Thursday, November 11, 2021

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3)

Five years after The Two Thrones, and two years after a failed Prince of Persia reboot, Ubisoft released The Forgotten Sands as a tie-in to the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film. Despite this, however, The Forgotten Sands is actually the collective title of four games set between the events of The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, with a different story and gameplay style between each platform (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Wii; Nintendo DS; and PSP). Due to timing, the PS3 version of The Forgotten Sands was actually my first exposure to Prince of Persia and I remember enjoying it back in 2010 before I picked up the PS2 games or was even aware of the differences in other platforms. Ten years later, I returned to The Forgotten Sands after giving myself the full context of the PS2 trilogy and, while it did mess with my muscle memory, I still had a good time.

Sometime after the events of The Sands of Time, the Prince searches for his brother Malik to learn more about leadership. When he arrives at Malik’s kingdom, however, he finds it under attack by an army searching for the treasure known as “Solomon’s Army”. The Prince locates Malik, who breaks the seal of Solomon’s Army despite his brother’s concern. Breaking the seal summons an army of sand creatures that transform the rest of the kingdom into sand statues, save for the Prince and Malik, who each possess one half of the seal. The brothers are separated and the Prince finds a portal to another world where Razia, a Djinn, explains that he must reunite both halves of the seal to re-imprison the sand creatures and stop an Ifrit named Ratash. To this end, Razia lends the Prince the power of the Djinn.

The Prince (right) receives aid from Razia (left).

As an interquel, I’m not sure how much The Forgotten Sands conflicts with the timeline. Warrior Within and Two Thrones build off the idea that the Prince was chased by the Dahaka for seven years, yet the Dahaka isn’t seen or mentioned even once within this game. I suspect the ambiguous placement in the timeline was meant to mitigate this, but it was very noticeable to me after playing all three PS2 games in a row. As a standalone story, however, it works fine. Despite no hint of Malik’s prior existence, the Prince’s connection to his brother and their clashing ideals drive the plot well enough. Plus, the existence of the Djinn provides an interesting explanation for granting the Prince the iconic time rewind power and exploring other types of abilities that don’t rely on sand.

That said, The Forgotten Sands relies more on numerous, very short, cutscenes to tell its story. Otherwise, the Prince makes a few humorous quips about the similarity of his current predicament to The Sands of Time and there are some exchanges he has with Razia during the final stretch. I also have mixed feelings on the quick pace of the storytelling, since I wish they could’ve explored the Djinn more, but I appreciate that the story doesn’t overstay its welcome. Plus, Yuri Lowenthal’s take on the Prince in this game shows his improved voice acting abilities and there’s at least a subtitle option.

The late John Cygan also does well as Malik.

As for the gameplay, The Forgotten Sands comes close to recapturing the same feeling I had while playing The Sands of Time. The linear world features great level design and parkour that, while scaled back in complexity from The Two Thrones, presents its own twists on the familiar formula. You can now run up a wall during a wall jump, which lets you reach higher ledges or more easily conquer wall jump challenges, and interact with bricks for some precision climbing. Later on, there are also sections where the Prince has to wallrun while sliding downward. Some quality of life changes, like a visible door timer and walking along beams without worrying about the Prince’s balance, and very snappy movement make the parkour the smoothest in the series yet. If you feel overwhelmed in combat, you can also lower the difficulty at any time in the pause menu, so restarting the game from zero is no longer required.

Throughout the story, the Prince will periodically acquire new Djinn powers to aid in platforming and combat. Aside from rewinding time, the Prince can eventually freeze water and related environmental elements, quickly close large platforming gaps with the Power of Flight and recall parts of the environment, but only one at a time. These abilities add new twists to platforming and the game eventually tests your ability to swap between these powers on the fly, which includes knowing when to freeze and unfreeze waterfalls for safe passage. During combat, the Prince can also call upon elemental powers with their own strengths. These powers are activated with a single press on the D-pad and include crowd controlling Whirlwinds, damage nullifying Stone Armor, damaging Ice Blasts and a burning Trail of Fire. All of these powers consume one slot on the Energy gauge, with the exception of freezing water, which has its own Flow gauge that determines how long you can keep the power active.

Platforming has its own new twists now.

The Forgotten Sands also takes a different approach to upgrades, favoring a system where the Prince earns XP by defeating enemies or breaking hidden sarcophagi to gain Upgrade Points that increase various attributes, including his Djinn powers, sword strength and how often he recovers Health and Energy from pots and enemies. This also includes his Health, removing the need to find hidden upgrades like in the PS2 games. I also noticed some quality of life changes, including a more streamlined parkour system and removing the need to guess how far back you need to go while rewinding time. Though you can still hold the button down for more precision, you can now simply press the rewind button once and undo a mistake. This doesn’t always work, but pressing or holding the button again afterwards will deplete another Energy slot.

Compared with previous entries, combat feels simplified. There’s less of an emphasis on rhythmic acrobatics and more on swinging and kicking at large groups of enemies. It attempts some depth by letting you chain regular and charged sword attacks up to five times and perform aerial attacks by jumping on enemies, but the latter doesn’t feel quite the same as vaulting your problems away. I noticed that the game lets you cancel a kick into a sword swing, but there’s no tactical advantage and it just makes dealing with shield enemies slightly harder. The idea of fighting hordes of sand creatures does tie in well with demonstrating the power of Solomon’s Army, but it eventually feels like you’re fighting dozens of sand creatures at once simply because the PS3 can handle it.

Naturally, the game encourages incorporating the elemental Djinn powers for an edge in combat. While they do help immensely, especially when you’re just starting out or encounter especially large groups, sufficiently upgraded powers end up breaking the game to the point where all you’ll really need are Whirlwind and Stone Armor during the end game. I also found it lazy that most mini-bosses have virtually the same strategy to defeat them.

Whirlwind easily breaks the game.

As with other Prince of Persia games, I really enjoyed the parkour-based platforming and consider it the real strong suit of the series, but I did have some issues after coming off the PS2 trilogy. Since the controls stayed mostly the same throughout all three games, I had developed a specific muscle memory while playing them and found myself thrown off by the control changes here. For the PS3 version, wall running is now mapped to R2 instead of R1 and Circle is now a dedicated dodge button while Cross exclusively jumps. I got used to it after a while, but I still slipped up occasionally and wasted Energy undoing my mistakes. I also found the traps less challenging than the PS2 trilogy and mostly breezed through them.

Unlike the previous games, however, The Forgotten Sands has only one save slot with no option to manually save. Starting a new game also automatically triggers New Game+. As I didn’t know that going in, I had every single upgrade unlocked for me after a certain point, so I breezed through most of the game and couldn’t comment on the upgrade curve.

There’s some replay value in the unlockable Challenge Mode, which lets you earn XP that will transfer to your main game and help you unlock upgrades. However, there are only three modes and they only take a few minutes each. In Survival, you must defeat 100 enemies as quickly as possible while your Health gradually decreases. Enemy Tides tasks you with clearing eight increasingly difficult waves of sand creatures as quickly as possible. The last one, Time Trial, simply asks you to defeat 250 enemies within six-and-a-half minutes. All three of these modes are pretty standard and aren’t very enticing once you’ve already unlocked every upgrade.

On the bright side, the graphics are a huge leap over the PS2 trilogy thanks to the power of the PS3. Environments have greater detail and the console’s raw power enables more complex set pieces than the ones we’ve seen before. I also liked how the damage done to the enemies is displayed with a gradual sand texture overtaking their bodies as they take damage. The UI is simplified and more closely resembles the one from The Sands of Time and I noticed that the way the Prince dispatches mini-bosses resembles the effect of the Speed Kill from The Two Thrones. There’s some minor texture loading right before the final boss fight, but it didn’t affect anything and I barely noticed it anyway.

I enjoyed my return to The Forgotten Sands, but playing it in such close proximity to the others highlighted how simplified the experience felt by comparison. Even with all of its blemishes, however, this was still the closest Ubisoft ever got to recapturing the spirit of The Sands of Time and I wish they hadn’t neglected the franchise for a little over a decade. If you want a solid platformer, you can’t really go wrong with The Forgotten Sands.

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