Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is still one of the best platforming games on the PC and while UbiSoft has repeatedly tried to match the charm and flow of the original, every sequel so far has failed to match the original. The whole series feels like an exercise in trial and error as to what made Sands of Time work so well. But Ubi isn't giving up - enter Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
With a launch almost simultaneously with the Prince of Persia movie, one might imagine that we would get a direct movie tie-in. That is not the case - the story of Forgotten Sands has nothing to do with the movie. Instead we get a new story set somewhere between Sands of Time and Warrior Within. The story kicks off as the Prince travels to visit his brother, Malik and runs into a problem - Malik's kingdom is under attack by a massive army.
Malik has a bright idea to defeat the invaders by releasing King Solomon's Army, locked away under the palace for eons. An army, that turns out to be creatures made of sand, as numerous as the grains of sand in the desert. If this sounds like a partial re-run of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you would be right - however, at least this time the Prince is not the one to blame for the disaster, even if he ultimately does have to sort out the mess his brother unleashes.
As the story starts to roll, the first fundamental problem becomes clear. The Forgotten Sands is very much a "cinematic", scripted affair where you are constantly tossed about by increasingly implausible random events. The magical seal used to release the army just happens to split into two. Both Prince and Malik just happen to end up with one half of it. Then the Prince just happens to be separated from Malik as the sand army is released and, as by random chance (read: the on-rails environment offered no other path) the Prince runs across a portal to a magical domain where he finds a Djinn, Razia, who seems to have all the answers. Razia bestows the Prince with the power of rewinding time (just like the dagger in Sands of Time) and explains that the Prince must find his brother and unite the two halves of the seal to undo the whole mess.
The environment then just happens to allow multiple encounters with Malik in shouting distance for some cinematic dialogue scenes, yet there is always a reason why they can't just merge the seal parts and stop the whole mess. Of course without such improbable events, the story wouldn't work, so the game rolls on with the Prince mostly a passenger. There never seems to be a driving force as to why you should be climbing, jumping and fighting ahead - any real chance to complete the task of retrieving the seal would unavoidably be just another cutscene that will inevitably happen at some point as long as you push forward.
There are no sub-goals to care about and you just have to keep going where you are going because there is nowhere else to go. It actually all boils down to a simple failure at game design - instead of having a well-defined goal to aim for, you are given a goal of catching up with Malik - a character you have no control over, a character that keeps moving and you are left with a heavily scripted linear platformer without a sense of purpose. You just trounce onwards, waiting for the next cutscene to throw you another curveball. Games should always give the player a reason to do what they are supposed to do and a reason to care for the main character. Forgotten Sands fails on both counts.
It doesn't exactly help that the environment is completely designed to be a track for the Prince to follow. I actually took a spin with Sands of Time just to check how things were back then and yes, it is also mostly linear - yet it skilfully hides the linear path by tossing the Prince into environments that look plausible, with several potential routes and a demand to figure out what is the one that gets you where you need to go.
Both games help out the player to figure out the route. Sands of Time used foreshadowing clips of future events while Forgotten Sands goes with a very detailed fly-through of each area - yet there is a subtle difference between the two and in Forgotten Sands there is never any doubt as to what route you need to take - there is always just one available route and it is spelled out without any ambiguity. This downgrades the experience into an exercise in controlling your character - no thinkin 214a g or problem-solving required - save for a couple of puzzles that are a nice break from the linear platforming action.
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