If I was going to make a movie about the Prince of Persia, I probably wouldn't need Donnie Darko, that mega-fox lady everyone really fancies and loads of olde time armour. Instead, my film would be set in the first years of the 21st century, and it would be about a team of game designers who had the misfortune to create something almost perfect, which they could then, driven by the need for innovation, never quite find again. (Granted, this movie probably wouldn't make very much money, but on the plus side you wouldn't have to insure many camels to get through principal photography.)
Ever since Sands of Time, looking forward to a new Prince of Persia game has been a bit like waiting at the school gates for your alcoholic stepfather to come and take you home: you never quite know who's going to turn up. Will it be the elegant dreamer, the stubbly emo misanthrope, or will it - my analogy falls down at this point - be Nolan North?
With Forgotten Sands, it's hard to tell for the first few minutes. The game may exist in a promising and newly excavated gap between Sands and The Warrior Within, but it kicks off in thunderously bombastic fashion, dumping you into a disappointingly murky castle besieged by a demonic army. The latest preview build fires up with a few seconds in which you get to see huge monsters trashing distant courtyards, before you're thrown into a full-on brawl against some rattly skeleton types. It's a worrying suggestion, in other words, that Ubisoft might have invited the wrong Prince back. You know, the one who drinks.
Combat ramps up the number of enemies you'll be facing and offers you a decent sword attack, good for creating space and bludgeoning the undead, but while it's enjoyable enough it's hardly playing to the series' strengths. As coloured orbs fly through the air and unspeakable ghouls are abruptly unheaded, the whole thing feels a bit like a stodgier God of War - as if Kratos had decided that it might be a super good idea to eat a few dozen Battenberg cakes before having it out with Zeus.
One thing Kratos couldn't do, however, was rewind time whenever he made a tit of himself. With The Forgotten Sands, the series' best skill makes a return, and it's a pleasure to see it safe and sound and living a rich, full life on the right bumper - often the location of choice for a standout feature in this hardware generation. Not only will rewind get you out of scrapes if you perform a sprightly leap over a parapet when you're meant to be giving some shambling relic a good shoeing, it's a welcome reminder that, at his best, the Prince always had more on his mind than simple violence anyway.
He still does, thankfully. With the horde dispatched, the camera pulls back to reveal a lavish and intricate vertical space: a vaulted chamber filled with ledges, pillars and hanging beams. It's impossible to take in the cut-scene's sinuous sweeps and arcs without planning a route in your mind, and the next few minutes present a delightful shuffling of old memories, as you wall-jump, backflip, run and swing your way from one chamber to the next, racing along plasterwork, sliding down tapestries and ducking whirling blades.
It's a joy to discover that old skills haven't been entirely eroded by the airport travelator approach to gymnastics pioneered by the 2008 reboot, and, after a few duff jumps - blame the camera, eh? - and a few wonky handsprings into the abyss, the new Prince of Persia is delivering on the franchise's core skill: making chubby men sat on sofas, possibly eating Cheese Strings, feel like svelte ninja ballerinas, unbound by all the laws of physics except for the one that makes your hair flop about in a sultry fashion.