Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands – PAX East Preview & Hands-On

Photobucket“I want to start by talking about my favourite game of all time – Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.”

Encouraging words coming from Michael McIntyre, Level Design Director on Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. One look at the series’ history and you’ll find it’s pretty unanimous – Sands of Time is the best Prince of Persia game this side of the original, and anything aiming to match that quality is worthy of our attention.

McIntyre and Animation Director Jan-Erik Sjovall gave an exclusive preview of the game to a few lucky PAX East attendees last week, and in addition, I got a chance to play it first-hand. Here’s the deal: this isn’t some movie tie-in, nor is it a sequel to 2008’s lacklustre Prince reboot – this is a direct sequel to Sands of Time, taking place shortly after that game, but before the emo-goth debacle that was Warrior Within.

PhotobucketThe Prince, having moved on from the events of Sands of Time, finds his brother Malik in a bit of trouble. The kingdom is threatened, and in his attempts to find a solution, Malik accidentally releases an army of undead and the cursed sands that contained it. Quickly separated from each other, the Prince and Malik set about fixing the mess, all the while finding themselves developing elemental powers.

If time control was the big conceit in Sands of Time, then Forgotten Sands doubles up, offering the same time-rewind ability along with a heaping scoop of elemental puzzle solving and combat. The PAX demo focused on the prince’s water manipulation powers, saving earth, wind, and fire (the elements, not the band) for the final game.

As the prince leaps around his brother’s palace, he’ll be able to freeze waterfalls and fountains, turning them into walls and poles for a limited time. With the immediacy of acrobatics and some crafty level design, Forgotten Sands comes off as a high-octane puzzle platformer, demanding players to quickly read the environment and react. In one example, the prince must freeze the water ejecting from various wall spouts. As they freeze, they become horizontal poles to swing along. As the game progresses, you’ll have to time your freezes, swinging from one pole to the next, but unfreezing for a split-second to pass through a deviously-placed waterfall. It seems tricky, challenging, and brilliantly satisfying, all the while never succumbing to trial-and-error thanks to the rewind ability.

PhotobucketFrom what I’ve seen, the only issue with the platforming is that it runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Of course, many of the game’s twists and turns were left out of the demo, but we still saw a decent chunk of gameplay. The relentless jumping, swinging, and water freezing got to be a bit much by the end of the presentation. Hopefully when the game is complete, the mix of elements and variety of traps will make this a moot point, but with a May release just around the corner, it’s hard to imagine we’re looking at anything but finished levels.

Part of what made Sands of Time so great was that it balanced a believable world with enjoyable gameplay, with neither element coming at the expense of the other. Forgotten Sands has that balance in mind, but it seems to be leaning more towards complex platforming. The spouts and waterfalls that facilitate the puzzles are everywhere. After seeing so many, the castle started to feel more like an obstacle course than the work of some eccentric interior decorators. Despite this, I remain hopeful that the story and world shine through – McIntyre assured the audience at PAX that integrating story into the environment was a primary design goal.

PhotobucketStill, those aren’t the only worrisome elements. Combat in Forgotten Sands is a little absurd. Forget the series’ standard timing-based fighting – Forgotten Sands is more about leaping into the thick of a mob of fifty sand zombies and launching magic tornadoes at them. The problem is that it feels like a tech demo for showing off all the enemies on-screen. As a bit of fluff to break up the platforming, it could actually work, but it feels out of place so far.

I really want to like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and so far I do. But I can’t help feeling like some of the demo’s flaws could be the final game’s undoing. Most of what I saw was promising, and from what the developers are saying, they have the right idea. With the game due out in May, it won’t be long before we all find out.

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Written by Joe D

Inspired by a love for obscure Sega Saturn games in the 90s, Joe is pretty much open to anything gaming has to offer. What he looks for in a game: creativity and strong design, or sometimes just an overwhelming sense of style.

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