People, apart from a small bunch including myself, generally didn't think much of 2008's Prince of Persia, so it's no surprise that Ubisoft went back to the formula that had proved successful in the past. The Forgotten Sands is very much in the same vein as the much loved Sands of Time and PS2/Xbox swansong Two Thrones. Even with fancy new HD visuals, though, can it live up to the memory of one of the great games of our time? Well, not really, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun once it gets going.
Characters and story play rather muted second and third fiddles to the old-school platforming and combat. The Prince arrives at a great palace to find it under attack. His brother, unable to fend off the massive wave of enemies, unleashes an undead army from beneath the palace grounds. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but these creatures cause havoc, turn allies to sand statues and almost completely total the palace. A medallion, split in half between the Prince and his brother, must be joined once again to rid the world of the menace, but things aren't as easy as they sound. The medallion gives the Prince's brother great power, corrupting him and sending the siblings on a collision course.
All this means that you have to fight through hundreds of monsters and traverse the now crumbling palace grounds. The platforming is by far the game's high point, with the classic swinging from pole to pole, wall running and beam balancing all present and correct, but it's the addition of two new abilities that elevate it above previous games in the series. Fairly early on in the game you gain the ability to freeze water for a short amount of time, turning a liquid into a solid object. This results in the creation of hard walls to run up and along, pillars to grab hold of and poles to swing from. Initially it seems like a nice gimmick, but nothing more. It's only after you've grasped the basics that things really take off.
Numerous mechanics make for some truly devilish and ingenious puzzle-like platforming. At times you'll have to release the freeze while in mid-air, then refreeze fractions of a second later in order to grab hold of another solidified stream that only appeared a fraction of a second earlier. Towards the end of the game there are sequences which require such precise timing and hand-eye coordination that after a few failures you'll wonder if progress is even possible.
Add to this an ability to bring back pieces of the palace that have crumbled and you've got a game that requires constant concentration and dexterous fingers. A mid-air dash, used to propel yourself into nearby enemies, is another element to consider, enabling you to whiz about the environment with speed and style. There's absolutely no doubt that this is by far the best platforming the series has ever seen.
Equally cool and tricky to progress past are the many traps that have been activated in the palace grounds. Spinning spiky poles, massive swinging blades, razor sharp discs that run across walls and pits of spikes all pose a considerable threat. These regularly feature among the already tricky platforming sections, making for some truly hair-pulling moments.
The combat, then, comes as a disappointment in comparison. You can unlock numerous elemental attacks to help you out, but the problem is that the core combat mechanics are just too basic. You have a sword attack, a charged version of that attack, and a kick. You can also leap from atop enemies and slash down from above, and chaining together slashes is incredibly easy, but there's no real depth to it. On the plus side, there are times when upwards of 20 enemies appear on screen at once, which slightly makes up for the simplicity of combat, but God of War this is not.
Your adventure won't last long, either, coming in at well under ten hours (and that's with plenty of retrying). Gone from the previous game is the safety blanket offered by your companion Elika. Instead of instantly being returned to the last safe point, you now have to make use of a limited rewind time ability. For the most part this works well in combination with the use of traditional check points, but at times you'll be forced to replay fairly large sections.
Aside from a few memorable platforming sequences, there's little here that dazzles. Visually it's impressive, with smart lighting and tons of on-screen foes, but boss encounters are dull in the extreme, with only the build up to the final encounter proving to be anything to get excited about. Audio work is solid, with a suitably rousing score, but the voice overs, particularly for the Prince and his brother, aren't great. Certainly compared to the stunning cel-shaded PoP from two years ago, The Forgotten Sands is a little bland.
PoP: The Forgotten Sands is a tale of two halves. On one side you've got some brilliantly designed platforming, with Ubisoft able to breathe new life into what could have been quite stale gameplay. Sadly, the combat, of which there is a lot, fails to do anything interesting. It's too basic and as a result dull and repetitive. As a whole, the game lacks the magic and beauty of the previous game in the series, but judged on its own merits offers enough to be worth a look.