Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Winding back time has been a staple of several Prince of Persia games, so it's rather fitting that this latest instalment attempts to do just that, marking a return to the style of gameplay popularised by 2003's The Sands of Time and trying to erase the divisive 2008 reboot from cultural memory. Much as the cel-shaded reimagining from two years back was brave and full of new features, it was nowhere near as much fun as any of the previous three games. That said, it's understandable that this title might be viewed as something of a step backwards and, perhaps even more worryingly, as something of a film tie-in. You could be forgiven for approaching this game with severe trepidation and the similarities that the title shares with The Sands of Time are no accident.
Thankfully, every worry and fear I may have had about this game evaporated the minute I started playing. Instead of leading us on from the end of trilogy, Ubisoft opt to go back and fill in some of the gaps, starting with that seven year divide between The Sands of Time and its muscular, gruff sequel Warrior Within. Arriving at his brother's palace on the frontier of the kingdom, eager to learn how to become a powerful leader and commander, our Prince instead finds the kingdom being invaded with an enormous pitched battle unfolding below him as he hops from clifftop to palatial minaret.
After battling past a bunch of guards, he reunites with his brother Malik only for his sibling to reveal his masterplan for holding back the invaders: unleashing the skeletal undead army of King Solomon. Only problem with that, soon the demons start overrunning the palace, turning everyone into statues and leading Malik to trigger the palatial defence mechanisms: cue skeleton hordes, spike pits, daredevil acrobatics and some epic platforming.
Those of you who enjoyed the rhythm-based combat mechanics of the 2008 reboot might be sad to see it disappear, but I always found the smaller intimate battles rather boring to be honest. Here you could be taking on literally scores of enemies, slicing and dicing your way through with your trusty sword. The attack layout is incredibly simple - one button to slash, another to kick people over or shrug off their shield - and admittedly it does sometimes lead to some button mashing, but it's balanced out by a number of things. The evade button is utterly indispensable for starters, but you can also use chasms, spikes and walls to your advantage with some context sensitive finishers. Additionally, you'll be able to jump on the heads of your enemies and perform an Aerial Slash or Kick, the former of which unleashes a gloriously acrobatic powerful attack. It's familiar stuff to fans of the series pre-2008 and it will seem repetitive for some, of that I'm sure, but it's not really too much of a combat-heavy title.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Prince of Persia game without a little bit of magic and there are several elements that you can call upon to lend you a hand in battle. As you defeat Solomon's creatures, you'll earn experience points that can be bartered for magical powers, extra health, more sword damage etc. The combat powers vary from the invincibility of the Stone Armour to burn-inducing trails of fire, to area sweeping whirlwinds, they're all pretty damn useful.
Speaking of useful, there's nothing quite like plummeting to your doom after mistiming a wall run and saying hello to a pit of bloody spikes with your face, swearing wildly and then realising that you have The Power of Time to help rewind the last couple of seconds! It's limited, of course, overuse it and you'll run out of magic altogether, but it marks a welcome return for a well-loved game mechanic that was sorely lacking the last time around.
It suits the nostalgic gameplay as well: gone are the open-world free-running mechanics of the 2008 game to be replaced (or rather reinstated) with puzzle rooms that require planning, thought and deep consideration. It's a good thing that the rewind ability is back because in the later stages of the game there'll be some moves that require quick thinking and well-timed execution, a failure of either of which will almost certainly result in a swift demise. Although the expansive nature of the game been curtailed drastically - you're almost exclusive confined to the palace this time around - it makes up for it with some devilishly challenging platform sequences later on, and the sense of pleasure one takes from chaining a seamless sequence of gravity-defying acrobatics together cannot be overstated. This, then, is a game that rewards a little bit of planning and will certainly appeal to gamers who want their skills tested.
You get a little bit of help, though, Time bending abilities aside. Get an hour or two in and the helpful Djinn who explains the gravity of the situation to you will lend you the power to freeze water adding yet another dimension to the platform-puzzling. Jetstreams can now become trapeze arms, cascading waterfalls now platforms for the ever-useful wall-run, and vertical spouts transform into pillars around which the Prince can shimmy and leap. The visual effects are mind-bendingly pretty, although that might just be because the presentation is otherwise fairly average. It's no gimmick either, forcing you to switch between freezing and unfreezing water features often mid-jump with split-second timing.
Most importantly, The Forgotten Sands is an absolute pleasure to play. It wears its inspiration firmly on its sleeve (and even partly in its title) and sometimes that can make for a game that rehashes things clumsily with overfamiliarity, but ultimately it's a return to the type of classic gameplay that made the franchise huge for another generation of gamers. For a game that looks so much like a nondescript action title, it's strikingly cerebral and all the better for it. The combat could use some refining, and the boss battles might seem a bit underwhelming, but this is game that bursts into life when skipping across chasms, dancing past spikes and engaging in some phenomenally creative platforming.
- Some gorgeous environments and frozen water effects
- Wonderful, seamlessly acrobatic platform mechanics and animations
- Satisfyingly challenging puzzles to navigate
- Combat might get a little repetitive
- Character models and faces often laughable
- Not much replay value
The Short Version: If Assassin's Creed II was something of an apology for its predecessor then this, it would seem, is Ubisoft saying sorry for the 2008 reboot. Channelling the spirit of The Sands of Time, this is a game that sees a welcome return for high-flying acrobatics and creative platforming. Forget its proximity to the film, this is a worthy instalment for the gravity-defying Prince, if playing things a little safe.