Version tested: Xbox 360
If you make a mistake, rewind and try again. That's been the implicit motto of the Prince of Persia series since 2003, but now it seems that life is imitating art as the ambivalently received 2008 reboot is unceremoniously ignored in favour of this "interquel", squeezed in between The Sands of Time and its angsty 2004 follow-up, Warrior Within, in the official canon.
This revisionist approach is likely to appease the fans who felt the new direction was too easy, since in almost every respect The Forgotten Sands both looks and plays like The Sands of Time. That's a good thing, clearly, since The Sands of Time remains a fine game. But it's also a disappointment of sorts, a worrying sign of creative retreat that suggests that having had its fingers burned with criticism of the 2008 game, Ubisoft's Montreal studio has stopped trying to find new ways to develop the series and has decided to fall back on elements that they already know will find favour with players.
The result is a game that's easy to enjoy, but almost impossible to be passionate about. In fact everything that deserves praise is the same as it was in 2003, when the praise came not only because it was fun but also because it was fresh. The Forgotten Sands offers familiar comforts over thrilling surprises, and inevitably misses its potential because of this overly cautious approach.
Almost everything is much as you'd expect. We're introduced to the Prince as he returns to his homeland, only to discover the family palace under attack by an invading army. The early stages find you racing through the battle, pulling off the usual acrobatic flourishes as you try to reach your brother, Malik, who leads the defending army. Finally reunited, and with no options left, Malik decides to unleash Solomon's Army, a mythical fighting force that he hopes will turn the tide.
It doesn't, of course. It makes things worse. Solomon's Army turns out not to be a supernatural ally but a demonic threat, named after the king it destroyed. Mummified ghouls burst from the ground, turning soldiers to sand with a touch, and the stage is set for what amounts to a game-long chase as you try to prevent your brother from being corrupted by these creatures.
So you leap, scramble and balance your way through the crumbling palace, which falls apart in pleasingly helpful ways, leaving obstacle courses of shattered stone and exposed timber for you to navigate. Every wall-run, every tightrope-walk, every jump feels instantly familiar, thanks to controls honed by years of experience. More familiar still are the traps that spring into deadly life: swinging blades, roving saw blades and hidden spikes. It's Prince of Persia alright, but the warm breath of nostalgia risks turning into an ambivalent sigh as the game offers little to mark the five years since we last played in this universe.
The biggest addition is the ability to solidify water, transforming horizontal jets into swing bars, vertical torrents into pillars and waterfalls into scalable walls. Later still, you gain the additional ability to restore missing parts of the scenery, but only one at a time, and the game has some fun mixing and matching the possibilities - particularly towards the end where the timing required to pass certain sections is sure to cause frustration.
You might, for example, have to jump through one waterfall, solidify the next, double-wall-jump back through that wall (now turned back into water) before solidifying things again to swing from a water jet, landing on a platform that you summoned out of thin air, replacing that platform with another as you jump, and then performing a series of jump-and-solidify moves to navigate spluttering pipes that only provide enough water in a certain sequence.
It's maddening, but also the closest the game comes to actually seizing and building on its long legacy. A couple of lever-and-cog-based puzzles aside, too much of the game finds you simply following the camera to the next exit, the scenery all but telling you which buttons to press, demanding engagement that is more instinctive than intellectual. Wall run, jump, jump, swing, grab and climb - it's the sort of thing that will be second nature to anyone with prior experience of the Prince, and it's easy to slip into autopilot, casually performing what should be daredevil actions from a comfy slump rather than the edge of your seat.
Combat, meanwhile, has sadly been reduced to predictable button-mashing, the increase in on-screen enemies (often dozens at a time) forcing a decrease in the number of distinct fighting skills available to you. Rather than the block, thrust and parry swordplay of old, this is essentially God of War: Arabian Edition, only without that game's combo depth and over-the-top melodrama.
Bad guys swarm you, you hammer the attack button and point the left stick at the nearest foe, and they crumble to dust as you carve through them. A few enemy types require slightly different tactics (shield-bearing creatures must be kicked before the hack-and-slash commences, for example) but a relentless one-button assault gets the job done most of the time. Boss battles are similarly afflicted, with some impressive, towering foes brought down simply by rolling and hacking away at their ankles until they die. Towards the end of the game you get a magical sword that renders even this level of nuance obsolete, offering one hit kills against pretty much every kind of enemy.
A quartet of magic powers help with crowd control, but their elemental nature - earth, wind, fire, ice - should give you an idea of how imaginative their uses are. Accessed via the directional pad, you can upgrade them by collecting experience from each enemy slain, but none of them evolve into anything that will really impress. They're certainly handy but, like so much else here, the implementation is functional rather than fun.
It's a short game as well, or at least one of those games that feel far shorter than they actually are thanks to the almost total lack of storyline or character. The connection to The Sands of Time is non-existent, with the events of that game never referenced and the lead-in to Warrior Within reduced to a broad and not very convincing justification for how the likeable rogue from the former became the scowling death machine of the latter.
Apart from the Prince and his brother there's only one other speaking part - a sexy female Djinn who I like to call the Ethnic Exposition Lady. You run into her at regular intervals so she can dump another load of back-story in your lap and grant you another magical power before sending you back for another few hours of beige, trap-laden corridors and massive brawls. The villain of the piece is just a giant monster that stamps around and bellows incoherently, and the pithy banter that gave The Sands of Time its endearing matinee charm has all but vanished.
It'll take a few evenings at most to finish the story on the default difficulty setting, and then all you've got to draw you back are a perfunctory time trial offering and a challenge mode that offers eight short waves of enemies to defeat as quickly as possible. Given that you'll be using your powered-up Prince from the completed game, it takes less than five minutes to exhaust the entertainment potential of this half-baked morsel.
It's so frustrating. Revisiting the beloved Sands of Time should be a recipe for success, but this is one of those games that squander their potential not through bad design but passable functionality, hours of moderate amusement merging into a soporific whole where no single moment stands out. No matter what powers you wield in the game, time hasn't stood still in real life and such complacency is dangerous, the swashbuckling mantle already inherited and evolved by the likes of Uncharted and Ubisoft stable-mate Assassin's Creed. Indeed, the Assassin Tombs in Creed's vastly improved sequel are practically a template for how Prince of Persia should look today.
By focussing so intently on what players responded to in 2003, there's no room to develop the ideas that might resonate in 2010. For all its flaws, the 2008 version refused to stand still. What we get here feels like a place-holder, a nostalgic diversion that exists so there's product on the shelves to coincide with the movie, rather than something driven by a flash of inspiration as to where the series could go next. For all its basic surface pleasures, The Forgotten Sands seems content to indulge our fondness for the past without ever giving us reason to be excited about the future.
6 / 10