If you asked most people these days to remember the old Prince of Persia games, they probably wouldn't immediately think all the way back to Jordan Mechner's seminal, rotoscoped PC action game from the '80s. More likely, their minds would run to The Sands of Time, the rampantly successful 2003 attempt to bring Mechner's acrobatic Arabian adventure into 3D on modern consoles. Ubisoft went and reinvented Prince of Persia again in 2008, recasting the prince as a foppish vagabond in a painterly world that didn't actually look much like Persia at all.
But it's The Sands of Time (and to some extent its less-revered sequels) that really defines what Prince of Persia is these days. Heck, that's even the game Jerry Bruckheimer's big summer popcorn flick will be based on this May. So it's really not surprising that Ubisoft is also returning to that well with the next Prince of Persia game, The Forgotten Sands. There's no Jake Gyllenhaal in here though, as this game is (thankfully) not just a retread of the movie, though it is shipping around the same time the movie hits theaters. Instead, The Forgotten Sands is an untold original story set in the seven-year period between Sands of Time and its egregiously darker, edgier sequel Warrior Within. So you'll get to see the process and the events that replaced the prince's youthful naivete with emo eye makeup in all of their grueling glory.
Then again, Ubisoft made it clear the prince isn't exactly a Godsmack fan just yet in The Forgotten Sands. This game will lean heavily toward The Sands of Time in both tone and gameplay, so this is basically the prince you remember from that original game. You've also got all the major elements that made that game tick back in action here. The requisite time-rewinding mechanics are here (sans mystical dagger). The prince's Sands of Time voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, is back. And perhaps most importantly, the game features plenty of gigantic, elaborate puzzle rooms full of pillars, flag poles, ladders, and ledges that you'll need to climb up, jump over, and shimmy across to navigate properly. And unlike in 2008's game, if you miss a jump or get cleaved in half by a giant blade, you certainly can and will die.
Ubi didn't talk much about the specifics of the storyline here, other than to say that the game opens with the prince journeying to meet his brother in a faraway kingdom and finding the palace under siege by a mysterious army of sand creatures upon his arrival. The curse that's affected this kingdom has turned all of its residents to sand and frozen them in eerie, still-life pantomimes of whatever they were doing at the time of the assault. So while you won't interact with a lot of living characters as you make your way through the palace, you will see the hapless citizenry frozen in their defense of their kingdom to remind you who it is you're trying to save. It's a stark effect more than a little reminiscent of the ash-covered people of Pompeii, forever locked in their final moments.
Respect for continuity aside, you can't shoehorn a game like this into an established franchise's timeline without adding some kind of twist on the core mechanics, so the designers at Ubisoft Montreal have given the prince a new list of elemental powers that work their way into the acrobatic puzzle-solving. Naturally, there's one core power each for water, earth, wind and fire--and though Ubisoft plainly missed a golden opportunity by not licensing Earth, Wind, and Fire for the soundtrack, these powers look like they'll add some interesting timing elements to the gymnastic gameplay segments.
Your wind power, for instance, is a rapid mid-air dash that will effectively teleport you from one place to another almost immediately. And the water power turns flowing water solid for a few seconds, letting you use it as a surface to run across or jump off of. Can't figure out a way forward? Why not turn that waterfall into a--wait for it--water wall! Ha! Uh, anyway, I saw another section where the water power turned horizontal jets of water shooting out of a fountain into solid poles that the prince could swing across to reach the far side of a chasm. The places that you'll need to use water as a climbing surface looked pretty self-evident, but the effect looked good in its own right.
It will also add some excitement to the basic platforming and jumping, from the looks of things. Forgotten Sands seems to be emphasizing especially precise control of the prince and strict timing in your jumps and rolls, almost as if in response to the lax demands of the last Prince of Persia game. The demo I got to watch included numerous sequences where the player had to use multiple powers in conjunction, such as running up a solid waterfall, jumping off of it, then disengaging the water power immediately in mid-air to liquify another waterfall, allowing you to pass through it. Failure to combine the right powers and jumps in the right order and with sufficient speed will surely contribute to a premature demise here.
The combat in the admittedly early build of Forgotten Sands I got to see looked a bit less polished than the acrobatics and elemental powers. Similar to Sands of Time, the fighting here will focus on large numbers of enemies--up to 50, Ubi says--and give you moves that let you manage them effectively by crowd-surfing over them, leaping from one to another, or knocking down large crowds of enemies at once. But unlike the precision melee strikes in Batman: Arkham Asylum--my personal gold standard for excellent third-person melee combat--the fighting here seemed a little more button-mashy, with broad swings of the sword hitting multiple enemies at once. You'll also be able to unlock new elemental powers from a skill tree as you progress through the story and earn experience, but none of these powers will be integral to the puzzle-solving and will primarily tie into spicing up the combat.
The Forgotten Sands really seems like an acknowledgement on Ubisoft's part of the ongoing, widespread adoration for The Sands of Time. The 20 or so minutes of the game I saw gave the distinct impression that the designers are trying to reprise and improve on the aspects of that game that fans loved so much, while downplaying some of the questionable decisions in tone and gameplay mechanics that were made in Sands of Time's direct sequels and the 2008 offshoot. I'd like to see more of this one before I make any blanket recommendations, but then, it probably also says something about the game's potential that I would in fact like to see more of it. For now, let's say that Prince of Persia fans already caught in a sandstorm of excitement for the movie's release in May should probably also keep an eye on The Forgotten Sands as the summer release dates for both approaches.