Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
2008's Prince of Persia was a bold attempt by Ubisoft to reboot a franchise that was beginning to flounder with ever-darker instalments, moving from the bright and breezy swashbuckling Sands of Time to a more oppressive kingdom and a tortured prince in Warrior Within and Two Thrones.
And so, following the "not an experiment" that was Prince of Persia circa 2008, it's time to reboot the reboot with this well-timed lost (or forgotten, if you will) chapter that takes place between the events charted in Sands of Time and Warrior Within. Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands might be releasing to coincide with the forthcoming Bruckheimer-produced movie, but there are few similarities between Jake Gyllenhaal's movie prince and the videogame version.
This is a return to well-trodden ground, resurrecting the gameplay mechanics of Warrior Within et al almost wholesale, adding four elemental powers to the mix for good measure. Right off the bat though, this looks and feels like the PoP games of old, with acres of sandy browns and golden yellows, pale blues and earthy crimson. Wall running and vaulting between platforms, poles and precarious ledges is comforting in its familiarity, as is pushing and pulling levers to move dusty old mechanisms, jumping onto heavy stone pressure pads and dodging all manner of sadistic booby traps. Even the curtain slide makes a welcome comeback, doing away with the clawed gauntlet.
We've been here before though... Three times before in fact, and while trading on the same PoP staples that have stood the series in good stead for so many years isn't necessarily a bad thing, some of the game's puzzles in our preview code were a little on the obtuse side. Following a boss fight with a huge, ornately-armoured tusked sand beast (more on combat later), we're then left in a small annex, with seemingly no exit. A pressure pad in an alcove causes a wall to slide out of a recess for a brief period before sliding back in, but we're stumped as to what it does or how it factors into the conundrum that needs solving to escape the area. We try vaulting from it at every conceivable angle, until we think we've got the solution. Wall run up it and jump to the opposite platform, or perhaps the open archway above looks like the answer. Trouble is, both options are far too high for us to reach, and after an hour of trying we calmly put the control pad down and give up seeing as there's seemingly no solution.
One helpful preview code-specific Teleport to the next area and we're up in the apparently unreachable archway we figured we had to get to, but we're none the wiser as to how we got there. Moving on and we're presented with a wall of rusty gears and cogs, operated by three levers. It looks simple enough - turn the L-shaped tracks to create a path for the cogs to travel across until they link with the gears at the other side of the wall. You're given a couple of simpler versions of this larger puzzle earlier on, operating large revolving platforms in preparation for this more complex version, which again seems unable to work in the way it should. Configuring the tracks to link up takes time, and countless lever-twiddling, so when the cog you're trying to move then gets stuck, it's simultaneously infuriating and impossible to see why.
We'd like to think that we were quite a dab hand with the trickier puzzling aspects of the previous PoP games, but we have to admit we were consistently beaten and left scratching our heads on several occasions during our hands-on with the Forgotten Sands' preview stages. Still, PoP has an impeccable record when it comes to big conundrums, packed with complicated pulleys and levers, so we live in hope that the puzzling elements will work in the way they're supposed to and be better presented for the finished game.
Happily, for the most part the other intricate mechanisms we encounter appear to work just fine, and it's in these sections that we enjoy some vintage PoP action just like the good old days. Combat is equally comparable to the PoP titles of old, although it feels slightly slower and more measured with less acrobatic flipping around than before. It's almost entirely comprised of vicious sword swipes and athletic kicks, with added spice in the form of the prince's new elemental abilities.
Three of the four powers are unlocked for the purposes of our preview, with the fourth fire element currently off-limits. Apparently it'll be used to create impenetrable walls of flame around the prince, which sounds great. Earth, wind and water are equally formidable though, earth being used to form a rocky shell around the prince making him temporarily invulnerable in combat, whereas wind creates a mini self-contained tornado that whips sand creatures into the air, clearing any enemies in the immediate vicinity. Water is arguably two abilities in one, encasing your sword in hard ice and laying down small paths of razor-sharp icicles with each thrust as well as solidifying water to create frozen columns and plateaus of water to enable you to navigate otherwise impossible gaps and precipices.
It's clever stuff that sounds unimaginative in theory - using elements isn't particularly original - but in practice, they add an extra layer of strategy and increase your options during combat. Use of the elements is attached to the number of blue dots beneath your health bar on the HUD, which also includes the number of times you can rewind time when you make an error. Yes, it wouldn't be a PoP game without time manipulation, but we've yet to see the ability to slow time as we've previously been able to do, although just being able to rewind and retry is good enough for us.
Forgotten Sands certainly looks polished at this stage, but a mixture of hair-tearing puzzles and comparatively stale combat might not cut it in these post-God of War III times, where epic spectacle effortlessly rubs shoulders with fast, explosive combat and a decent dose of testing trials that walk the line between annoyance and chin-stroking. Still, the prince has his wall-running acrobatics and matchless agility, and if Ubisoft can harness what makes the PoP series so enjoyable and deliver on the promise of its elemental abilities, then there's every chance that Forgotten Sands could still be a winner.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is due for release late May 2010.