Review: Prince of Persia – The Forgotten Sands (X360)

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When the Prince of Persia’s big screen debut arrived, many were expecting the inevitable game tie-in. Well, there was a game, but it didn’t tie into the movie as much as it rode on its marketing coattails. Instead, while it does have one or two ties to the film such as the Prince’s new duds, it followed its own sandy path as an old school reminder of where it had started from on consoles by going back to the basics.

You can ignore all of the previous games in the series since Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands conveniently does in all but gameplay. Not that you should ignore the other games – well, except for Warrior Within – but this story feels a lot more like a side trip. After the fourth Prince of Persia attempted its own reboot of the series, having this one come off in the same way would probably be one too many do-overs to believe in such a short time.

The Forgotten Sands starts off in the distant past with an invasion of the Prince’s homeland, one which he and his brother find impossible to stop. Facing inevitable defeat, the Prince’s brother – Malik – does the unthinkable by unleashing a secret so terrible that King Solomon himself had sealed it away a thousand years earlier. This ancient weapon quickly spirals out of control like the sandstorm of destruction that it is, summoning creatures born out of the desert that kill without question. Worse yet, Malik holds one half of the key that can put a stop to it along with his brother, the Prince, and the two become separated when things go terribly wrong. But catching up with Malik is only a small part of this story.

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Ubisoft’s versatile artists once again demonstrate their panache for imaginative backdrops detailed down to the belt buckles and cuneiform graffiti carved into the walls of ancient ruins. There’s no question that the world of Forgotten Sands could have been pulled from the dreams of Sheherazade with everything as fantastic and as impossibly titanic as they are here, all the better to allow the Prince to jump, vault, and swing his way through each one while avoiding death around every corner. And there will be death – lots of it – as the environment itself looks for ways to kill you.

Fortunately, the Prince eventually earns the power to reverse time and cheat the Reaper. Fans will immediately feel at home as they rewind themselves back to before they fell into that pit of spikes or were crushed by swinging axes the size of small cars. As long as the Prince has enough magic in his reserves, time is his ally. As long as there are vases to break open for health and magic, he’ll be good to go.

This time around, however, Forgotten Sands introduces a few interesting changes to the formula. Experience points can be earned in combat by killing monsters and then spent on a tree of upgrades that include health improvements, magic attacks, increasing the number of times the Prince can use his special powers, or make his sword even deadlier to foes. Hidden sarcophagi explode with bonus experience when discovered leaving something for the curious to challenge themselves in finding just in case they thought there wouldn’t be a reason to explore anymore.

Still, as useful as a lot of this might sound, it really isn’t outside of the core upgrades to his character like health and attack power. I largely ignored magic for most of the game and wasn’t worse for wear without it. There’s also a good reason for this and I’ll get into that later.

But the biggest change is the Prince’s new power over water which Forgotten Sands abuses to almost insane degrees of craziness providing plenty of challenge while at the same time making you think that you were playing Ikaruga. The Prince’s new power allows him to literally freeze water allowing him to use spouting streams and curtains as solid surfaces on which he can do his thing as long as it lasts.

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This starts off innocently enough – a few swings on a few streams here, jumping off of a waterfall to the next wall there – before ramping things up. Spouts eventually start spurting one at a time, requiring you to pick when and for how long to swing before leaping to the next one which may or may not agree with your freeze timing. Curtains of water can act as both obstacle and ally, and columns gushing from overhead may follow the same spurt schedule that their smaller spouting cousins do. Or maybe all of them will leaving only a long fall down as punishment for being off by a second.

All of this depends on how long you keep the left trigger pulled and how much power that Prince has which quickly replenishes when he’s not using it. It’s not enough, though, to keep the trigger pulled as some of the later gymnastics that the Prince will need to get through these challenges will also require you to juggle the trigger with everything else on the control pad.

The Prince of Persia series has always prided itself on puzzling the player on how to get through any one particular section without getting killed, often through a combination of turning levers and jumping along fortuitously placed flagstaffs and platforms. Forgotten Sands follows that design philosophy to a degree, but while the previous games did not emphasize as much reflexes as brain power, this does by adding an additional layer on top of the usual acrobatics.

It makes for exciting gameplay where the use of water is concerned, especially when you figure out the timing for a particularly brutal sequence, but the mechanics used within those sequences feel rough around the edges making the challenge feel particularly hard if only because of the feeling that you’re playing Guitar Hero with a control pad. The only time when this worked particularly well was when the Prince gained the power to ‘remember’ certain obstacles and aids into being by ‘summoning’ solid platforms, columns, and flagpoles out of thin air, all of which can only exist one at a time.

But perhaps the worst offender that pukes all over an otherwise challenging entry to the series was the forgettable combat.

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When Warrior Within came out after Sands of Time, everyone immediately picked up on how much more fighting there was in the game, something which had never really been a focus of the first one or of the series in general counting the ones on PCs. It’s as if the Prince became Rambo with a sword. That was alleviated in the third game, the Two Thrones, and stumbled over by the ‘reboot’, Prince of Persia. Ever since then, combat in the series has always felt as if Ubisoft had been trying to find some way to make it as appealing as the exploration and puzzle solving and never quite finding that middle ground to avoid insulting anyone.

Now we come to Forgotten Sands where it was apparently made so easy as to embarrass anyone that might complain about it, fans and newcomers alike. The Prince has the mightiest kick that I’ve ever seen in gaming as recently as what players were given in Might & Magic: Dark Messiah. With one blow, he can cause hordes of shambling sand skeletons to fall down like dominoes. With enough button mashing, he can lay waste to entire legions. Throw in some magic and it goes by just a bit faster making it the only reason to have magic attacks in the first place.

The game also doesn’t just throw in ‘a few’ monsters: it tosses lakes and then oceans of these willing members of the Cannon Fodder Society at the player to make sand castles with. The “boss fights” are almost as ridiculously simple as the regular fighting giving you the impression that combat was simply provided to break up the hard thinking – or the exasperation – that you might be otherwise experiencing from getting crushed, sliced, or in failing to time your jump through yet another curtain of water.

Longtime fans of the series might also have to deal with quite a bit of deja vu when they see familiar friends such as spinning blade columns, spiky floors, swinging axes, and everyone’s favorite: the spinning wall blade. Most of these feel as if they had been recycled from the previous titles, an almost “Who’s Who” of Prince of Persia styled traps in which the best configurations and confidence crushing sequences were picked out and then stuck into the proper slots for this game, though they look much better now in HD.

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The game is also short, as in can-be-finished-in-a-weekend kind of short. Or maybe even a single sitting if you’re that dedicated. The ending sequence is well worth the effort, however, with a fantastically harrowing chase to the climax even through the ending itself feels rushed. But when it’s all over, there’s really no reason to head back in. There aren’t even a lot of extras to look forward to on the disc that could have been unlocked, such as the remarkably strong soundtrack by Steve Jablonsky (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Gears of War).

The Forgotten Sands, then, will be as good or as bad as your memories will allow you to enjoy it. Old school fans that had been with the series since its reinvention with the Sands of Time should get a kick out of it as well as the new challenges it brings with the Prince’s new power over water.

Versatile voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, even returns to the role that he had played off and then on since the first game as the Prince and he makes as many side comments to himself throughout the entire story along with a new ‘partner’ later on. Though the banter won’t replace the work done with Two Thrones even Sands of Time, it’s a refreshing reminder of what the series has done well alongside the typically bombastic production values Ubisoft brings to many of its titles. It’s not a bad starting point for newcomers to get a taste of what the Prince of Persia series is like if they can’t get a hold of the older ones.

But nostalgia can only carry a game so far. Forgotten Sands’ shortcomings also make it hard to ignore the recycled feel of several of its puzzles, the throwaway combat that dominates most of the action, the thrifty ending, and the relatively short playing time with few extras to really show for your efforts. Though there is a challenge mode for fighting foes within an arena, there’s little else to keep you coming back for more.

It does tie into Ubisoft’s Uplay reward system so if you need some tokens to earn for it, I suppose this is as good a choice as any. But it is for where it falls short that makes Forgotten Sands a hard sell to anyone other than the most die hard fan of the series. It’s not the worst way that the Prince has spent his time. But he’s not at his best, either.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Ubisoft
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC / Wii / Nintendo DS / PSP (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: T for Teens