Review: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3/360)
The long-running and (for the most part) critically acclaimed Prince of Persia series continues with two different games across four platforms this month, all of which bear the same name: The Forgotten Sands. This review is of the version of the game that’s on PS3, 360, and PC. It does not cover the Wii version, which is an entirely different game. Additionally, the PC version of the game has not yet been released, so this does not address any DRM concerns that are often expected of a Ubisoft PC game.
I received the PS3 version for review, and Joe Haygood received the 360 version.
What’s the story?
The prince from last generation’s multiplatform trilogy returns once more, not only in voice but also in narrative. This portion of the story takes place after that trilogy, while the Wii version takes place between the second and third episodes. The prince and his brother Malik are in their palace which is under seige. As the battle turns distinctly against them, Malik has the idea to unleash Solomon’s Army, an ancient army of sand warriors that, according to legend, is sealed magically in the palace after coming to King Solomon’s aid many years ago. It’s assumed that Malik thinks this will work because he watched The Lord of the Rings.
Unfortunately for the prince and Malik, things don’t go as well as they did in The Lord of the Rings. It turns out the stories were diluted a bit over centuries of playing telephone game, and the army that was sealed is an enemy. The army stops the siege, but also fills the palace with sand warriors and their master, an evil Djinn named Ratash. The prince is separated from his brother, and they work to secure the palace and find a way to deal with Ratash and Solomon’s Army.
How does it look and sound?
The colorful cel-shaded visual style of the previous game, 2008′s Prince of Persia, has been abandoned for something more in line with what was done last generation with the Sands of Time trilogy. I miss the more artistic style of the previous game, but I can appreciate that this game definitely has a great look to it as well. What amazed me time and again was how smooth the transitions from gameplay to cutscene were done. So well, in fact, that at times I didn’t realize a cutscene had started for a few seconds. Water, key to many of the game’s mechanics, is presented with some seriously nice looking effects. The design of the Malik, the prince, and his Djinn ally are somewhere in the uncanny valley. They’re highly detailed and nicely designed, but the weird shadow issues and flickering surfaces remind us what the challenges are in using this much realism and detail.
The game has some really good music, but it doesn’t sound as good as the previous game did. Still, toward the end of the game I found it growing on me. I especially liked how the music shifted when using the special powers in the game. The voices are nice, but the variation in the accents of the characters was a little strange, considering everyone’s supposed to be… you know, Persian. Another issue was that the prince talks to himself a lot, and most of the time the things he says to himself are not the kinds of things someone would say to himself. One example is when he walks into a garden area and announces to himself that the garden is beautiful and has a lot of history. He lives in this palace, doesn’t he? OK, so who are you talking to?
How does it play?
If someone were to place out a map of the game’s controls in front of you and show you what each button does, you might feel pretty intimidated. The controls vary from the previous game for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the dramatically different combat. I liked the combat in the previous game, but it was completely designed around one-on-one battles. This game will often pit you against a couple dozen enemies at a time. It works very well, and I never felt like the game was cheap with me in battles. In fact, I might even say the battles were a little too easy, but the focus in Prince of Persia was never really about the battles, so making them harder would take away time from platforming, which is the game’s core.
A lot of time went into planning the game’s platforming controls. The face buttons control sword attacks, jumps, kicks, and a rolling dodge. Some of these are contextual, both in combat and out of it. Triggers control various powers, and the d-pad controls earned abilities, which can be chosen from a grid using experience levels, but are completely optional. In fact, I used each one once or twice just to try them out, but they were never needed in the game to progress, only to make things a little easier. The camera is generally pretty well behaved, but there were several times when I wanted to backtrack in a section and had to jump into the camera, aiming for a platform or bar that the camera refused to turn and show. That sucks.
Primary and necessary powers include the ability to back up time, the ability to freeze water, the ability to do a lunging attack through the air, and the ability to “remember” broken portions of the castle one at a time so you can use them for platforming. Toward the end of the game, you’ll be using all four of these abilities (or at least three, if you don’t make a mistake) in succession to pull off some incredible acrobatic stunts. One of these is leaping between large birds which hover conveniently in spots so you can lunge to them, then spring off to another surface. It’s really pretty ridiculous and I didn’t like it.
Aside from the ridiculously obvious elements that indicate environmental elements you can interact with, like bricks protruding from walls, that are ever present in Prince of Persia, the level design is pretty great in this game. The more impressive and challenging skills, like crossing a room using vertical sheets of water, are done just enough to present a challenge and not so much that you’ll throw your controller through your TV set. In most cases, once you’ve traversed a room, you can do it again in much less time if you have to.
The save system in this game deserves special mention, as it’s particularly horrific. Gone are the manual saves coupled with autosaves from the previous game, and as a result a specific and nasty bug near the end of the game is stopping players dead in their tracks. Joe, in fact, encountered it in the 360 version, as did Steven Totilo over at Kotaku. Falling and dying at a certain challenging point late in the game means the game autosaves you in a glitchy room that you can’t get out of. While I didn’t encounter this, it may just be because I didn’t fall at that part of the game, though I was extra careful there since I was forewarned by Joe.
Joe’s solution was to retrieve an earlier autosave from another folder on his 360, but in the process he was set back about a half hour’s progress. Until Ubisoft patches this bug out, people are going to be very frustrated if they die in the wrong spot. The other problem with an autosave-only system is only one person can play the game on your profile at a time, and when you’ve finished the game, the only part you can easily show off to anyone is the final battle. Which is, admittedly, pretty epic.
One final bright spot is the game’s pacing. As linear as the game is, it does a great job at pushing you along and keeping things moving. I never wanted to walk away from it, and I breezed through it in a couple of days of play. Whether that’s a good thing overall is something to think about for yourself.
How’s the replay value?
You’re not going to get anything but some really clever and fun trophies from replaying the game, assuming you take the time to poke around every corner for the hidden sarcophagi that give you experience point boosts. Forgotten Sands is completely linear. However, the game is pretty short at about six hours, so that’s not too much of a hassle. The game also has a Challenge Mode, which lets you do things like fight off increasingly difficult waves of enemies in Enemy Tides or Time Trial. Ubisoft’s uPlay system is integrated in Forgotten Sands. This is their own achievement system that runs through several of their games (including Assassin’s Creed II) that lets you use your accomplishments in the game to unlock features. Different tasks are worth upoints, which are stored on Ubisoft’s servers and apparently you can cash them in for unlockables in any of their uPlay enabled games. The unlockables in Forgotten Sands are a theme, an experience point boost, an Ezio (from Assassin’s Creed II) costume, and Challenge Mode Arena. An unlockable Malik armor skin is being given away by Ubisoft online for a limited time for both platforms.
Is it worth it?
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is a really good game with some neat ideas, especially those based around using water for platforming. However, the game really just feels like an extension of the Sands of Time games, which is of course what it is. It doesn’t feel fresh, new, or particularly innovative outside of the water platforming. There’s a great deal of fun to be had here while it lasts.
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