Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands occupies a very strange, intermediate sort of space. On the one hand, it’s a movie tie-in game – made so that there was a new Prince of Persia game out to coincide with the Sands of Time movie. On another hand, it can be seen as a reaction to the critiques made of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot (henceforth, PoP ’08). And then, of course, it’s yet another sequel to the Sands of Time game – slotting in between Sands of Time and Warrior Within. In which of these contexts should the game be evaluated? While I was playing the game, I couldn’t stop seeing the game as a confluence of all three influences.

As a movie tie-in, the game is largely successful. It obviously doesn’t hook in directly to the story of the movie, but I think someone playing this game having just come from the movie, without any prior experience with the franchise, would have a satisfactory experience. The game is pretty long, and it’s pretty good-looking, especially the scenes that involve flying through a sandstorm. The traversal is still satisfying and approachable. It moves at a quick pace. The camera is very aggressive about being helpful – there were a number of situations where I’d want to look around, but the camera would be locked facing towards the next traversal element. The combat is simple, button-mashy and easy, with the Dead Rising-esque spectacle of enemy hordes and a reasonably satisfying feel. There’s a bit of clunkiness (a wind-up on even the basic attack animation) and imprecision (it’s hard to target the one important enemy in a cluster of minions) to the combat that I found off-putting, but am willing to forgive in this context.

In the context of being a reaction to PoP ’08, though, Forgotten Sands is harder to forgive. The mass-combat is no more interesting or less monotonous than the one-on-one fights of PoP ’08. The button-intensive traversal is no more fun, only more finicky and (occasionally) frustrating than the relaxed system of PoP ’08. There’s a delightful flow to PoP ’08’s traversal mechanics, where you only have to worry about a single button press at a time, with a wide timing window, and so you get to watch and enjoy the feeling of movement. Forgotten Sands often requires the player to worry about the timing of pressing and holding and releasing three buttons at once. This is especially obvious when executing a vertical triangle jump, where in addition to having to press the ‘A’ button for each jump, the right trigger has to be pumped in between jumps in order to wall-climb and gain the necessary altitude. There’s certainly a satisfying feeling to successfully executing these traversals, but there’s little joy in it. There’s also, obviously, none of the freedom of PoP ’08. Forgotten Sands is unrelentingly linear, and the aforementioned restrictive camera removes uncertainty or semblance of choice as to where to traverse next.

Those intensive traversal mechanics in Forgotten Sands also increase the punishment for failure. Sands of Time is justly praised for integrating a limited-lives system into its narrative via the Prince’s time-rewinding powers. PoP ’08 infamously used an even more progressive approach to failure, essentially automating the rewind and allowing it to be used without limit. Forgotten Sands uses the same system as Sands of Time, but because traversal is so dense with button-presses, it’s increasingly difficult to rewind to the right point and anticipate exactly which button-press will be required next when time starts flowing again. As such, multiple rewind attempts are often required, undermining the whole point of the rewind system – that is, that it allows the player to quickly and painlessly retry a sequence after a failure.

And then we come to how Forgotten Sands compares with Sands of Time, the game. In this light, the traversal system seems like a fairly natural evolution. Hang-time on jumps feels noticeably shorter – there’s was a pleasing sense of weightlessness at the apex of jumps in Sands of Time that’s gone. The removal of ambiguity in the use of the ‘A’ button is probably for the best, but it took some getting used to. (In Sands of Time, ‘A’ would sometimes trigger a jump, sometimes a roll, sometimes pulling up from a ledge. In Forgotten Sands, it always triggers a jump.)

Sands of Time’s combat is repetitive and a bit clunky to control, but it does a really good job of capturing the same acrobatic feel as the traversal. But even though the Prince can still jump over enemies and off of walls in Forgotten Sands, there is rarely any incentive to, since such attacks are slow, risky, single-targeted and low-damage, all things that one wants to avoid when fighting a horde of enemies. Also notable is the absence of the time-slowing power, the other power, along with rewinding, that was useful both in traversal and combat in Sands of Time. It makes traps harder to avoid, and I suppose that’s the purpose behind this choice. It may also have been felt to be unnecessary for combat since enemies are such lumbering light-weights already. Either way, I missed having the power, and its absence drove a further wedge between traversal and combat.

As a narrative extension of Sands of Time, and as a bridge into Warrior Within, it utterly fails. The Prince’s time-powers derive from a completely independent source. The evil man-eating sand of Forgotten Sands likewise has no relation to the evil, man-eating, titular sands of time. Elements common to the movie, like the sands of time, are hardly mentioned. I think Farah is alluded to once, in a way that could also refer to the love-interest from the movie.

Most surprising to me is that the Dahaka from Warrior Within isn’t present. There’s a large gap of years between Sands of Time and Warrior Within during which, apparently, the Prince was relentlessly chased by this monster, the Dahaka, which was hunting the Prince in order to restore the damage the Prince did to the timeline in Sands of Time. This was used as the reason the Prince of Warrior Within is so angry and aggressive. There was a real opportunity to explore this transformation and perhaps tell a story that wasn’t so traditional and clichéd for a video game.

I had envisioned something where, while still facing the threat of the Forgotten Sands, also encounters the Dahaka for the first time. That way, just as the Prince is ascending along the usual empowering, heroic arc, he would encounter a second enemy, one he can’t defeat. He’d then have to scramble to save the city from the Sands, while avoiding the Dahaka. The Prince could have to abandon allies with tragic consequences in order to flee. He could have thrilling escapes and chases. The sands of time represent the possibility of change that comes with life, or, even, living without consequences. The Dahaka represents the inevitability of death. The game could have portrayed the Prince’s naivety after his success in Sands of Time. He thinks he’s gotten away with it, performed a miracle, erased his mistakes. He’s even dealt successfully with this exact disaster scenario once already. He could begin the game feeling invincible, and then gradually be brought down to earth over the course of it. The game could end on a bittersweet note, with the Prince saving the city, but being left with no hope for his own future.

Anyways, after that work of fan-fiction, I suppose I’ll close simply by saying that Forgotten Sands is a fine game. It’s not bad, but it is a wild over-correction to issues that were criticized in PoP ’08.  It also fails to recapture much of what made Sands of Time special, and adds nothing to the extent trilogy.

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