This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands.
Well, at least the delayed release of Mario Galaxy 2 is giving me a chance to get through my backlog. Now, just as Roger Ebert's authority on video games is comparable to that of a man who has been trapped in a space capsule for thirty years with a broken Game & Watch, I have little time for films. Apparently, they're like games, but they basically unfold without you having to do anything, like the next logical step to the Final Fantasy series. I'm informed that one relating to Prince of Persia came out recently, and it's shit. I haven't seen it and never will, but you should never be too proud to prejudge, as my prosecutor used to say.
Anyway, by strange coincidence, a new Prince of Persia game came out at around the same time, but Forgotten Sands seems to be consciously trying not to look like something that was rushed out to capitalise on the film. Which is a shame, because it totally does. And it totally was.
So forget about Jake Gyllenhaal's fantastically-close resemblance to a swarthy Arabian man, Forgotten Sands' plot is unrelated and is intended to be slotted into canon just after the original Sands of Time game, and as well as the sand, asks us to forget about Warrior Within, Two Thrones, and that cel-shaded thing. Fucking hell! I am so on board with this plan, Captain Forgotten Sands; let's set sail for adventure! Toot-toot! Any chance we can retcon Prince of Persia 3D out of existence while we're at it?
Having grown tired of the Prince's passive-aggressive sarcastic whining, his dad has sent him to stay with his brother (presumably also a prince) who has his own kingdom, King Sharaman never having been one for dropping subtle hints. I mean, when my parents wanted me to move out they just stopped cooking me dinner. Anyway, the prince - the other prince, that is, not our Prince - attempts to stop an invading army by unleashing an evil race of monsters who turn everyone to stone. At least it wasn't your fault this time, but that doesn't mean you're not the one who's going to have to sort it all out. Oh no, what do you think this is, a film?
If you're new to my opinions, let me remind everyone that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is, without hyperbole, the greatest work of artistic endeavour in the history of anything. Linear platforming as smooth and flowy as a bar of soap in a deep fat fryer and writing far above average for video games, the average for video games being somewhere around the mantle layer of the Earth.
I suspect Forgotten Sands was built on the same engine as Sands of Time, since it's pretty much the same but dipped in HD graphics rendering. And the Prince gets the power to reverse time again, 'cause that's kind of his thing. Seems like magic time-reversing artifacts are like Tamagotchis in ancient Arabia.
The moment I picked up the controller, I went straight back into the Sands of Time groove, automatically wall-running and jumping and climbing until I went into a trance. And yet the platforming doesn't flow as well as it used to. I wondered why this game doesn't have a slow-motion power, but it turns out it does, it's just activated all the time. Plus, the camera is a fickle beast that often refuses to rotate far enough to show you what you want to see until you've flattered it with shallow compliments. And the Prince's hair and beard make him look like a ventriloquist dummy of Dr. Zaius.
Of course, the combat was the worst part of Sands of Time, so Forgotten Sands makes the most of its HD upgrade to introduce crowd-based combat where you must fight off entire high school reunions of sand zombies. There's a terrible attack delay on your part that makes fighting sticky and unwieldy, and attacking a specific priority target among the horde is about as exact a science as using an earth-moving device to pick the raisins out of your muesli.
But all the monsters have to spend at least five seconds telegraphing their attacks, then filling out a permission slip from head office and waiting three to five weeks for a response before they can actually hit you, so the combat turns into a fight over the TV remote at the nursing home. The now-inevitable RPG elements also let you build up four different magic combat spells, but frankly, any experience points sunk into any spell besides the area of effect shockwave attack you might as well have just blown on sweeties and copies of FHM. Since the game was rushed out for the film and everything, there's also little variation in enemies, especially towards the end, when they're rolling out the same big boss lads every five minutes. So the combat overall feels severely token. One time there was an expository cutscene, then a completely meaningless fight with some monsters, then the cutscene resumed where it left off. I had to laugh, because it was basically the game saying, "Shit! I just remembered I'm a game!"
The Prince in Forgotten Sands is probably the closest he's ever been to how he was in Sands of Time: a cocky aristocrat who somehow draws acrobatic energy from passive-aggressively whinging to himself. So why does he seem like so much more of a prat? Well, he was always a prat, but he also had a significant character arc in Sands of Time in which we learn that he's really an insecure daddy's boy who acts aloof and arrogant because he doesn't know how to express his emotions, and all he really wants is a great big hug. But in Forgotten Sands, we just have all of the sarcastic prick with none of the growth. And we all know the best kind of prick is one with a growth on it. You see, Sands of Time's story was so good because the lead characters and their parallel development are absolutely central to the plot. You can't just take one aspect of that and expect it to perform just as well. It's like playing "Castle on a Cloud" on a kazoo and expecting people to like it as much as the whole of Les Misérables.
I think I must have been a flying squirrel in a former life, because my brain is hardwired to enjoy this sort of platforming, and Forgotten Sands has enough of it for me to find it enjoyable by default. The ending's a bit disappointing, especially when it devolves into a series of still images with a voiceover in a way that yodels, "Our cinematic budget ran out!"
Overall, there's just something terribly cynical about Forgotten Sands that makes me uneasy. It's all so by the numbers. When the large bull-like enemy was introduced, I instantly paused the game and announced: "This enemy will charge at me, but if I dodge out of the way at the last second it will run into a wall and stun itself." Then I unpaused the game and thus were proven my powers of clairvoyance.
It seems like if you've completed a trilogy - and, lest we forget, rebooted the fucking thing - going back to mine the last game you're sure was good just isn't very classy, like stealing leftovers from the bins outside an up-market restaurant and serving them to your dinner guests. Plus, it was brought out to capitalise on a film, and films are a load of old cobblers. See, Roger Ebert? That's what it feels like!
- 50,000,000th in line for the throne: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- They should show video games in cinemas and everyone in the audience votes on what button to press next
- I tried running up a wall once but I broke the light switch
- The Zero Punctuation episode of the game was never officially released by The Escapist on YouTube in a standalone format. Thanks to the community request, it was finally released on August 7, 2021 after over eleven years.