"It's not the game of the movie, the movie is the movie of the game." That's the official line about this latest Prince of Persia do-over's relationship to the upcoming Jake Gyllenhaal blockbuster. One look at the cover art, huge standees of which adorn the room I'm playing The Forgotten Sands in, proves this isn't exactly a total separation of console church and silver-screen state, however. Donnie Darko's face might be replaced by that of a handsome, swarthy stranger, but the hair, the clothes, the pose, the font are a spit for the movie's poster.
And why not? The movie is, after all, based loosely upon The Sands of Time, the last-generation title that spectacularly reinvented classic, big-trousered early-nineties platformer Prince of Persia. Curiously, The Forgotten Sands is a direct sequel to that, slotting into the Prince's narrative in a newly-created gap between Sands of Time and the unfortunate rawk stylings of The Warrior Within. This means bolshie royal-lady Farrah returns, as does the titular wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey rewind-o-sand.
And as does Sands of Time's fluid, elegant parkour-as-puzzle structure. There's plenty of combat - largely against armoured skeletony things - in The Forgotten Sands, but the focus is on navigating across environments filled with traps and ledges and dangling lights and giant levers. It's always a game about getting from A to B, but that involves mastering complex timing, controls and observation. In concept, it's finally giving The Sands of Time's many fans what they want after years of puzzling deviations from what was clearly a successful formula.
This means it's the polar opposite of 2008's Prince of Persia - a failed attempt to reboot the series again - whose style and story now seem abandoned. While the case for the defence was that it was aimed at non-traditional gamers, the general consensus was that it was too easy - you presses your buttons and the game does it all for you. Hoo boy, this one's not the same. While my limited playtime saw me plunged directly into the eighth level, and thus not pre-tutored in Forgotten Sands' intricate thinking and controls by hours of practice, the difficulty was still a shock.
I suspect we've been spoiled by the button-holding fluidity of Assassin's Creed, the neon-bright signposting of Uncharted 2, and the just-keep-going urgency of Mirror's Edge. The Forgotten Sands gives you a quick scan of each room when you enter it and tries to point the camera in roughly the direction you next need to head, but other than that you're on your own.
Its acrobatics-based puzzles are strictly square-peg-in-square-hole affairs, so you won't progress until you've sussed out the one and only way to reach the next ledge or pole or chandelier. Even then, getting there requires very quick button combos and reflex-jumping, else you'll fall to the floor, damned either to death or taking the lengthy manoeuvre from the top.
It's possible The Forgotten Sands is going to be too frustrating for some players, as the muted art style means it seem occasionally tricky to gauge depth and distance, and at least twice I thought I'd accidentally looped back on myself because the latest room looked so similar to the last.
Meanwhile, the few-and-far between checkpoint system means you have to repeat a fair old stretch of wall-running, pole-vaulting and skeleton-smashing upon each all-too-regular death. Again, this is based on jumping directly into a late stage of the game, so hopefully it'll feel a lot more natural if you've come to it the normal way.
Plus, of course, the dual challenge of timing and observation should be relished in an age when many mainstream games are accused of excessive handholding. Even so, a bit more signposting and a more flexible camera may be necessary to keep a lot of people from regularly trekking to GameFAQs.
Key to both complexity and pleasing escalation is the Prince's beefy set of abilities. The emergency-rewind power from Sands of Time returns, albeit limited to auto-returning you to the last safe point rather than allowing any manual control, but the boy with the curtain hair-do is also blessed with control over the elements.
He'll unlock and upgrade these supernatural abilities as the game wears on, and is eventually able to dispatch multiple enemies into clattery bone-piles with a spectacularly destructive summoned tornado, or to temporarily freeze jets of water to create icy poles, walls and pillars he can use to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
This is what I mean when I bang on about complexity. You'll need to master combos such as laterally wall-running, pressing jump at just the right moment to reach the next ledge before you fall, then jumping again while you've still got momentum, but simultaneously activating your freeze power to turn a horizontal stream of water into a pole, which you then need to swing round-and-round-and-round and then away from before it thaws. Even letting go of the right button at the wrong time will end the run and send you plummeting to earth. It's a real feat of memory, reflex and co-ordination, and I'm ashamed to admit I repeatedly mucked it up.
The Elemental powers really sing in the combat - as well as the aforementioned Air tornado, there's Water's arc of icy spikes, Fire's impassable wall of flame, and Earth's offence and defence mega-buff. With limited energy at your disposal, you need to carefully choose which of these to activate and when. The swordfights aren't simple one-on-one affairs, but instead hectic brawls that see you surrounded by over a dozen murderous sand-demon thingies at once.
The sword-fighting itself, the bread-and-butter of the Prince's graceful combat, is faintly reminiscent of Arkham Asylum's excellent man-thumping. Rather than frenetic button-bashing or convoluted combos, it's about finding and maintaining a rhythm, deftly pinging away from near-fatal strikes before they land and using light attacks to keep the swarm of other bad guys at bay even as you land the killing blow on your current target.
So is Prince of Persia back on track? It's impossible to call it without seeing more and seeing it in context. It's an enormous relief to go back to the brainy environmental puzzles of The Sands of Time, especially with much-improved combat, but there's a concern the muted and repetitious aesthetics and the rather large roster of abilities might make for a less elegant game than its lucid dream of a forefather. Regardless, it's excellently reassuring to find old Princey-pants confidently revisiting his finest hour, and not just running down some corridors and wearing a crude approximation of Jake Gyllenhaal's face.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is due out for DS, PC, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 in May.