Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Review

posted 6/4/2010 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
The Prince of Persia has taken an interesting journey in the last handful of years. Critics look back fondly on 2003’s The Sands of Time for its combination of heartwarming storytelling, simple yet addictive combat and groundbreaking platforming. The sequel, Warrior Within, sold a lot better but its more mainstream approach of blood, sex and angst was perceived as an artistic betrayal of Sands’ elegant beauty, and its aggravating combat didn’t win any awards either. The cap to the trilogy, Two Thrones, made a glorious return to form by mixing Warrior Within’s combo fighting with a satisfying speed kill system, putting an emphasis back on platforming and wrapping up the story with one of the most satisfying conclusions in modern gaming.

Two Thrones pretty much shut the door on the Prince from Sands of Time, tying his serpentine story arc together beautifully. The 2008 Prince of Persia reboot met with a lukewarm reception, however, and with a Sands of Time movie hitting theatres this year, Ubisoft couldn’t resist revisiting the Sands trilogy. The result is Forgotten Sands, an interquel that takes place in the seven year gap between the first game and Warrior Within.


An undisclosed amount of time after the incident in Azad, the Prince is sent to his brother Malik’s kingdom to get some pointers on leadership. Upon arriving the Prince finds his brother’s paradisical city besieged by a neighboring army, and Malik hell-bent on unleashing an ancient horde of sand demons to turn the battle in his favor. After a combat and movement tutorial through the city the Prince catches up with Malik, but despite the Prince’s warnings (he’s obviously seen this kind of thing before), Malik unlocks the demon-filled vault. In short order the sand army rampages through the city, turning all humans into stone statues. Led by their satanic commander Ratash, the sand army quickly becomes the main enemy of the game.

This really isn’t a big departure for the series—sand demons were the main bad guys in all the previous games, but here the combat makes several changes. Instead of fighting a handful of enemies or just one in a focused duel, Forgotten Sands throws dozens of skeletal soldiers at you at once, sometimes upwards of fifty at a time. Being surrounded by slavering ghouls is rather thrilling at first, adding a touch-and-go element to the combat, but unfortunately the fighting quickly grows bland.


The single criticism that popped up in most Sands of Time reviews was aimed at its supposedly repetitive combat. True—there weren’t a lot of moves or sword techniques, and that’s why the cumbersome combos were the main emphasis in Warrior Within. Still, Sands at least added some nuance to the fighting with flashy aerial moves that combined the Prince’s free running with cold-steel death, or devilishly satisfying finishers that, when timed right, would suck impaled sand monsters straight into the Prince’s dagger.

In comparison, Forgotten Sands’ combat is banal. You’ll be mowing down crowds of enemies with straight button-mashing most of the time. There are a few acrobatic moves, notably the iconic attack where the prince vaults up and over an enemy and stabs him on the way down. You can also leap from enemy to enemy to cross a crowd, which is pretty cool, and kick into a large group to topple a dozen skeletons at once. That said, you can’t launch yourself off walls or do a spinning attack out of a vertical leap. You can unlock a few magical powers, based on the game’s “four elements” theme, like a crowd-scrambling whirlwind or waves of ice that fly off your sword. It’s just not as lively or frenetic as it should be, though, and I’d like to see the developers expand the idea in the future. Crowd combat could be really cool, especially if they put a few of the flashier aerial moves in or implemented a persistent version of Two Thrones’ speed kill system.

The boss combat doesn’t fare much better, and reminded me a lot of the repetitive fights from Warrior Within. As in that game you’ll face the same couple of mini-bosses over and over—charging bull-like monsters and a large sword-wielding behemoth that you defeat by attacking his legs. As you gain more XP and upgrade your abilities it’s cool to see these bruisers crumble under the enhanced power of the Prince’s blade and magical attacks. But these bosses repeat many, many times in the kind of combinations we saw in Warrior Within. The same strategy for the big mini-boss is even recycled for two of the main fights with Ratash.

The incidental gameplay aspects from the series have also seen some changes, for better and for worse. As I mentioned before you can now upgrade several aspects of the prince’s powers and combat by collecting XP from enemies and hidden sarcophagi. If you want more time-rewind tanks or a stronger sword, go for it—you can upgrade as soon as you have enough XP, and with so many demons to dice the upgrades come pretty quickly. I actually found the regular life bar and sword upgrades to be more useful than leveling up the elemental combat powers, but that’s just me.


On the other hand, I wasn’t too pleased with some stylistic changes. The prince refills health, restores power and gains experience through the beat-em-up staple, floating colored orbs that pop out of dead enemies and jars. In previous games you’d recharge with the ubiquitous magic sands, and replenish health by drinking water. Water is a constant theme in Persian architecture, with fountains and pools being mainstays, and Malik’s kingdom is built on an oasis so water is literally everywhere. I always liked how the series used the mystical aspects of water for literal life-giving, so Forgotten Sands’ adoption of something as uninspiring as floating red health orbs is pretty disappointing.

The story itself isn’t a let-down overall, but it certainly fits the term “side-story” to the letter. It’s always cool to meet new members of the Prince’s family, but Malik’s hubris and what ends up happening to him isn’t exactly a surprise. The Prince meets a Djinn named Razia, a kind of genie, early in the game and she’s the one who gives him time powers. She’s a suitable foil for the still-arrogant Prince, but she’s absent for most of the game so the witty banter from the first game or the creepy head-talking of the third are absent and much missed. The Prince is effectively portrayed once again by Yuri Lowenthal and it’s great to hear him reprise the role, but he just doesn’t get a lot to say. He wanders silently through most of the game, trying to catch up to his brother and taking orders from Razia.


It’s a real shame too, because even though we have the same Prince again, we don’t get his heart-tugging moments of guilt and awkward romance from Sands, his wrenching identity crisis and eventual resolve from Two Thrones, or even his single-minded rage from Warrior Within. That said the sense of inevitability is rather strong in this game. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the Prince spends much of the game trying to find an alternative solution to a bad situation, and ultimately must come to terms with the very difficult thing he has to do. I just wish we could’ve seen more of his transformation from headstrong, carefree youth into the haggard, desperate wanderer in Warrior Within. Forgotten Sands has a pretty isolated story, considering the intricate continuity of the Sands trilogy.

I hate to get so down on this game because it’s really not that bad. In most respects it just isn’t groundbreaking (or infamous) like the previous three were. However, Forgotten Sands does have a saving grace, and man it’s a doozie. This game offers the most intricate, elaborate and devious platforming of the whole series. Wall running, precision jumps, pole vaulting and every other aspect of the pitch-perfect acrobatic free-running returns in top form, with a few new additions that take it to a new level.

In Forgotten Sands the Prince’s powers are based on the four elements—wind, water, earth and fire—and the platforming is where this theme gets the most attention. Early on you gain the ability to freeze water in time, turning spouts, drains and waterfalls into solid icy poles, columns and walls. The kingdom’s water supply is timed so that you must leap off a solid spout, unfreeze the water just long enough for the next one to start flowing, and then re-freeze it just in time to grab on.

About two-thirds through the game Razia lets you see parts of the ruined city that long ago crumbled, and temporarily apparate them. The catch is that you can only recall one section at a time, so you’ll quickly be leaping off of one beam, returning it to the ether and summoning the next mid-jump. The third elemental power lets the Prince leap like the wind, as long as he has an enemy to leap into. This is obviously scripted when you have a solitary skeleton to dash to at the end of an elaborate platforming sequence, but the wind power gets more complex and fun once there are long sequences of floating sand birds to jump between.


You only end up using three elements in the platforming, with fire conspicuously absent, but considering how complicated these sequences are now, I can’t imagine how crazy they’d be if they implemented burning away plants or something of the sort. As it stands, the platforming in Forgotten Sands is the best in the series, offering a shirt-drenching level of challenge to even Prince of Persia veterans. There are rooms and set-pieces that demand extremely precise timing and the intervening trap-filled corridors are downright masochistic at times, but in the end it’s nothing short of brilliant.

As the Sands Trilogy Prince’s first outing in HD, Forgotten Sands is a decent, if not breathtaking transition. The early environments are a bit homogenous but the scenery gets livelier once you enter the lush gardens and royal chambers. I especially liked the stray coins the Prince’s feet kick up in the treasure room. Later on the ruined Djinn city changes things up with a distinctly African mythological feel, which is a nice change from the Arabian Nights flavor of the past games. The ever-present water is always gorgeous to behold, and the end sequence in a massive sand cyclone is a visual and platforming tour-de-force, even if the end boss isn’t much of a challenge.

The Prince himself has bulked up his spritely physique since the events of Sands of Time and he looks a good bit older, hinting that Forgotten Sands happens at least a couple years later. He wears the same leather armor and red sash from Warrior Within, and coincidentally it’s the same outfit he has in the new movie. I have a feeling they did as much as possible to make the Forgotten Sands Prince resemble Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal, even though the game and movie are plot-wise completely unrelated.

The sound design is high quality but not as distinctive as the rest of the series. Sands had an intoxicating blend of traditional Arabian music and indie rock, Warrior Within had grim n’ gritty metal with guest work by Godsmack and Two Thrones went full orchestral epic, but Forgotten Sands just doesn’t stand out in the music department. It’s not bad music by any stretch, but it just doesn’t “stick.” There isn’t a whole lot of voicework either, but Razia is convincingly otherworldly and Malik does a good turn as an overconfident charismatic king. Ratash isn’t that memorable as a villain, but the demonic Sanskrit they have him bellowing makes him feel like he’s straight from hell.


Forgotten Sands is shorter compared to its brethren, taking at most eight to ten hours to finish. There are some extra costumes to unlock through Ubisoft’s Uplay service and a combat endurance/time trial arena, but considering the combat isn’t that compelling to begin with, it isn’t something you’ll be coming back to often. Forgotten Sands will probably be the one I replay just for the platforming.

As a whole the game feels like an extensive expansion pack or an expert mode platforming course. The platforming clearly got the most attention, which is good considering it’s the defining aspect of the series, but the combat and story feel like incidental filler used to round out the package into a separate game. As a unified experience, Forgotten Sands holds together better and moves more cleanly than the plodding, repetitive Warrior Within. Still, at the end of the day Warrior Within advanced the story substantially and had a few great twists, while Forgotten Sands is predictable and mostly shut-off from the rest of the trilogy. I went in expecting it to bridge the gap between the first two games and it just didn’t do that.

If you play the Prince of Persia games for a satisfying multi-course banquet of combat, free-running and emotionally gripping story, Forgotten Sands might disappoint you. But if you’ve been missing the raw gameplay, then the perfect platforming on offer here demands at least one play-through.




* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

B
Forgotten Sands feels like a big expansion pack, and while the acrobatics are far and away the best in the series, the combat has a lot of unrealized potential and the story isn't that satisfying. This is one case where Prince of Persia fans will have a great experience and be disappointed at the same time, but rest assured--the brilliant platforming demands that you play this entry at least once.