The demo stage kicked off in the prison of the castle before moving on to a connecting sewer system. The Prince's main adversaries throughout this area were cadaverous sand warriors who attacked en masse, striking out with stiff, creaky blows that reminded me of the skeletons at the end of Jason and the Argonauts. While these foes seemed relatively easy to kill, going down after one two blows, they had a habit of attacking in large mobs, forcing the player to adopt crowd control tactics. Aside from swordplay, the Prince's other standard weapon is his own feet. A deftly placed kick can knock back several enemies at once; you can use this move to simply buy time, or you can rush in to swiftly finish off anyone who's been knocked to the ground - a move that proves particularly useful in the case of shield-bearing villains.
To top up this bread-and-butter arsenal, the Prince also has access to several upgradeable magical attacks, mapped to the points of the D-pad. The Earth power grants you a temporary suit of armour that makes you all but invincible, while the Water one causes you to fire out a line of aquatic spikes every time you swipe out with your sword. The Wind power was the last one I saw during the demo, and perhaps the most impressive of all - causing the Prince to conjure up a fierce tornado that whirled his foes around him like ragdolls. These elemental attacks seem to utterly decimate your adversaries, but as they each have a cool-down period, you can't expect to fall back on them. The challenge in the combat seems to stem from the sheer number of opponents you face, rather than their individual deadliness, and as a result you feel like a bit of a killing machine.
As nice as it is to utterly destroy a small army of sand-warriors, it's the platforming that will steal the limelight in Forgotten Sands. The Prince has a varied repertoire of moves at his disposal, allowing him to climb both vertical walls and column-like poles, provided that the surface in question will accommodate gripping fingers or shimmying legs. You can jump from any climbing position, and it's arguably once you're airborne that things really start to get interesting - sailing across a deadly chasm to reach a patch of grab-able brickwork, or flying onto a horizontal pole. At this point our regal adventurer turns into a human Catherine Wheel, whirling around until he lets go and rockets into the great blue yonder (well, that's a slight exaggeration - but he does go quite far).
If you find two opposing walls that are close enough, Princey can leap back and forth between them until he's reached the top. If you tug and hold the right trigger (on Xbox 360, the version tested), he can also scurry across or even directly up a flat wall. This Wile E Coyote only works for so long however, and if you don't find a safe finishing spot in a matter of seconds, you'll plummet to your doom - unless, of course, you have the ability to rewind your mistakes. The old trademark time-manipulation power is back, but proper "reversals" are a limited commodity; make too many mistakes and you'll die outright.
As you can probably tell, there's a lot to keep track of, and I've barely dwelled on the water-freezing power that took centre stage within the demo's puzzles: a handy little tool that allows the Prince to clamber about on magically-halted streams of water. Once I'd got to grips with all the moves, I swiftly fell back into that Tomb Raider mindset - the one where you walk into a room and start instantly assessing how you can use every bit of the environment: the razor-sharp blade wheels zipping up and down the walls; the important-looking lever that taunts you from the other side of the room; that hand-hold that seems to be just out of reach.
When you come to a new chamber the camera pans across the area to give you an idea of where you need to go; it's a helpful touch, but at other times perspective can become a bit of an issue. Because your directional commands are relative to the Prince himself, rather than to the screen, it can be quite easy to cock-up jumps if you're viewing them from an odd angle. Still, Ubisoft appears to be well aware of this problem, and it shouldn't be too hard to remedy this before the game's final release.
Aside from this slight hiccup, Forgotten Sands is already looking like a rather tasty proposition. It's genuinely refreshing to play a game that isn't afraid to test its players, and there's something properly exciting about setting off on a chain of jumps, vaults and climbs where a slight mistake - a slip of timing perhaps, or accidentally unfreezing an aquatic pole - will result in abject failure. It's easy to forget how molly-coddled we gamers are these days, but The Prince may just be the guy to whip us back into shape. Here's hoping.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is due for release on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS and PSP in May.