Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
The Prince has a weird looking face. There, I said it. He probably can't help it, though, and he's still more attractive than the average Joe even when he's having an off day. He's no stranger to bad days, of course, and after accidentally releasing (and eventually defeating) a malevolent evil force in Sands of Time our Prince decides to go and visit his brother Malik, who lives in another castle and just so happens to be releasing a malevolent evil force of his own. Here we go again.
Jan-Erik Sjovall, the game's Animation Director, is describing The Forgotten Sands as a sequel to Sands of Time set in the gap between the first game and Warrior Within. But, wait a second, he's also telling me that Assassin's Creed was a sequel to Sands of Time: it was what the original design team went off to do after striking gold with the Prince of Persia reboot in 2003. Good for them, I guess, but the modern Prince of Persia franchise has never quite recovered, which is a bit of a shame. It's nice to see them getting back on the saddle.
The schtick for Forgotten Sands is that the Prince has come over all Captain Planet, now controlling the four elements of the Earth alongside his usual repertoire of time-dodging tricks and dextrous acrobatics. He can cover himself in impenetrable rock armour, engulf enemies within the spinning vortex of his hefty tornado, block off enemies by leaving a trail of fire and turn nearby sources of water into deadly spikes.
The elements also return outside of combat sections to spice up the puzzles. Water pops back again to take its place as, by far, the key element: it's so important it gets its own dedicated button. One thing that worries me is that when the game's other elements start to feature into the acrobatics - this demo only featured water - they won't be nearly as central to the proceedings. There's no buttons left to map, for a start. We'll have to wait and see how it pans out.
At the moment it works like this: yanking down on the left trigger causes all bodies of water on the screen to immediately solidify, which is of vital importance as the all-important liquid, in its hardened form, now makes up a reasonable chunk of the game's columns and walls. Jump at a steam of water, hit the button to freeze it, and you can latch on and use it like any other column. The challenge comes from the fact you can't keep everything frozen indefinitely, as using the power depletes a meter, so many of the game's puzzles now involve you having to work out when to be pressing the freeze button and when to be giving it time to cool off and recharge.
It adds another layer of complexity to the recognisable Sands of Time formula: at the same time as playing with the water you'll often be levering the right trigger to run across and up walls and frequently tapping the A button to jump from surface to surface.
One puzzle had you turning a water wheel to redirect the sewer's twisting pipes, giving the Prince an opportunity to solidify the steams of water trickling down and make his way to the all-important pulleys and switches that, when all unlocked, opened up the room and allowed his exit. Another had him running across a series of waterfalls, forcing to keep the water running when needing to jump through and solid when he needed to use them as platforms to keep his momentum. Crafty.
Forgotten Sands clearly looks directly at Sands of Time for its inspiration. Upon entering a new area, for instance, the camera would pan out and momentarily hover around the area, loosely guiding your eyes across the path you'll need to be taking. Like in Sands of Time, basically.
It's certainly aware of its heritage. Your obligatory sexy female sidekick now comes in the form of Razia, a djinn with elemental powers who also happens to have an abode in a spectral dimension uncannily similar to the original's Fountain of Time. You get your new powers from there, too.
The real question, especially for anyone who played the cel-shaded Prince of Persia 2008, will probably be the following: is it hard? A bit. The demo took us across a prison, through some sewers and then into a bathhouse; these are the first levels of the game once it takes off the training wheels to guide players into the new mechanics, and they're definitely not a cakewalk. Ubisoft had been showing the game to journalists all day by the time I turned up for a go, and apparently not a single one had managed to do it without being beaten at least a few times.
A couple of the puzzles proved so difficult that Jan-Erik even swooped in to apologise. The camera wasn't in the right place in a few spots, he explained, which meant the players' - specifically mine - eyes were being lead astray from where they were supposed to be looking. That'll be fixed, I'm told: I didn't even notice it to begin with.
I found myself starting at the game over screen after running into the odd spike and tripping into the occasional abyss a fair few times. But that's how Prince of Persia is supposed to be, if you ask me, and I was always left wanting another crack at the whip. If anything these puzzles need to get far more nefarious over the course of the game to keep up the introduction's excellent momentum, and if the last level of a Prince of Persia isn't close to bringing a couple of tears to your eyes then it's not nearly hard enough.
Combat has been given the most serious rejig. You can now fight up to 50 enemies at once, although one well-placed tornado blast will see most of them away without much fuss - your enemies are only made out of sand, after all. Ubisoft want their confrontations to be snappy, engergic and dextrous, so they've done away with the block button and made the Prince's only form a defence a good offence.
Jumping over enemies, slicing them from the air and keeping your distance by a decent, well-placed kick to the torso is the order of the day. It certainly feels scrappier than Sands of Time's combat, which is definitely a good thing, and there's no messing about with QTE's either. It won't be going up against God of War III and Bayonetta in terms of straight-up brawling, but it strikes a nice balance between powerful attack moves and cautious crowd control.
50 enemies on-screen (though the average at this stage of the game seemed to be closer to about 10) also happens to be an awful lot, and with special summoning units that keep bolstering enemy forces until you've put your boot in their face the onus is definitely on dispatching hordes of enemies instead of faffing about with a series of intricate blocks and parries on just one opponent.
As a taster, these three levels do a good job of showing off a game that clearly understands where it comes from. It also seems to be aware of where it wants to be going, with a new combat system that integrates itself into the puzzles and acrobats in a manner far more palatable than Warrior Within and Two Thrones.
The most curious aspect of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is that it seems to have come out of nowhere - announced properly just a few months ago and almost immediately dismissed by cynics everywhere as a lousy tie-in for the upcoming movie. It's not: from these early levels it looks like a conscious, structured attempt to ramp up the difficulty and take the series back to its roots, which means there's a very real chance this could finally be the sequel we've been waiting for since 2003.