Inside Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, the Debut Game for Ubisoft India Studios
Prince of Persia is rolling back the clock, again. Seventeen years on from the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Ubisoft has announced its first-ever full-fledged remake. And in a bit of unexpected news, it’s Ubisoft India Studios — the combined might of Ubisoft Pune and Ubisoft Mumbai — that is leading development on the remake. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake — as it’s officially known — is the very first title created by Ubisoft India Studios. It’s been made from the ground up with a new engine, re-recorded dialogue, and new camera angles.
More than 170 employees between Mumbai and Pune have spent over two years working on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, with its dash to the finish line falling under the COVID-19 cloud. Ubisoft’s India offices have been shut since March when the nationwide lockdown was announced, and the gaming giant provided work-from-home equipment and support to all of its employees, to help them complete the Prince of Persia remake, in what are the key months leading up to game’s release.
Ubisoft India Studios managing director Jean-Philippe Pieuchot claims it’s the culmination of the first end-to-end console production from India: “With this remake Ubisoft has pioneered AAA expertise in India. […] This milestone paves the road to the future of the Indian gaming industry.”
Why doesn’t it look great?
While Pieuchot is touting it as a AAA title, the first look at the game — be it trailer or screenshots — isn’t very promising, in terms of graphics. For a title that uses the same engine (AnvilNext 2.0) as Assassin’s Creed Origins, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake looks nothing like it. In fact, it looks something that belongs to the previous era. It’s a concern shared by other publications and many Prince of Persia fans on Twitter.
“You can be sure that the game will be top notch [upon release in] January 2021,” Ubisoft Mumbai and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake game director Pierre-Sylvain Gires told Gadgets 360. “You can be sure that the polish will be there.
“Yes, we are using Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Anvil engine, but that was just a base and we revealed a lot of things around this engine to actually suit Prince of Persia Sands of Time Remake. Not only the tech approach with the rewind features and all those things that needed to be reworked, but like the artistic direction is intended to be different than Assassin’s Creed Origins.
“We wanted the game to have a unique look that served the purpose of the game. The narration and storyline [in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time] is a fantasy. It’s something that is close to the [Middle Eastern folk tale collection] One Thousand and One Nights feeling. So, it is intentional to have a unique look that serves the purpose of the game, with a new lighting approach [and more] saturation of the colours to help the magic and the fantasy of the story to actually pop from the screen.”
Ubisoft Pune senior producer Annu Koul thinks the new Anvil engine allowed them to give a “modern twist” to Prince of Persia, but still stay “true to what our game was before.”
A white actor voicing a Middle Eastern prince
Speaking of staying true to the 2003 original, Yuri Lowenthal returns as the voice and motion-capture actor for the titular Prince. That’s a curious casting choice, especially in a year where there has been renewed outcry over white actors voicing non-white characters across the realms of entertainment. It’s affected The Simpsons, Family Guy, Netflix’s Big Mouth, and Apple TV+’s Central Park. Many shows and creators have even pledged to no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.
“It’s a very, very good question that you are asking me here,” Gires said. “And I can tell you that when we manage the casting for our characters […] we did pay a lot of attention to the origin of our actors. We are actually casting out of a very large panel, and […] and we actually try to get as authentic as possible.
“But regarding the prince, Yuri Lowenthal, […] he [was cast] as any other actor. He was shortlisted and selected because of his voice. And we did take a call all together, that since we wanted to play on the nostalgia [of the original] — I think Yuri’s voice also hasn’t aged — and he has such an energy and his character was like so much like the Prince, that we have to go with him.”
Additionally, Gires noted that the female lead character of Farah, an Indian princess, was being voiced by Supinder Wraich, a Canadian actress of Indian origin.
And during a presentation to journalists, Koul spoke about the local knowledge and cultural experience Ubisoft India Studios was able to bring to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake that starts in 9th-century India at a fictional Maharaja’s palace. She called it “an honour.”
Why Prince of Persia remake is an honour
Koul’s team at Ubisoft Pune took care of the more technical aspects, working on the game engine, rendering, camera, controls, combat, missions, and AI and data management. Ubisoft Mumbai handled the creative side of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, which involved the art (design, concept, level, technical and 3D art), animation, mo-cap, game and level design, FX, and UI.
It suited the team’s strengths. Ubisoft Pune was set up in 2008 primarily for quality control (QC). Even as it’s grown from 100 employees in 2009, 500 employees in 2016, and 1300+ in 2020, quality control remains its primary beat. 70 percent of its workforce does QC, with the remaining 30 percent devoted to production.
On the other hand, Ubisoft Mumbai — set up in 2018 to be dedicated to AAA titles — is entirely devoted to production, though it does have only a hundred employees right now. Ubisoft also has an R&D unit established at the IIT Bombay, one of the country’s top technical universities, with less than 30 people working on AI, data, and machine learning.
Pieuchot remarked that AAA game development isn’t an overnight venture. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake has been made possible because of Ubisoft’s investments over a decade ago.
When Ubisoft India Studios learnt it would get to work on Prince of Persia, the teams were elated. Gires said: “We’re all very excited and very, very happy to be able to work on this first remake from Ubisoft. As a franchise, Prince of Persia is beloved in the community, and for the studio in India as well. To be able to work on such a game is an honour.”
Koul added: “I’m sure, like us, you have grown up with this game. We have all grown up with this game, and for many team members, this game has shown them that there can be a career in a gaming industry. So, the game which has given us a career, it was always an honour to work on that game, and to showcase that game to the world now.”
Rewind the clock
Released in late 2003 first for the Game Boy Advance, followed quickly by PS2, Xbox, Windows, and a version for mobiles, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is noted as one of the greatest video games of all time. It follows the titular Prince, the son of Sharaman and heir to a Persian kingdom, as he discovers an hourglass and a dagger as his father sacks a Maharaja’s city. The Maharaja’s only daughter, Farah, is kidnapped as a gift for the Sultan of Azad.
When they arrive in Azad, the Prince’s father presents the hourglass as a gift to the Sultan, but a Vizier tricks the Prince and has him stab the hourglass with the dagger, releasing the Sands of Time contained within. They transform the citizens into savage monsters and the Prince must then work with Farah to undo the damage. The dagger allows players to rewind time, kill, and freeze enemies.
Now, over 17 years on, you can do all of it again. Koul noted that this is “a remake, not a remaster nor a reboot. We wanted to give players the opportunity to experience this game again, or for the very first time but with a modern twist.”
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake will be available January 21, 2021 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Though the game won’t have a proper launch on PS5 and the Xbox Series family, it will still run on next-gen consoles thanks to backward compatibility, Koul assured us. It will cost €40 (about Rs. 3,500) across platforms.