Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
The Forgotten Sands brings back the power to turn back the clock
- Friendlier tone, best climbing puzzles in the series, fun combat against plentiful opponents, easy on the eyes
- Some aggravating trap sequences, occasional minor control issues, most battles are remarkably easy
A stellar return to form for one of the biggest names in action/adventure gaming, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands serves as the best series instalment since 2003's The Sands of Time.
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I've enjoyed all of the Prince of Persia titles that have been released thus far, but I feel like the series has been slipping down a slippery slope since 2003's imaginative reboot, The Sands of Time. Ubisoft took a big step backwards with Warrior Within, a combat heavy title that was unnecessarily "extreme," partly righted the ship with The Two Thrones only to dig the hole deeper with 2008's self-titled reboot.
Luckily for us, the Prince went through at least one harrowing ordeal during the seven years between the end of Sands of Time and the beginning of Warrior Within, and this serves as the basis for The Forgotten Sands. This might make the title sound like a "Lost Levels"-style expansion pack, but it's actually a complete tale in its own right. The Prince is all set to train to become a great leader, but instead the supernatural power of the Sands of Time is set loose upon the Earth once more.
The first and best thing I noticed about The Forgotten Sands is it brings back the power to turn back the clock, something the titular Prince of Persia reboot I mentioned above stole from you. I was so glad to see its return that I cheered out loud. Nailed by an enormous swinging axe, or shredded by a spinning spiked pole? Tap or hold the left bumper to erase and rewrite your recent history. You don't have complete control over when time starts flowing forward again, which can sometimes lead to a second round of rewinding, but the process is usually smooth enough to be satisfying.
The time shifting mechanic is such an integral part of the franchise that it was strange to see it omitted in the last title. Journeying backwards through time to undo a deadly mistake was not only an essential gameplay concept but an integral part of the overall series fiction. It not only gave you a fighting chance against the devious environmental puzzles but also reminded you, as well as the Prince, of the value of tenacity and perseverance. But when Elika, your omnipresent companion through Prince of Persia, swoops in to save you whenever you screw up, you feel as though you're under the unfailing protection of an interventionist god. It really robbed you of the danger and consequences inherent in the game's action, so it's great that Ubisoft chose to bring it back in The Forgotten Sands.
The combat system has also been completely reworked, ditching the one-on-one battles that devolved into stale and repetitive quick-time events in favour of big, crowded fights involving dozens of enemies. Undead skeleton warriors wave swords in your face, shield-bearing foes must be kicked to become vulnerable to sword swipes, and bull-like beasties knock aside everything in their paths like running backs fighting for a crucial first down.
The controls are simple, with one button controlling your blade, so combinations are limited to quick swipes and charged swings, but you gain experience from almost every foe you put down. As you earn skill points, you'll unlock cool elemental attacks that imbue your slashes with the power of fire and ice, cover your skin in stony protection, let you pound out a wave of windy destruction, and more. In truth, your enemies take so long to wind up every attack that combat only ever feels like a challenge when you face a new boss, but you will feel like a bad-ass as you carve through the angry mob. If you like, you can even take a break to farm experience points from Time Trial mode, in which you attempt to defeat 250 foes in under six-and-a-half minutes. The increasingly difficult waves of Enemy Tides mode lets you rake in piles of experience as well, but you have to finish the game first to unlock it.
Still, the most rewarding aspect of The Forgotten Sands lies in the free-running acrobatics that the Prince of Persia franchise helped popularise. Running along walls, clinging to columns, and swinging from conveniently placed poles is just as exhilarating and rewarding as it was in The Sands of Time. But don't think for one second that the game is just covering old ground: over the course of the game's seven hour adventure, you will gain access to powerful new abilities that open the door to awesome possibilities.
The most important of these gifts is dominion over water. Hold down the left trigger and, for a time, jets of water freeze into poles, spouts become solid columns, and flowing sheets crystallise into walls you can run up and jump between. Slowly but surely, the liquid puzzles become more difficult, and require ever more meticulous timing. You might dive through a sheet of water, hold down the left trigger in time to freeze its neighbour so you might run up and jump off it, and time your release so you can soar back through the first without cracking your head open. There are countless variations on this theme, and each is both subtly demanding and surprisingly fulfilling.
Late in the game you also earn the ability to call back into existence pieces of the environment that crumbled long ago, but you can only do so with one chunk of architecture at a time. That means you'll need to call one piece of the world into existence in mid-air just as you sail off a piece that's about to disappear. You'll also mercilessly harass flapping black vultures to traverse open spaces, and tap the B button to fly short distances if there's an enemy target nearby.
Each of these elements are given their fair share of time in the limelight, and every aspect is explored in great depth, but it's when they all mingle together toward at the waning moments of the game that the most magical moments arise. When you're done clawing your way up a wonderfully intricate vertical labyrinth of water jets, phantom platforms, environmental dangers, feathery flutterers, and plain old traditional masonry, you'll feel like you've really accomplished something. This is the video game equivalent of climbing Kilimanjaro, and yet, it remains accessible to all but the youngest audiences.
Of course, there are some annoyances and imperfections. Some handholds are virtually invisible, and thus require a leap of faith to ferret out. There are times when button presses don't register, and the Prince sometimes jumps out at a 45-degree angle to his death for no apparent reason. And let's face it, you're probably going to want to smack whoever designed a couple of the more irritating canned trap sequences, particularly when the spiked log swings really get going.
But none of these minor irritations comes close to diminishing the rich pleasure that defines so much of this bright and imaginative caper. The Forgotten Sands is more than just a return to form for a long-running franchise: it's also one of the most gratifying platforming epics to come along in ages.
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