It’s difficult to say whether the release of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is a response to middling reaction to 2008’s Prince of Persia, or to the imminent release of the film—the truth probably exists somewhere in between. The 2008 series entry was a confused affair; more fun to watch than it was to play, the game featured a unique art style, an intriguing universe and a couple of fun characters, but little actual game. Playing like one massive, unfolding quicktime event , little challenge was offered except to those rabid completionists looking to reach every dubiously placed orb.
The Forgotten Sands fixes many of its predecessor’s mistakes, though I wonder if it was by conscious decision, or merely adherence to the conventions of the previous Sands of Time trilogy. Fans of that trilogy will find the game extremely familiar; all the old trappings are there: the Prince once again finds himself fighting an army of sand creatures, scaling questionably constructed palaces, evading ubiquitous traps, and saving himself from embarrassing falls with the power to reverse time. As someone who loved the Sands of Time games, it was immediately satisfying to sit down with these old conventions and play what, to my mind, constituted the first “real” Prince of Persia game since 2005’s Two Thrones.
The story is what you’d expect: shoe-horned in between the instalments of an existing trilogy, there is little room to do anything of note without compromising the established history, and accordingly the tale feels largely unnecessary. Still, it doesn’t offend: it provides acceptable impetus to move forward, and is capably executed by the standards of the genre, so as not to make you groan. Clearly, though, it is neither the main concern of the player nor the developer. Exceptional art design, a staple of the series, is well represented here: you’ll always have something cool to look at, and when things begin to seem a little stale, the game switches it up by dropping you in a beautifully designed underground city. Graphical execution is to standard, though you may question the odd modeling on the Prince’s face, who doesn’t look at all like his young self from The Sands of Time, his older self from Warrior Within, or entirely human.
As with every series entry to date, platforming and combat comprise the centerpieces of the game. Where Warrior Within and The Two Thrones featured an elaborate set of tools for dispatching your foes—a suite of aerial techniques and elaborate branching combos—combat in The Forgotten Sands immediately feels more pedestrian. The Prince’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground, with the exception of two aerial vault attacks, and the player is afforded but a single five-hit combo. Enemy variety is largely non-existent, so spice is added to the combat sequences by funnelling impressive numbers of enemies at the Prince at one time. New is the ability to literally jump from the shoulders of one enemy to another—more an amusement than anything, but occasionally useful for picking out more dangerous enemies capable of ranged attacks or summoning spells.
Combat is fun to play, and early in the game your limited options will not weight too heavily. However, as the numbers increase and your aerial maneuvers become less efficient for dealing with the horde, it becomes increasingly apparent that you can simply mash the attack button through most fights. As the game progresses you unlock a set of magical combat powers, but for the most part these powers provide buffs to your defense or offense, and do not change the shape of combat. You may find yourself favouring the Prince’s aerial attacks, merely because they feel more involved than hitting “X” over and over again. The game’s middle will feature the Prince moving from battle to battle, playing each largely unchanged, despite the constant progression offered by the games XP system.
It isn’t until the end of the game that the combat finds its way again; as the Prince’s basic attacks becoming ridiculously powerful, and his magic powers reach their peak, you’ll find yourself tearing through hordes of enemies, dispatching in seconds enemy types that, an hour before, you would have considered mini-bosses. At their final stage, the Prince’s combat powers finally distinguish themselves as more than mere buffs; for example, the final upgrade to the ice power sends a wave of spikes along the ground with each swing of the sword, damaging large swatches of enemies. Despite your still limited options, you’ll always enjoy a fight–but it’s here that combat becomes more than an amusing diversion to break up platforming sequences, and is a worthy gameplay avenue in its own right.
Platforming itself is where the game manages to outperform its predecessors and come into its own. Where previous Sands of Time-universe entries focused primarily on working out the Prince’s path—puzzles where you had to find where to jump next—and 2008’s Prince of Persia featured long, leisurely running sequences concerned more with flow than with challenge, The Forgotten Sands provides easily the most involved platforming from the series to date, concerning itself instead with the increasingly complex and challenging execution of the sequences.
The Prince is gradually granted a set of powers that afford him the ability to manipulate the environment; freezing water, conjuring terrain from thin air, and air-dashing to enemies from across gaps, using them as makeshift platforms. In addition to the usual familiar platforming elements from previous games, it’s the exceedingly clever application of these new powers that make the platforming in The Forgotten Sands exceptional. Becoming ever more demanding as the game progresses, these sequences require quick thinking and quicker movements; they keep the player on edge and are easily the most fun the game offers—which is a relief, as they constitute the bulk of the gameplay.
If there’s one area where The Forgotten Sands stumbles, it’s with boss encounters. Featuring only a single true boss character and a few mini-bosses, every battle takes one of two forms: you either dodge a charging enemy, or dodge the clumsy swings and stomps of a giant lumbering over your head. Neither challenging nor interesting, these encounters are already stale the first time you play them—their only saving grave is that they are few in number. Players may find they prefer the elaborate branching quicktime events that comprised every boss battle in the 2008 entry, but I found my preference was for the boss encounters in The Two Thrones. Despite their own reliance on the occasional quicktime event, boss battles in The Two Thrones were suitably varied, interesting, and always epic. The Forgotten Sands, on the other hand, does little but make the player wonder exactly who thought rolling between the legs of a giant and nipping at his heels with your sword for five minutes straight was a good idea. It’s 2010; surely we can do better than that.
As you approach the final battle, you may perceive that the game is attempting to atone for this failing: you find yourself in a chamber the game describes as “The Final Climb,” providing a lengthy and challenging platforming sequence. This perhaps constitutes the closest thing to a platforming “boss” that you could imagine. Following this, wielding now supercharged powers, the player pushes through an endless army of sand monsters and navigates a literal tornado of a platforming sequence, dashing between sections of flying rubble in a howling sandstorm. These are the best moments in the game, and they’re a thrill to play—but they inevitably deposit you before the final boss, who again will impress you with his sheer staleness. Yes, that’s right: it’s the classic scenario where the towering giant stands before your platform and pounds his fists and swings his hands at you. And you roll, and roll, and then you roll some more. Then you attack the shiny gem thing, but you probably guessed that part already.
Despite these flaws, if you forfeit your sixty dollars for The Forgotten Sands, you’ll get exactly what you paid for: a Prince of Persia game. This is more than was achieved with the 2008 attempt; fans of the series will find a much appreciated return to form, and new players will be met with exciting and well designed gameplay. Those who didn’t appreciate Sands of Time, or who have had their fill of that trilogy, will be left out in the cold: there isn’t enough new here to sufficiently distinguish the game from its predecessors for any such player.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Developer – Ubisoft Montreal
Developer – Ubisoft Singapore
Publisher – Ubisoft
System – PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows (Xbox 360 Reviewed)
Release Date – May 18, 2010
*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review