The Forgotten Sands – Final Review

            There’s something completely refreshing about Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. The game is almost hyperlinear in terms of design, with very few branching pathways, proudly eschewing the considerable open world bloat, presenting overall a cinematic experience. Still, it can be basic at times, in terms of mechanics. Even other linear, straightforward games offer some diversity or flexibility, be it the crucial choice of weaponry in a shooter, or the allocation and acquisition of skills in a role-playing game. Here, choice is lacking, or is at least lesser. Despite the simplicity on offer here, there is a steady sense of progress, the Prince growing and improving, even if those improvements are of a subtler sort. This progression permeates strongly the entire design of the game, from its combat through to the satisfying platforming. The few deviations which are present lead simply to collectables, which do certainly have considerable worth, considering they offer much-desired experience orbs. But for the most part, the game is rigid in terms of design, with little options afforded to the player. These limitations serve to foster a certain cinematic quality, though, which is furthered still by magnificent animation, bright, creative graphics and coloration, and a usually cooperative, dramatic camera.

            All of the animations have been lovingly crafted. The movements of the lithe, acrobatic Prince continue to impress, some decade after release. His feats may appear at times superhuman, gliding along walls or clearing wide gaps with ease, and yet there is an air of believability to his movements; it is grounded in reality, and there is nothing totally fantastical about his motions. Still, there are slight deviations from this believability, with the implementation of various powers acquired throughout the adventure, which really spice up the gameplay – particularly the platforming sections – and give the game an overall unique air. Initially, the Prince is merely agile, deft in his movements and capable of excelling in his puzzle-like environments, which serve almost as obstacle courses. These sections are at the core of the game and offer some of its greatest delights. But in morphing and advancing this formula through the mentioned powers, the game seems an improvement over its predecessors, certainly more modern.

            The first power gifted is a hallmark of the series, appearing firstly in The Sands of Time: the ability to reverse time for a set duration. This power can be a godsend and lends an air of forgiveness to the environments; it encourages exploration and experimentation, essentially offering multiple attempts at any given obstacle. In this game, though, this power extends almost completely into the platforming sections. True, time reversal can be useful in combat, but it is never required, and thusly goes underutilized; I activated it very infrequently, using it a handful of times to reverse and negate some especially potent damage incurred as a result of overly-bold maneuvers in combat.

            A second power introduced is related to water; the Prince is given the power to freeze and unfreeze the liquid at will. This ability results in some creative level design and unique puzzles. Fountains or geysers can become columns or platforms for more complex actions like the wall run. This power is perhaps the game’s greatest innovation, and it continues to impress as the narrative progresses; by its very nature, the precise capabilities of the power are static, unchanging technically, though this is compensated by an increase in complexity environmentally; water-related actions are fairly basic at the beginning of the game, after the power is first awarded, though by the end of the game, the puzzles can be dizzyingly complex. The pacing is spot on, not only in platforming but also in terms of combat.

            A few lesser powers which aid in platforming are a brief teleportation move of sorts, seeing the Prince lunge forward impossibly to some distant enemy, furthering the length of his jump, usually defeating the foe in the process. It isn’t used very often, but it further serves to spice up the gameplay. Especially memorable encounters related to this ability are connected to avian creatures: certain birds are positioned around the environment, and the Prince can latch onto them, springboard off their bodies and leap onto another bird. It can be quite graceful at times, and the action is surprisingly easy to execute. The controls overall, in fact, are very straightforward and accessible. The third and final platforming power relates to the recreation of certain walls and surfaces, the Prince reanimating what was lost and promptly using the restored objects as aids in his movements. This power is introduced fairly late into the game, and while more satisfying than the teleportation move, it, too is somewhat underused. There are instances near the conclusion of the game when all of these abilities are used in tandem, and the game really shines in these moments. Reconstructing walls, leaping from frozen pole to frozen pole – it can be very riveting, and the platforming really steals the show here. It also displays, I think, the great benefits to be found in a linear game, which are increasingly becoming rarer and rarer.

            Still, there is another system at work here: the combat. Initially very basic, over time, it too, grows in complexity – relatively speaking. The Prince is equipped with a sword as his primary weapon, while his debilitatingly quick acrobatic motions leave their own marked contribution to the combat. Still, it is a standard hack and slash affair, leaning at times towards button mashing, but is saved by clever, visceral animations, particularly the contextual animations, which see the Prince plunging his blade through the chest of a fallen foe, or shouldering an enemy off some deep precipice. There are shielded enemies and other variants which require some strategy, but it is straightforward to the end; consequently, it might come across as boring. This is a valid complaint. The enemies appear in incredible numbers, though, which furthers the idea of the Prince as some kind an indomitable force, effortlessly slashing through sand creatures, leaping into the air to deal a finishing blow. There are also certain mini-boss battles, though they are very underwhelming, devolving most often into a boring hacking away at the knees, with a periodic dodge maneuver here and there. Still, as with the platforming, efforts are made to increase the level of complexity to be found in the combat as the narrative progresses.

            These attempts at depth largely revolve around the mentioned skill trees. There are present  here the expected upgrades, many of them passive and generic: there is the usual boosting of the health bar, or an expansion of the energy meter, for instance, boring, sure, but absolutely necessary, as the enemies gradually become more deadly, though never truly posing a massive threat. The damage inflicted by sword attacks can also be increased, as well as a few other, minor improvements being present. But what really sets the game apart combat-wise from its competitors are four active powers, each related to the elements. One attack is a standard area-of-effect maneuver, while another provides temporary invincibility. As with the platforming, the end game encounters are decidedly different from that to be found at the beginning, before these powers are introduced. Despite these additions, the combat is never exactly riveting, and takes a firm backseat to the platforming sections. Still, I prefer combat to be boring or lackluster as opposed to outright bad. The combat here falls more in line with the lackluster camp; I never dreaded picking up the sword and did have a good time with blade in hand, but it is clear what the focus was.

            With regards to narrative, the game is very straightforward, with basic, stock characters. The voice actor for the Prince does an admirable job; he is likable and never ventures down the annoying path; he shows genuine concern for his brother, Malik, who unfortunately emerges as the primary antagonist, his body being taken over by a malevolent force. The game opens with an attack on the Persian Kingdom; Malik, the older of the duo, unleashes an army and puts the entire Kingdom in danger. He soon grows obsessed with power, and is hesitant to relinquish the source of his new found strength, a medallion, which, when reunited with his brother’s half, could bring an end to the destruction, save the Kingdom, and bring about peace. Malik is initially likable, and the game is very explicit in saying, “Malik is not the foe. Malik is just a vessel.” It would be interesting if they developed the psychological aspect more, focusing on the quest for power. As it is, it becomes simply a ho-hum quest for peace. True, the lore is furthered by the female leader of the mythical Djinn, who bestows upon the Prince his mentioned abilities in combat and in platforming. Spread throughout the story are certain dialogues between the Prince and this woman. They are mostly exposition dumps, but the developers certainly tried to create a world here, and the world and level design – very fantastical in design – reflect this effort.

            There is a fair bit of diversity in terms of level design. The majority of the game takes place in the besieged palace. There are the expected sites of the throne room and various majestic fountains, though there are more unusual areas, like a large telescopic device, which must be manipulated in one instance of the game’s more ambitious attempts at puzzle solving. With regards to these larger puzzles, they mostly fell flat with me. The first notable example involves the navigation of gears. The objective is never made explicitly clear, and the handles can be quite finnicky to adjust. The game usually runs at a pretty consistent, breakneck speed, and this served only to disrupt the pacing. Still, the world itself becomes a puzzle; it never gets totally stale, and the scene shifts to the ancient, forgotten city of the Djinn later in the game, offering new sights and new objectives. The Djinn guide even leads the Prince to a fabled sword, eventually uniting her person with the object. The weapon for victory being obtained, a return to the palace ensues.

            The final moments of the game are quite spectacular – the ascent of the tower, where the final confrontation is to take place, is especially difficult, and thusly rewarding. Very precise movement is required, and admittedly certain cracks started to show; while good usually, under pressure the systems may fail – perfectly precise movement is required, and in some instances the timing afforded the Prince on this final climb is very limited and restrictive. Still, the frustration factor overall is kept to a minimum, and reaching the roof of the place is like some great, platforming triumph. The final boss battle is interesting for a change, in that it combines elements of the platforming in with the traditional combat mechanics. It is a fun, somewhat challenging fight, and justifies the inclusion of boss battles, because of its greater creativity. The ending of the game, though, is fairly lackluster; a brief animation ensues, the credits roll, and then a brief voice-over happens. That is it. The ending was certainly predictable, and I’m not asking exactly for greater length – in fact, I think the game was of perfect length. Still, I only wish better reconciliation were achieved. Sadly, so distant are we from release that this seems all but impossible.

            Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is overall a good title, I feel. The animation quality is a marvel, while the level design is both fantastical and immensely creative, though still grounded in believability. The Prince as a character is likable enough, though really he does nothing to distinguish himself from the litany of other video game heroes. Still, the game is not about him – it is about his journey. With sweeping music, crisp graphics, and restrained ambition, the game excels most strongly in the moment to moment, the acts of clearing some especially difficult room, or the besting of some particularly lethal foe. The progression systems are logical and well-developed, and there is always some new talent or obstacle just around the corner, training grounds for newly acquired abilities. All the same, the lessons learned from the previous, earlier engagements are never forgotten. There is overall a sense of thrilling reward on offer here, when falling into an acrobatic rhythm. Still, even with the immediate, present successes, the game is not spectacular. The story is a bit uninspired and a bland, serving only to guide the Prince from place to place. And yet, it firmly embraces its linearity, and excels also because of that acceptance – it is not trying to be something it is not. And yet, it is not quite as memorable because of its linearity. There is no real emergent gameplay to be found here; one person’s playthrough will be quite similar to that of another’s. Plot is perhaps most important in leaving a lasting, memorable impression. That the one on offer here is so forgettable only serves to make the game overall forgettable. I may keep within me some kind of fondness for the game, but it is unlikely to strike a lasting, resonant chord.        

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