the timer! So you may be on the brink of death after a long battle, jump off a wall to hit someone, and get killed. You should be able to simply rewind and try that again, but the dagger timer has reset, so you have to start the whole battle over again! Or Farah will get killed, but now there’s no chance to save her. It sounds like I’m just whining here, but since the combat is so cheap in the first place, you rely on the dagger to save you.
I really enjoyed the environmental puzzles, which is what kept me playing. The castle is a bit reminiscent of ICO, one of my favorite games. Wall-running never gets old, and you generally have a good idea where you’re supposed to go. You get hints at every save point, showing you glimpses of the upcoming path. You’ll hit switches, swing on poles, and jump off walls to get to the next section. I don’t have much to say about it, but it actually makes up for the awful combat.
The combat is mostly reserved for specific rooms, but occasionally for no reason they’ll throw a swarm of bats on you while you’re shimmying across a ledge, which requires you to wait there and slash repeatedly until they’re destroyed. Thanks for that pointless task.
Later in the Game (no spoilers)
Later in the game you won’t have the dagger anymore, and a strange thing happens: the elements effectively switch places temporarily. Combat actually becomes more fun, because you won’t have to retrieve sand to kill enemies, and you’ll also have a stronger sword by that point, so it’s basically one-hit-kills. Now you can run around the room easily slicing enemies to bits, and it feels great, though it’s only because of how frustrating it was earlier.
Since the dagger is gone, you cannot rewind time, which makes the platforming/puzzles very annoying! The puzzles themselves are still as good as the rest, but one mistake and you have to start the whole section over again! There are some checkpoints, but many of the jumps are trial-and-error, which you can no longer afford.
Despite my hatred for the camera/combat, overall I guess I enjoyed the game. Luckily it’s only around 8 hours long, or I would have given up on it. If I had played it when it first came out, I probably would have been more forgiving. If you played The Sands of Time on release, you may have fond memories of it, and think I’m off the mark. I recommend you keep your memories and not ruin them by playing it again, as the combat is dreadful by today’s standards.
Although it doesn’t hold up very well after all these years, I think it’s worth playing, if only for the story and puzzles. Purists may scoff at this idea, but I’d recommend using cheat codes (invincibility?) if you can. Anything that will let you skip through the combat quickly will save you a couple hours of frustration. I know they changed a lot in the sequels, so I look forward to playing The Two Thrones (I’m skipping Warrior Within and its “baditude”).