In the month of the first Prince of Persia feature film we also have a new Prince of Persia. This isn't your standard movie game nor your standard sequel. It's a successor to a fractured lineage, an often-enjoyabe product of a sandstorm of decisions that couldn't please everyone.
The Forgotten Sands is a swashbuckling adventure, a true Prince of Persia game dedicated to allowing the player to jump and twirl the Prince through a vertiginous jungle gym of traps and challenges. The game interrupts the acrobatics with frequent sword-battles pitting lone prince vs. monstrous hordes of sand-warriors. That's pretty much the plot: You in a complex temple up against a revived Solomon's army, may your brother not become drunk with the power of awakening them. Forgotten Sands is a narrative sibling to the beloved Prince of Persia Sands of Time series, a return to that series' style of play — but a hopscotch over the most recent and controversial 2008 Prince of Persia game. It is not an adaptation of the new Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince; it is the first movie-related game from Ubisoft since the game company's woeful Avatar games of last fall. It's the latest in a series that includes at least one game, 2003's Sands of Time, that is considered a classic.
From that twisted lineage comes a game that has, like the Prince, great heights to potentially climb and great depths down which to fall.
First-Class Level Design: The development of the Forgotten Sands overlapped with the creation of 2008's Prince of Persia. Both games, despite their different takes on the Prince, their different methods for handling game difficulty, and their different tones, allowed gamers the opportunity to experience top-flight nearly-physical platforming. You are a circus acrobat when you play these game. Prince of Persia adventures, like Mario and Sonic side-scrollers, are among the champions of the field for allowing a gamer to feel the joyful rush of a series of complex leaping. The new PoP game, at its best, has you sliding and jumping, scrambling with all your momentum into a run across a wall that overlooks a floorless chasm. From there you might jump to a tapestry and slide down it into a swordfight. Or you might hope to a bird and then leap from the animal toward a frozen column of water, then somersault to a pillar, swing around and encounter the next series of steps to navigate. Unlike an Assassin's Creed game, the new Prince of Persia gives the player little choice about how they may free-run their environment. The designers of the Forgotten Sands have a way they want you to go through the level. You'll figure it out after a few failures — like the Sands of Time and its successors, you can rewind your bad jumps and try again — and you'll have a delightful time doing things the "right" way.
It's Not That Much Harder Than The Last One: People I disagree with hated the supposed inability to die in the previous Prince of Persia. In the 2008 adventure, your princess friend reached out her hand and saved you from bad jumps. In this game, you can jump all you want and die all you want trying. The return of possible death, however, doesn't make the new game that much more difficult, because proper players of the '08 PoP understood that the essence of success was nailing a perfect run. The same thing is true here, where the real increase in challenge is in the introduction of special powers that you will need to activate often while in mid-air during a jump, in order to get through a level. That makes the new game tougher in an interesting fast-fingers kind of way, while showing that Elika from the 2008 title was not truly the element making that game an "easy" franchise installment.
Freezing Water: The main gameplay twist in Forgotten Sands is the ability to turn sprays of water solid. This makes the ejections from fountains turn into monkey bars to which you can jump and poles up which you can climb. You gain this ability early in the game and soon learn that it is the designers' favorite device. Imagine facing two successive columns of water. You'll have to freeze them and jump to them. But they spray out in alternating spurts. So as you freeze the first and jump to it, the second one is not spraying. Only when you jump and unfreeze the first does the second spray out, forcing you to then commit a re-freeze while you are in mid-air. And that's just the basics. It gets tricky, and your water-freezing powers last only a few seconds. That's what makes some of the level design devilish, in a good way.
Crunchy Combat: Combat was never great in Prince of Persia games, and it's not so hot in the Forgotten Sands. It is simple, just a matter of using your sword and some magic to crack through an army of sand-soldiers. Sometimes you need to kick a shield down to get past a guy's guard; sometimes you need to move out of the way of a rush before chopping at a guy's legs. Nothing fancy. What's nice, though, is the amount of enemies the game throws on screen, giving you the opportunity to be an unrepentant bull in a china shop, smashing through the bad guys with reckless abandon. Between bouts of precise platform-jumping this is a welcome and comparatively hard-to-fail release.
Surprising Art: Start playing The Forgotten Sands and you may feel you've been stuck in a game that is as brown as the first Gears of War was gray. But Ubisoft's artists unfold subtle beauty as the Prince's adventures take him to new places in his palace that shift the dominant color in the palette to red, green and, at its most lovely, blue. Carpets, tiled floors and the gritty walls past which the prince often runs look as good as the traps that befoul him look painful and daunting. Few games look better as they go along. This one does.
A Lonely Comedown: Beyond the original Jordan Mechner side-scrolling Prince of Persia, the series to which Forgotten Sands belongs had developed into an exercise not just in quality gameplay but in the rare, successful integration of emotion and character into what, for all intents and purposes, might as well just be summer-action-move fodder. In 2003, Sands of Time charmed gamers not just because of its gameplay but because of the romance that developed between the Prince and Farah, a woman with whom he managed to flirt — and she with him — while flipping his body through a cavernous library and other challenging locations. In 2008, the Prince of Persia re-boot gave gamers a more irritable Prince, one less loved by many but one who again had an entire game's duration with which to develop a relationship with Elika, the mysterious lady who spent the adventure near him. The Forgotten Sands has none of that romance, making our Prince jump solo for much of the game and encasing his adventure in a less interesting dynamic of brothers at odds. The Prince and his possibly power-mad brother cross paths briefly and never in a way that adds magic to the gameplay or originality to the script. Whichever Prince of Persia game may have charmed you in the past, the new one will charm you less.
The Wrong Kind Of Levels: The Forgotten Sands allows players to upgrade their hero's abilities and health by cashing in experience points earned after killing enemies. You spend these points on a branching path of improvements. Some improvements grant the Prince enchantments, such as a freezing power to his sword. There are, unfortunately, too few upgrade options to make the player's choices interesting yet too many to prevent the upgrade opportunities from killing the momentum of the game. With a series like Prince of Persia that flows best when it pours, anything that requires management within a menu makes it chug. Leveling up an unnecessary interruption.
Light Extras: If you are going to include a wave-of-enemies bonus mode that is unlocked after you finish the game, make it last longer to play through than the six and a half minutes it took this reviewer on the first try.
Bad Saves: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is a short game, maybe six hours, but that's no reason to give a gamer only one save file, one that is only updated when the game (frequently) auto-saves. When a game does this it prevents the player from easily going back and re-experiencing a section they liked. And heaven forbid the game glitches — more about that at the bottom of the post — then the player may have to re-start their adventure from the beginning.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is an odd mix. In its gameplay it is more complex and tougher than its predecessor, but also thankfully still clever in its acrobat-ready designs. As a tightly-designed platformer it is upper-echelon in a modern era where only new Mario games are in the running to surpass it. As a narrative game, it is a collapse of the emotional potential of its predecessors, a more stiffly portrayed exploit that perhaps-not-coincidentally demonstrates action-move shallowness among its characters and worlds. This is a game with fun and beauty but not dashing charm. The Prince of Persia's high standards are best met when all three are achieved. This game falls short of that, a brief pleasure and a reminder of why some earlier Princes of Persia are milestone achievements in video game development.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands was developed and published by Ubisoft for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, DS and PSP on May 18 (Reviewed here on the Xbox 360). Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the game almost completely twice due to a late game glitch that forced a full-restart. Watch these videos for more on that glitch and how to avoid it.