Given that video games are usually better than the movies based on them, it makes sense that the new Prince of Persia game would be just as happy to ignore the chestfest of a movie as I am. Instead, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is inspired by the popularity of the last generation’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, ignoring 2008’s poor, unloved, colon-less Prince of Persia (which I’m just going to call PoP-08 from here on, as though it was a Japanese energy drink). But for all PoP-08’s controversial elements, it was creatively trying to build on what had worked in previous PoP games and throw out what didn’t, and PoP: TFS left me longing for its relative success.
PoP-08’s all-quick-time-event gameplay was an acknowledgement that platforming control had never worked very well on the animation-heavy PoP games, where you’re frequently pushing a button and then waiting for the character to catch up. Instead, it went for eye-dazzling flow, a playable rollercoaster where you pushed the buttons in rhythm and enjoyed the show.
PoP: TFS labors under the delusion that it’s a Nintendo-style precision platformer, so it’s full of moments where you have to time your jumps just right to avoid bone-crunching death. But the imprecise relationship of your controller to the Prince makes those moments feel cheap and frustrating instead of challenging. The addition of water-freezing and space-recreating powers are interesting ideas, and make for some interesting challenges. Unfortunately, a great many of those challenges revolve around precise timing of your buttons and your trigger, which just means that much more controller-gnashing frustration. And it doesn’t help that the PoP games have never really gotten a handle on making a 3D camera work, so figuring out your distance from obstacles is largely guesswork flavored with hope.
Combat is similarly compromised. It has none of the first SoT game’s athletic kills, and the attempts to mimic PoP-08’s timing-based combat and abrupt cutscene imposition just feels sluggish in the context of enemy-heavy real-time battles (and for God’s sake, if you’re going to carry forward just one element of PoP-08, why would it be the much-hated combat?!). It’s not totally unsatisfying, and if you get into the rhythm of it there’s some fun to be had, but it’s not an experience worth buying the game for.
PoP: TFS also picks up from the last SoT games visually, which is to say it’s muddy and drab, making it hard to distinguish useful bricks from any of the other grey blocks on your screen. HD resolution makes it a lot more playable than the last couple of PS2 games, but the single-set world does the designers no favors in terms of providing any prospect of visual surprise. Ditto the repetitive enemy designs (once you’re about two hours into the game, you’ve seen nearly every enemy model there is) and monotonous boss battles.
PoP: TFS isn’t a worthless game. Ubisoft Montreal has been making solid PoP levels for long enough that their designers probably wall-run to the office bathroom, and these are perfectly solid examples of the ledge-hanging, pillar-hopping, spike-dodging formula. If you want more of that, this is more of that, and I like that, so playing it was fine, I guess.
What this unambitious retreat to form is really missing is magic, the thing that PoP-08, for all its weird decisions, had by the fistful. There’s a few exciting set pieces, particularly the final battle, but it’s largely missing the I’m-Erroll-Flynn! delight of the best PoP moments. I went looking for joy, and I got a time-killer instead, and that’s one hell of a bum deal.