So I finally reached the end of my Prince of Persia saga, and have found it’s concluded not with a bang, but a whimper. A pretty whimper but a whimper nonetheless.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is not, as you’d expect from the cover, a tie-in with 2010’s moustache-twirling film. Nor is it a continuation of the mechanics and anime-hair Prince of the 2008 game. Instead, it’s a sequel or prequel, depending on how you view the Sands timeline, as it takes place somewhere in the seven-year gap between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within. This midpoint, the designers decided, was best conveyed by giving the Prince the same voice actor, but ensuring that his character model was a horrifying amalgam of both games.The Prince and his oddly lumpy head are en route to hang out with his brother, Malik – the fact he doesn’t look like Art Malik is a source of disappointment to me – and to learn about leadership. However, any potential civics lectures are quickly put on hold thanks to an outbreak of the series’ usual Shit’s Fucked complications. Like the first game, Bad Sand is unleashed, but this time it’s Not Art Malik who lets ’em loose, looking for a legendary Army of Solomon to help fight an invading horde.
The game being what it is, each grain of sand turns into a Harryhausenesque monster, and Malik eventually absorbs the power of slain monsters (I know, right?) until he becomes a demon himself, all massive armour and horns a stag would kill for. That’s where you, the Prince, come in: you have to unfuck the land and somehow save your brother.
And how? You save your brother by journeying through ruinous castle eyries and gardens, sloshing through waterworks and by hitching rides on demon birds, all with the help of a djinn named Razia (who later on becomes a talking sword), on a journey to the mystical land of Boss Fight.Razia serves as a kind of celestial shopkeeper for the Prince. She doles out the powers he can use – time rewind (as expected), water freezing (because hey, the PS3 can render water nicely) and a kind of flight that only works if there’s a baddie on an adjacent platform. For the first time in the series, each kill gives you experience points which you can redeem for health or additional powers – but the powers are kind of lacklustre and the difficulty level of the game means they don’t make much difference to your playthrough. (Well, to mine.)
Part of the problem with the game is that for the most part, it’s too easy. Fights – including tank bosses – are generally pretty easy, and the combo system of Warrior Within is absent. We’re back to a Sands of Time battle system, with a couple of attacks, but no defense moves. But it won’t matter – there was only one or two large battles in the game I had to attempt more than once, and this was on a higher difficulty level. Everything looks good – those skeleton army dudes feel somewhat satisfying to beat the dust out of – but it’s grinding, not challenging.Challenges and difficulty are present, but like the rest of the series, these are the challenges of presenting platform-based gameplay in a 3D space. So many jumps into the void are the result of shitty camerawork or unclear visualisation of the character’s positioning. This is compounded by some of the tricksy water levels, where there sometimes appears to be input lag – thus ensuring that the difference between frozen and unfrozen water is often uncertain, leaving passage of these areas down to dumb luck. All of this is a shame, as the world of the Prince has never looked better than it does here. Though it’s now technical old hat, the environments are of a really high standard, and I really enjoyed poking around them, trying to see all I could see. The wall-running (when it works) is satisfying, and all the pieces of a great game are here – it’s just that the game we’re given is too short, and a bit too simple. Ever solved an environmental puzzle in one of the other games in three crank turns? Didn’t think so.
There’s more handwaving than there is in other installments, and a bunch of the puzzles feel shoehorned in to capitalise on tech advances, rather than to serve the narrative. And there’s the rub: the story here isn’t as epic as it would like to be. The Prince of Persia games have always had fairly epic stories, but this one just fizzles out. While it leads into Warrior Within, I had to read online to understand that’s where it was going – the game is vague, and merely pays lip service to what comes next. It’s frustrating, because elements of the game work really well – perhaps better than in other titles – but they don’t coalesce into something wonderful.
I guess that’s the curse of the console reboot series of Prince games – the first game was pretty much the best. It was a refresh, and it set the benchmark for the rest of the series. Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands can’t really compete, because even though it’s more technically advanced, and is much prettier, it’s not as endearing. It could’ve been, but it’s a short game, and there’s a real sense of rushed production – not so much on the technical side, as it’s no more or less flawed in that regard than the rest of the games – but in terms of what the designers wanted it to be. It’s a Prince game, but it’s carried along on a story that’s only barely going through the motions.It’s disappointing that the last game of the series – for now? – is a bit of a letdown, albeit a pretty one. I enjoyed my playthrough, as so much of it is familiar, having played the other games so recently – but as the credits rolled I felt as if an opportunity had been wasted, which is a crappy way to end such an enjoyable series.