Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands has nothing to do with the fanciful, painterly new direction Ubisoft took for its great 2008 Prince of Persia game. This is a meat-and-potatoes entry in the original Sands of Time franchise--the one consisting of The Sands of Time, Warrior Within, and The Two Thrones--that doesn't directly tie into the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer theatrical extravaganza Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time but is clearly positioned alongside it to establish some good old-fashioned brand synergy. The Forgotten Sands itself is a breezy, by-the-numbers Prince of Persia game that makes some minor improvements to the series' formula. Its rough, middling production values won't blow you away, but if you've been longing for more of the complex gymnastic puzzles and precision timing the series has been known for since 2003, this is a fun enough action game to spend a few evenings with.
Everything about The Forgotten Sands sort of screams "side story" at you. It takes place sometime between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, when the still-nameless prince embarks on his travels as a young man and finds his brother Malik's castle under siege by a warring kingdom. After his troops fail to repel the assault, Malik rashly opens a magical seal imprisoning the legendary army of King Solomon that just happened to be hanging out in his palace basement, falsely believing the army once fought for Solomon in a time long past and would return to Malik's aid in the present day. Yeah, good luck with that.
To the great misfortune of Malik and his kingdom (but the surprise of no one), it turns out that army was created to destroy Solomon. Once free, the horde is clearly none too happy about its millennium of captivity and sweeps across the castle turning everyone (save Malik and the prince, conveniently) into sand. It is, of course, up to the two brothers to fight back this ancient curse and find some way to stuff it back into its prison before the credits roll. This premise acceptably justifies the game's sparse cast--it's just the prince, Malik, an otherworldly magical lady who shows up to grant you new powers occasionally, and a fire demon running around wreaking havoc--but there's only a thin wisp of a storyline here, and unfortunately this game misses a ripe chance to set up the events of the game that follows it chronologically. Instead, it just sort of... ends, without much fanfare.
What follows from this brief intro is around 10 hours of the series' trademark acrobatic obstacles punctuated by staccato moments of large-scale melee combat. If you played any of those POP games on last-generation consoles, you're already well acquainted with this formula; Forgotten Sands adheres to it so strictly that you still get that broad camera pan across each new environment showing you exactly what combination of pillars, poles, ledges and sheer walls you're expected to nimbly navigate to get to the next section of the castle. Unlike the blithely forgiving '08 Prince of Persia, you can actually die in this game if you miss a jump or land on a spinning razor blade, and some of the combinations of jumps, swings, and magical powers you have to combine with split-second precision. To those who complained that the last game was too easy, this is the more demanding POP game you were looking for.
Nothing about the basics of the jumping, climbing, and wall-running feels new in Forgotten Sands, but the developers did layer in some interesting new mechanics to enliven all the familiar platforming. You can solidify flowing water, which usually comes in the form of spouts that become makeshift poles you can swing on, and waterfalls that turn into walls you can run up or across. Another power lets you temporarily restore broken ledges and walls, long enough to use them to springboard up to greater heights. And an air dash lets you essentially teleport straight to a nearby enemy to simultaneously kill them and cover a big distance instantly.
These powers are really responsive--you can turn them on and off instantly at the touch of a button, and the level designers do a great job of making you use them all rapidly midair to really test your platforming skills as the game goes on. Later on, it's not uncommon to use the water power, then the restoration one, then the dash all in the course of one jump. Other times you'll have to flip the water power on and off repeatedly to cross a series of waterfalls or alternating fountains. I found these more demanding moments satisfying and exciting enough to keep the rote platforming pretty fresh throughout the game. And of course, since this is a Prince of Persia game, you can always rewind time to to try each obstacle again if you miss.
In between the acrobatic stuff, you fight. The game likes to attack you with anywhere between five and 50 sand monsters at a time, and the combat is a little more precise and satisfying than its slightly button-mashy feel first suggests. In fact, there are a lot of ways to manage the sizable groups of enemies you run into. You can roll away from enemies, kick them to knock them down or disarm their shields, crowd-surf from the head of one enemy to the next, and charge up stronger slashes to mix in with your basic sword combo. You can also unlock some elemental combat powers from a skill tree as you gain experience, though aside from a whirlwind power that knocks down everyone around you, I didn't find these very useful and preferred to just dodge and slash my way through the hordes. And the swordplay is the sort that lets you broadly hit several enemies at once, so this isn't the kind of bone-crunching precision of Batman: Arkham Asylum's incredible melee combat. I'm still waiting for someone to do third-person hand-to-hand action half as well as that game did.
Despite the finely tuned level design and decent variety in the action, Forgotten Sands just feels a little rough around the edges. It's not a very good-looking game by current standards; most of it looks flat, with a very low level of detail in the castle environments. Even the different sections of the palace all look more or less the same, just with different color palettes. And I disliked the weird design of the prince himself so much that I played most of the game with him wearing an Ezio costume, as soon as I unlocked it. In addition, there are too many little nagging issues to list out here, issues with the way the prince will sometimes fail to grasp a ledge or make a proper jump, problems with unwieldy camera angles in tight spaces, and cutscenes that end abruptly or feature rough animations that feel like they weren't entirely finished in some cases. None of these issues are game-breaking on their own, but cumulatively they add up to make the game feel less polished and impressive than it should be.
The Forgotten Sands is the very definition of a pretty good Prince of Persia game that doesn't feel like it entirely lives up to the series' vaunted pedigree. Times are changing, of course, and you could argue that Assassin's Creed has justifiably superseded Prince of Persia in Ubisoft's stable of action games. It's clear which franchise is receiving the lion's share of development efforts these days, anyway. But the prince has still got plenty of fight left in him, and next time out, whatever timeline or set of characters they end up going with, I hope Ubisoft gives him the attention he deserves.