REVIEWS -- Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands -- PC
Persia sure had a lot of Princes
by Lazare Gvimradze
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Rent
An unnecessary, but surprisingly immersive and fun-to-play addition to a once-great franchise quickly losing its charm.
The Prince of Persia franchise is an interestingly unique representative of the videogame industry. While other game series are famed along with all their sequels and spin-offs, the fantasy world created by Jordan Mechner more than 10 years ago is one of those rare cases where you can equally find outstanding products innovating and improving the platforming genre, as well as half-made insults of ridiculous quality -- a quite accurate statement considering all the changes our favorite saga has gone through.
The original game, along with its sequel, The Shadow and the Flame, quickly gained popularity as one the more successful 2D platformers with outstanding flow of gameplay, beautiful presentation, and an animation technique that can be boldly named the motion capture of that time. The series then went downhill as the 3D era caught up with the Prince and the developers decided to go the “let’s make everything just as awesome, only in 3D” way. The result, as with most other games employing the given method, was simply disastrous, so it was obvious that an offer to team up with Ubisoft for a second chance to return to former fame was a blessing the franchise couldn’t afford to pass up.
The complete reboot came in the form of The Sands of Time trilogy in 2003, where some level of development was once again conducted by Mechner. An utmost success on all fronts, the first game in the trilogy set new standards in multiple aspects, introducing an intricate combat system and a magnificent Arabian art design. The story had a completely new Prince, which could finally be classified as a “character,” along with all the positive and negative traits a great hero requires.
The continuation went a little weird in its wish to follow trilogy traditions, with Warrior Within (2004) taking a mighty 180 towards a darker story, where the Prince became a selfish fugitive hunted by the incarnation of fate, and, ultimately, sought his own salvation rather than accepting what he bought down on himself. While the story became a matter of extreme subjectivity, the gameplay was polished and upgraded to perfection, with clever platforming and an unprecedented freedom in combat continuing to push the series to glory. However, as fast as Ubisoft darkened the franchise, they decided to bring it back to a sunny finale. The illogical change in the hero’s motives, along with aging visuals and nothing really new in the mechanics doomed the final installment, The Two Thrones.
It was all chaos for a while since then. A few handheld spin-offs were poor attempts at building bridges between the three games, while slashers like God of War or Devil May Cry were starting to prove their point regarding the new definitive standards in the genre. It seemed that Ubisoft finally lost it, and not only their battle for resurrecting the Prince, but their temper as well. As a result, they announced a reboot, AGAIN.
The Prince of Persia obsession
The surprising confusion simply entitled “Prince of Persia” came out in 2008 and represented anything but what the title referred to: the main hero, a bit too witty and sarcastic even for a Persian, had nothing to do with royal blood, and simply turned out to be in the right time and place once caught up in a battle between the Gods of Zoroastrianism. While a bit cliché-heavy and predictable, the story had all the potential for great sequels, and the new gameplay with all the streamlined acrobatics and one-on-one duels did its job perfectly. I won’t even get started about the amazing artistic direction which gave a completely new definition to cel shading. The bottom line, the game was pretty solid as a yet another starting point, and surpassed quite a few of its predecessors in surprisingly many ways.
What Ubisoft didn’t like in their new baby, we’ll never know. Apparently nostalgia took its toll, and they decided to have a try at The Sands of Time trilogy again, instead of just moving on and sticking with the fairytale thing. Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands was announced as the next attempt at filling the seven-year gap between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within. While understandably intriguing as a concept, what we got had nothing to do with the trilogy at all, well, for the most part. There are no actual references to time manipulation or the Sands of Time in general, and no obvious connections to any other games in the trilogy are present (you’d think this would be a great way to introduce the Dahaka). The only thing we have back is the Prince.
And even he seems to be out of place in this new and shiny high-definition gaming that has surfaced since the last time he was around. I don’t know if it’s REALLY the polygon boost or just the developers experimenting with facial surgery, but the Prince looks strikingly different from his Sands of Time self, and, while understandable from a design point of view, it still seems suspiciously convenient when coupled with every other detail pulling the game further away from the trilogy.
But speculating is not what I aim for, sorry. As noted, the story takes place some time after the events of the first installment, with the Prince succeeding to undo the release of The Sands of Time. As the narrative informs us, our nameless hero then decides to acquire knowledge of leadership, and sets out to pay a visit to his elder brother, Malik, who was always an ideal for the Prince in his childhood. As he reaches the palace, however, he finds it under attack by an unknown enemy (more than a nod towards the opening of The Two Thrones), and quickly joins the battle. He soon catches up with Malik who informs him that the invaders are here, in fact, for King Solomon’s treasure, and that he has something special planned for them. Obviously, the plan involves nothing less than the release of something nasty, more specifically the infamous Solomon’s Army, the numbers of which are said to surpass the grains of sand in every desert. Eager to witness the spectacle, Malik ignores the Prince’s wise suggestions against doing something this reckless, and goes on with the plan.
As it is with plot twists, the plan backfires, as the army turns out to be under the influence of an Ifrit, a rebellious Djinn which had long ago planned to kill Solomon but was sealed within the palace by his brothers and sisters (good ones). As Malik uses an ancient seal to release the army and eventually the demon itself, every person in the palace is turned to sand as the monsters begin to overrun the place. The Prince and Malik survive under the protection of the seal, which incidentally splits in two parts, you know, so that the heroes could carry them separately. The pieces also grant super powers. No kidding.
Ultimately, the goal is to reunite the seals and return the army from where it came, but Malik’s power-hungry nature has other plans, as he begins to use the seal to gain the energy of those he defeats, succumbing to his greed in the process. Meanwhile, the Prince finds portals to another dimension where he meets up with an allied Djinn, Razia, who offers our hero guidance and advice on how to destroy the army, save his brother, and, finally, learn to face the choices of leadership.
It goes even weirder after the last bit, but as an excuse for letting you beat up fifty skeletons at once, the story can be called decent. Unfortunately though, numerous flaws regarding the general tone (which betrays the franchise entirely), little character development and no actual ties with the trilogy ruin much for die-hard fans, and create a completely wrong vision of a once-great series to newcomers. The only upside I saw was the Prince’s newly found sense of humor. He actually had to joke about constantly being directed by women, or, what’s more, finally acknowledged his ridiculous luck regarding traps. So that’s SOME credit to the writers.
But since there’s no overuse of irritatingly informative cutscenes, one can ignore the Prince’s nostalgia of his time with Farah and concentrate on more immediate matters, like some returning gameplay mechanics and a new combat system. The basics are simple. The intricate levels are fairly straightforward and mainly consist of rooms which need to be cleared from hordes of evil skeletons (which isn’t cliché at all...) and spacious areas calling for our acrobatic abilities. The Prince had never had problems with that particular aspect -- he still seems unnervingly comfortable breaking half a dozen physics laws per second, and in the wackiest of ways -- whether it’s running along walls only to push away and grab a pole, or freezing a stream of water and using THAT as a pole instead. Failing that, he can always rewind time and repeat the pattern all over again, you know, just for the hell of it. And that wasn’t even exaggerated sarcasm or anything -- it’s the actual standard formula for just one of the many acrobatic means to travel in The Forgotten Sands.
Ormazd be blessed, the platforming can actually be called an upgrade and improvement as opposed to the previous games. There are some obvious rip-offs from other franchises, like brick-climbing or stab-jumping from vulture-to-vulture -- but it works, and that’s more than most games can boast about. The navigation is less streamlined than in PoP 2008, but requires much more precision as you are constantly forced to freeze/unfreeze water streams on the fly (literally) and make split-second decisions in some neatly scripted events. The overall Parkour is a bit slower, implying at an aim for realism, but there are fewer pauses during navigation and the whole thing feels more fluent than ever.
You’ve never seen skeletons fights like this
The level design also benefits from the unexpected strong point of the game. The acrobatic sequences become more and more complicated but never TOO much for you to handle (remember how you’d miss that last pole in a row of fifteen, and Elika would pull you out and make you start all over? Yep, that’s gone), always throwing variation with traps suddenly springing to life under your feet or entire walls being decimated by an angry Ifrit shouting Persian curses at you. It’s all mixed together with just enough creativity and difficulty to make you feel smart without ending up with sore thumbs. The same goes for much fewer, but literally grander, puzzles, which never confuse your brains completely, only requiring recognition of a certain pattern of actions, after which we just turn levers and watch as the funny machines open gates and stuff. Seriously though, if someone out there still counts the Prince as a pure platformer at its roots, The Forgotten Sands might just have something in store for them.
As for everyone else, we expected a comeback at a slightly different front: the combat. We needed to have that drive back, especially after the serene duels of 2008’s Prince of Persia got chuckles from every respectful third-person slasher. And while most people won’t agree, Ubisoft managed to pull this one off as well, albeit at different terms than most expected them to.
While the combat is the largest matter of skepticism the game receives, I found it the closest one can get to a working system allowing to fight fifty enemies at once. Because there WILL be fifty enemies, and maybe some more swarming the Prince all at once and not bothering to wait in turns to strike. While intriguing, these situations require less button-mashing than you’d think, as different enemy types require different approaches, and there are always some pleasant individuals working hard at resurrecting their fallen comrades. All this implies at tactics, and tactics imply at a little bit of RPG.
Rest assured, no real RPG elements are present apart from a simple experience-based upgrade tree which allows for some handy purchases, like increasing the damage from your basic attacks or acquiring some neat elemental powers (you know, epic ground pounds, temporary armor boosts, all that). In other words, upgrades are the only things that keep the diversity in combat running, since the only REAL tactic to victory is to cause as much chaos as possible. Basic/charged attacks rarely do more than just fend surrounding foes at a safer distance, so you’ll have to actively kick and jump on everyone you see, and when enough power orbs drop out of their lifeless corpses, you can start changing tides. Powerful magic attacks devastate dozens of foes at once, and lots of context-based finishers add up to an impressive array of moves at your disposal.
There is a slight “but” regarding visual customization, however -- the upgrade system erased the need for differing weapons, and Ubisoft didn’t hesitate to comply. Truly, if there’s one thing that the game inherited from its 2008 predecessor, it’s that you practically fight with the same rusty old sword through the whole storyline, and there is no dual-blade combat system implemented whatsoever. By the way, another trait from the previous installment is that you can change your appearance via switching between a few skins, some unlockable by either connecting to Uplay, others by pre-ordering the game. I mean, it’s more hilarious than ridiculous when an Italian Assassin takes on Solomon’s Army, right? Right...?
Apologies, back to the combat -- wrapping it up. While the fighting system sounds complex and hard to pull off, it really isn’t. Every power automatically maps to a quick slot, and the blade combat alone hardly requires more than two buttons at best. And this is not a bad thing at all, because while fighting looks monotone and repetitive, you only have to grab the gamepad yourself to see that it’s actually quite... smart, and has a different kind of depth to it, encouraging constant offense (there isn’t even a block available) and more than enough means to deliver it. If worst comes to worst, you can even headjump away from a tough fight (Ubisoft’s big hello to Capcom’s mall zombies). It’s a shame that the sole fighting strategy applies equally to every “boss” you encounter, as well; whether it’s a charging monster or a gigantic demon, all you need to do is frantically work the blade until you get a chance to trigger a finisher, mildly reminiscent of Speed-Kills from The Two Thrones.
All in all, with decent combat and some great improvements at platforming, The Forgotten Sands still caught a fatal flaw none of the prior games had: there are absolutely NO bright moments you can recall once you’ve finished the storyline, regardless of the aforementioned scripted events, gigantic bosses or freezing waterfalls. There is no charm in playing something only mildly different from what we’ve experienced five years ago. It all comes down to an unpleasant conclusion that The Forgotten Sands is a rushed, and a completely unnecessary addition to the franchise, almost as if Ubisoft was trying to calm hungry fans with whatever they could cook up fast enough. Sure, a more in-depth look at mechanics and the storyline may prove otherwise, but ultimately it’s always about the final impression, which it has little to offer -- a sad end, seeing that the potential was right there.
Art direction for the parkouring types
Regardless of the gameplay though, there can be little differing opinions regarding the presentation, or the visual aspects at the very least. Looking past the Prince’s face (and why do I always bring it up?), the transition to HD hit on the nail in The Sands of Time series. The Anvil (more commonly known as Scimitar) engine shows itself from a completely different angle as incredible scale -- both environmental and the one with fifty skeletons -- magically fuses with sharp models and that Arabian style we missed so much, all at a rock-solid framerate. And while the diversity the art direction offers seems a bit wasted, there’s always the standard set of Persian palaces, tranquil gardens and lots and lots of SAND, so if anything in the given list made you drift back to good old times, you’ll get more than your share of it.
As for the animations and everything branching out from there, it’s Prince of Persia at its fullest. The acrobatics are amazing, and technologies from Assassin’s Creed really benefit the fluid Parkour moves. There’s always a bit of a stagger regarding facial mimics and character interaction in general, but nothing that spoils the experience. Combat moves are reminiscent of the first installment in the trilogy, with greatly captured vault-overs and finishers sharply contrasting with their brutal consequences -- not necessarily an ode to choreography, but pretty damn close.
Moving on, we have the audio department. Well, to start, Yuri Lowenthal is back voicing the Prince -- not really the right move considering how far the series has progressed since his last appearance, but I guess it’s Ubisoft finally keeping the “back to the roots” promise. Besides, Lowenthal’s acting isn’t necessarily bad -- I mean the jokes are great and all -- but the writers definitely went a bit cliché-heavy with some dialogues, and other than the Prince, the few supporting characters are barely fleshed out, regardless of the actors trying their best to show otherwise. The same confusing verdict goes for the music. While generally thematic and true to the franchise, it is underused and, because of this, woefully forgettable. But somehow it doesn’t ruin the key point of presentation -- the atmosphere -- at all.
All the aforementioned flaws and assets at bringing a Persian adventure to life are definitely leaning towards success once put together, since the beautiful architecture and all those fairy-tale moments and mythical stuff still happen to suck you in, albeit for no more than eight hours at best, depending on the difficulty setting. Still, as a part of a series always offering unique insight in Persian mythologies and their interesting interpretations to gaming, Forgotten Sands delivers 100%, and then some.
Now to speak about something which might pull you OUT of the experience. The newly launched DRM requiring constant Internet connection is still here (hard to resist typing “triumphant return”), promoted as optimized but still being a royal pain in the side in case of net problems. I guess we should simply start to cope with Ubisoft’s desperate (and fruitless) fight with piracy, since the developer doesn’t appear to be displeased with their new copy protection system.
But you can say it’s tolerable since the game is excellently ported to Personal Computers -- visual cues, graphics options (there’s even a major low-res trigger for ancient rigs), a steady framerate and an easy keyboard/mouse layout along with full Xbox 360 gamepad support just in case -- it’s all there making the game feel right at home on a wide range of low-to-high end configurations. Unfortunately, some miscalculations in the engine often cause bugs like incorrect jump auto-directing or incredibly annoying camera glitches, with the view often clipping behind some wall or another. Not the brightest advantage, but at least the bugs occur as seldom as to not make you want to shut the game down.
The Forgotten Sands is, as noted, an absolutely unnecessary addition to the franchise in the literal sense, as it contributes almost nothing to the story vault of the series. The migration to HD was also a choice the reason for which can be hard to comprehend, since the 2008 Prince accomplished the same just fine, and at a grander scale overall. Still, with renewed mechanics and a strong combat system, the new PoP can prove to be quite fun to play for many of the nostalgic fans, and while offering little on memorable scenes or top-of-the-line gameplay elements, it’s still enjoyable while you’re at it. As far as we know, Ubisoft might just have the “real” continuation getting prepped up for the nearest future, and Forgotten Sands is definitely the best way to pass the time until then.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: June 8, 2010
Review Date: 21-07-2010
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: No
Beautiful art design and up-to-date technical aspects come coupled with a perfectly optimized code and a new level of scale from Ubisoft’s Scimitar engine.
Successful platforming and a unique combat system allow for hours of fun play, but ultimately fail at diversity.
Linked weakly with the previous games, Forgotten Sands offers a mediocre but atmospheric plot only long-time fans will appreciate.
Great acting and gleaming quality in the smallest of audio details are only slightly spoiled by the forgettable score.
A fun and fluid adventure, the game will captivate you until the end, unfortunately doing little to encourage a second playthrough.