Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Nintendo DS, Wii, PSP
Brilliant acrobatics go a surprisingly long way
As the fifth entry in Ubisoft’s long-running Prince of Persia series, The Forgotten Sands marks a clear spiritual return to the franchise’s first chapter, 2003’s The Sands of Time. Gone is the gritty aesthetic of the series’ middle entries, as well as any vestige of 2008’s beautifully rendered but overly simplified next-gen reboot. By reincorporating The Sands of Time’s pacing, control scheme, level design and princely voice-actor Yuri Lowenthal, The Forgotten Sands feels like a deliberate return to form.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He is editor of the gaming site Gamer Melodico and writes about music, games and culture for a number of publications. He can be found on Twitter @kirkhamilton.
In fact, due to its strong association with both The Sands of Time and that game’s recently released film adaptation, The Forgotten Sands is a bit difficult to judge on its own merits. Here is a game plays like a classic Prince adventure but feels equal parts nostalgia trip and movie tie-in.
Until its visually cool but mechanically dull finale, The Forgotten Sands follows a very strict design template. With each new level, players must first navigate two or three narrow hallways filled with traps before moving on to a larger area for some acrobatic platforming and occasional swordplay. All three gameplay elements—trap-dodging, platforming and combat—are strictly demarcated. Players will never find themselves evading traps in an open space or fighting enemies while leaping from ledge to ledge.
It’s a good thing that the bulk of The Forgotten Sands is spent platforming, for it is during these bits that the game is at its joyfully rhythmic best. As he navigates each of the (inexplicably immaculate) jungle gyms that fill his brother’s castle, the Prince flips, swings and parkours along like the world’s most death-defying metronome. Jump, grip, flip; jump, grip flip… wall-run, jump, grab, wall-run, jump. The beat of the controller buttons feels as spontaneous and groovy as anything in Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
The platforming gets even better as the game progresses. In addition to a time-rewinding mechanic that greatly encourages experimentation, the Prince is periodically granted magical upgrades that allow him to manipulate his environment on the fly. By the game’s end, players will be breezing through a complex mélange of timed jumps, swings, teleports, momentum shifts, water-freezing, water-unfreezing and wall-running that is hypnotically, grin-inducingly cool.
It is therefore that much more of a drag that seven years after the release of The Sands of Time, Ubisoft’s designers still can’t quite get combat right. It seems at times as though the game is trying to do too many things at once—the Prince operates on a bit of a time-delay that gives the platforming segments an easy flow but leaves combat feeling sluggish and disjointed. Fortunately the dimwitted enemies can often be cleared out wholesale by spamming the overpowered area-of-attack spell, so with the exception of a handful of spectacularly unimaginative boss encounters, battles in The Forgotten Sands never last more than a minute or two. In other words, the best thing that can be said about the game’s combat is that it’s unbalanced enough to be brief.
The Forgotten Sands' story is equally disappointing. Ostensibly an interquel set after The Sands of Time and before its 2004 sequel The Warrior Within, The Forgotten Sands winds up feeling more like a downloadble expansion pack than a proper game, self-contained and ultimately inconsequential to the established trilogy. That said, the story doesn’t overreach or actively detract; its flatness only stands out in comparison to the unexpectedly affecting romance at the heart of The Sands of Time.
I hold out hope that at some point in the near future Ubisoft can take the best elements from each of their Prince games and finally create a cohesive, fully realized Prince of Persia. In the meantime, The Forgotten Sands is certainly a worthy entry to the canon, a gracefully grooving duet between momentum and gravity that only loses the beat when its feet touch the ground.