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When we first found out about Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, it was impossible to not be skeptical. After closing out the Sands of Time trilogy and dropping wads of cash on a flashy new reboot for the franchise, publisher Ubisoft just suddenly decided that the character was too good to let go? And this decision just happened to coincide with the feature-film adaptation of the first game?
Above: Purely coincidental!
This had “bullshit tie-in” written all over it. Still, Ubisoft repeatedly assured us (and everyone else in the gaming press) that Forgotten Sands wouldn’t be a movie game, and that its release date was a coincidence, even though it’s hitting shelves exactly 10 days before the film’s release. Suspicious as these claims seemed, they were backed up by some slick gameplay demonstrations that gave us hope that Forgotten Sands wouldn’t be crap, even if its redesigned Prince sort of looks like what you’d get at the center of a Venn diagram made up of his old appearance, Jake Gyllenhaal and Eric Stoltz in Mask.
Now that the game is out, there’s one burning question to be answered: Did this turn out to be a worthy sequel to the Sands of Time franchise? Or is it just a vapid rush job?
The short answer to both of those questions is “yes.” Forgotten Sands isn’t quite as meaty as previous games in the series, like The Sands of Time or even The Two Thrones. Where those games focused on exploration and treated their environments as giant puzzles, Forgotten Sands treats them like demanding obstacle courses; thanks to the liberal use of fixed camera angles and a very deliberate approach to level design, there’s usually very little doubt as to which path you’re supposed to take.
Even the solutions to the big, open puzzle rooms will quickly become obvious once you’ve found the critical first handhold. The challenge, then, comes not from figuring out where you’re supposed to go, but from carefully timing each move through the obstacles ahead of you, whether they’re a series of wall-mounted buzzsaws or a chain of objects that require magic to become useful (more on that later).
Above: That’s not always true, though; the massive Astrolabe is one hell of a platform puzzle
On the other hand, holy Christ is Forgotten Sands fun. It might not have the depth of its predecessors, but it takes everything that was good about them and streamlines it into an adventure that rarely slows down and never really gets frustrating. Your path might be clear and linear most of the time, but it’s a blast to traverse, and taking out most of the guesswork means you’re free to blindly chain together acrobatic moves so quickly, it’s impossible not to feel like a badass when you nail them all.
That said, it’s important to stress that you’re not just randomly pushing buttons to make the silly man do the cool things. Unlike the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which boiled almost every action down to a single button press, Forgotten Sands brings back some of the sense of control that made the Sands games fun – which is to say that A) you have to hold down the right trigger to run across walls again, and B) you can once again reverse time whenever you’ve missed a jump or otherwise made a stupid mistake.
Above: It’s hard to tell without seeing it in motion, but this is what rewinding time looks like
Forgotten Sands also fixes one of the biggest irritations from previous games in the series: jumping while hanging from a ledge. In the Sands trilogy, hang-jumping enabled players to jump straight up, sideways across a vertical gap or straight backwards, which frequently resulted in rewinds and/or deaths if you messed it up. This time around, hitting jump only ever results in a direct 180-degree leap away from the ledge you’re hanging on, while scrambling up or sideways are now handled by the wall-run. It takes a little getting used to, but it means a lot fewer cheap deaths.
That just leaves one other longstanding problem from the Sands of Time series: the combat. While the 2008 reboot addressed this by turning fights into elaborate, combo-heavy duels against single opponents, Forgotten Sands takes the opposite approach and pits you against mobs of sand zombies. Not only does this work surprisingly well, but it introduces a whole new dynamic to the fighting: crowd control.
The zombies will continually try to surround you (which, to be fair, puts them all within easy button-mash striking distance), but in addition to slashing away wildly at them, you can jump onto their shoulders and hop across them to safety, or just roll out of their way. It’s not quite God of War, but it’s surprisingly fun for a series in which combat was too often a chore.
Zombie grunts aren’t your only enemies, either; as you progress through the game, you’ll run afoul of shield-bearing creatures (who have to be stunned with a kick before you slash them), sand wizards who can summon more zombies until you kill them, beefier zombies (who we’re going to guess are called “brutes”) and huge, charging behemoths that can only be hurt by charged power slashes after they’ve crashed headfirst into walls.
Above: Or, failing that, into each other
Every once in a while, you’ll even face down against some super-tough giant with a big sword and an arsenal of knockdown moves. While these fights are visually impressive, winning them rarely takes more than knowing when to roll away, and when to persistently hack at their ankles until they drop to their knees, stunned, and leave themselves open for a finishing aerial slash.
Above: Even main villain Ratash is kind of a pushover – until he starts throwing knockdown fireballs while you’re trying to climb, that is
Part of what makes combat enjoyable is that, as you earn experience, you’ll be able to unlock and improve magic-based moves that enable the Prince to blast out waves of ice, leave a fiery trail that burns anything that touches it, summon a set of stone armor when his health gets low and – most useful of all – slam the ground to create a whirlwind that knocks enemies down at first, but eventually gets powerful enough to just disintegrate them.
Combat powers aren’t the only special abilities the Prince has up his sleeve; as the game unfolds, he’ll also unlock the ability to temporarily freeze jets of water, turning them into poles he can climb or horizontal bars he can swing from. Here’s a look at how it works (along with a quick demonstration of powered-up combat):
Later in the game, the Prince will also be able to air-dash at distant enemies to reach the platforms they’re standing on, and late in the game will even have to “recall” missing chunks of ruins (which appear as shiny outlines) so that he can use them to get where he’s going. The game’s absolute best puzzles force you to use all these abilities in rapid succession, something that – again, when you pull it off just right – looks amazing.
Story and character have always been vital parts of the Prince of Persia series, so we should probably take this opportunity to say why the Prince gets all these cool powers, and why he’s fighting sand zombies again. An interquel set between the events of Sands of Time and its maligned sequel, Warrior Within, Forgotten Sands begins with the Prince traveling to see his older brother, Malik, only to find that Malik and his palace are being invaded by some unidentified army.
Above: Not much of a family resemblance, really
To fend off the invaders, Malik awakens the ancient Army of Solomon sealed away beneath the fortress, which turns out to be a cursed, disease-like plague of zombies that multiply whenever they touch sand. The Prince and Malik – protected by a magical pair of amulets – then have to work to contain and ultimately destroy the menace.
Since the Prince and Malik spend most of the game separated, however, the Prince has to rely on a second ally for help: Razia, the centuries-old queen of the Djinn, whose pocket dimension the Prince stumbles across while seeking refuge from the zombies, and who lends the Prince some of her powers.
By Prince of Persia standards, the story is light, predictable popcorn fare – quick, entertaining and ultimately kind of forgettable. But at least the four major characters – the Prince, Malik, Razia and Ifrit villain Ratash – are well-realized and interesting. Malik, introduced as a masked badass, is surprisingly likable (kind of like an older, tougher version of the Prince, actually), and while Razia starts off detached and cold, she gets pretty endearing by the end. Ratash, meanwhile, just shows up periodically to howl gibberish, but he’s at least fun to fight.
Of course, the real standout is always going to be the Prince, since we spend the most time with him, and actor Yuri Lowenthal – who voiced him in Sands and the underrated threequel Two Thrones – does a good job recreating his old charm, complete with all the introspective, insecure moments when the Prince starts talking to himself during gameplay.
So ultimately, this isn’t a cheap movie game, but it’s what a tie-in game should be: 10-12 polished hours of fast-paced, mildly challenging fun with high production values. It even recaptures some of the charm that made the Sands of Time trilogy great, and its puzzles, while more linear than ever, are also some of the best the series has produced so far.
Oh, but watch out for this glitch. We didn’t run into it while we played, but we don’t want anyone else to, either.
Prince of Persia (2008)? Yes and no. As fun as Forgotten Sands is, it lacks the 2008 PoP’s wild inventiveness, vivid level design and open-world exploration, and ultimately the reboot just feels like a bigger game with more cool things to see and do. On the other hand, if you were pining for more time with the “original” Prince and thought Elika was a poor alternative to time-rewinding powers, Forgotten Sands will be more your speed.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within? Yes, if only because there’s no Godsmack on the soundtrack. Forgotten Sands might not be everything fans were hoping for, but it’s at least a better, more lighthearted sequel to Sands of Time than this brooding, ridiculous nightmare was.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? Yes and no. Gameplay-wise, Forgotten Sands is a much tighter, more fluid experience, and the current-gen production values certainly don’t hurt. But the original Sands has a charm that’s extremely difficult to top; this was the game that not only introduced us to the Prince, but that told a surprisingly powerful tale about growing up, taking responsibility and, ultimately, denying yourself the thing you want most because it’s the right thing to do. And while we like seeing more of that Prince, instead of Broody McGrowlerson up there, it’d be a damned impressive sequel that could top the original – and this isn’t it.
Lighter, more focused and ultimately more linear than its predecessors, Forgotten Sands never quite feels like a “real” Prince of Persia game, but its popcorn plot and slickly designed, trap-filled environments make it wildly enjoyable anyway.
May 18, 2010