The situation appears to be hopeless. The Prince is standing at the top of a high ledge overlooking an enclosed stone pit. He needs to reach a lonely-looking lever that's protruding over the drop, high overhead, but there seems to be no clear way to reach it: Aside from the steep fall, all that he has in front of him are a trio of horizontal water streams, spraying from the adjacent wall. There's nothing else of note, and yet our hero remains unfazed. He steps back for a few paces - just enough for a run-up - then he dashes forward and leaps into the void.
As the Prince sails through the air, something changes: In response to some invisible mental prompt, the water jets freeze into solid, translucent poles. The regal acrobat grabs the first bar, swings, and then throws himself onto the second. As he jumps again, he unclenches the mental muscle that has been keeping the water in stasis. The streams flow back into life - but the Prince has barely noticed: he's reached a wall on the other side of the chamber and is now running up the brickwork. At the pinnacle of his climb he springs backward, turns in the air, and snatches hold of a third water pole that he freezes just in the nick of time. Because he's a flash git, he then does a loop-the-loop before flying over to the target lever. The metal bar slowly sinks under his weight, conjuring a distant mechanical rumble. A gate has opened somewhere. It's time to move on.
Ladies and Gentleman: The Prince of Persia has returned. He toys with time like a cat plays with a ball of yarn, rolling it back and forth on a whim. He defies gravity, scampering away up vertical surfaces in a way that would make Newton weep. He swordfights like the bastard child of Jack Sparrow and Errol Flyn. How would they conceive? I don't know, and I don't want to either. All I know is that he's a total badass - a man who genuinely deserves the title of "Prince." He's a million times cooler than Britain's own princes. The only good prince we have is Prince Philip - and he's only fun because he's a massive PR disaster. True, Ubisoft's Prince can command the Sands of Time - but Prince Philip can unleash a MEDIA STORM, just by opening his mouth. See how the Royal publicity machine quails in fear!
As entertaining as it would be to play Philip in an exciting swashbuckling adventure, there's no doubt that Ubi-Prince is the man for the job. He's been in the fighting n' platforming business since 1989, don't you know, and over the past two decades he's taken on a number of appearances. His last game, 2008's Prince of Persia, was something of a reboot for the franchise - or at the very least, a sidestep from the path that the series had previously been taking: it had a new plotline, a fresh cel-shaded art style and, perhaps most importantly of all, a revised approach to its leap-y gameplay. The jumping and climbing controls were shaved down to a simple two-button system, and thanks to the help of your magical companion, it was essentially impossible to die. Ubisoft hoped these changes would help attract a wider, casual audience to the Prince's adventures - but some gamers were left mourning for the more hardcore, challenging days of old.
If you were one of those people who found POP 2008 too easy, it's time to rejoice: The Forgotten Sands is a return to the storyline that began with The Sands of Time in 2003, taking place within the seven-year gap that leads up to the start of the second game, Warrior Within. This also means that it's a return to the game design of that time - meaning lots of fighting, a comparatively complex control system, and enough demanding platforming to give you a severe dose of arthritis. Furthermore, as I can attest after a morning spent playing a section from the game's eighth level, you can and will die. A lot.
It was a brave but welcome decision on Ubisoft's part to showcase a level from an advanced stage of the game, in that it forced all of us lazy hacks to wake up and actually use our gaming skills - battling through groups of up to 20 or so undead badguys at a time, and springing our way out of some decidedly tricky physical puzzles. It's never easy to pick up on a story when you're coming in halfway through, but from what I can gather the plot is as follows: Princey has gone to visit his brother's kingdom, but just as he arrives a massive army turns up to trash the place. The siblings decide to use the magical Sands of Time to save the day, but invariably this causes massive problems, unleashing an evil force that must be defeated before everyone can sit down for a nice kebab.
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.