Last month there was an interview on Eurogamer with Ubisoft PR about their gameplay changes to the latest iteration of Splinter Cell. The argument presented there positioned that Splinter Cell could sell a lot better, and the high brass of the company wants that to be done. Broaden the player base magical code monkeys and bake a cake for everyone to enjoy! It’s not hard to imagine such an ultimate cake which is sweet and sour and salty but also satisfyingly fruity.
I imagine that would be a dream of every person working in the marketing department – a product that everyone would want a piece of. Just shout a bit at them and they’ll come in droves. Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands feels like a previous attempt of Ubisoft at creating this perfect mixture to appease any type of gamer they can get their hands on.
But it’s also a completely different approach than Splinter Cell: Conviction. In SC they wanted to make a 24/Bourne game and just splat a Splinter Cell logo on it, because it’s a brand with a history of success. In here, they wanted to create a Prince of Persia game for Prince of Persia fans. A rare situation but definitely a nice one. I mean both games are quite good in their own right, but also both didn’t sell the expected amounts. They were made with different marketing ideas in mind, and yet they both failed (relatively-speaking). No wonder, no one in these publishers’ game companies know what they are doing.
But I digress! Forgotten Sands is a safe game. It’s perfectly comfortable, playable, tight and utterly forgettable. No wonder it’s gotten lukewarm reviews because the game is nothing special. That’s the result of looking for a safe spot in the stormy history of Prince of Persia – a sort of creamy failure, a comfy piece of wood.
The modern games of the series varied from part to part quite heavily. Each was concerned with a lot of jumping, platforming and trap-avoiding with a bit of sword-fighting here and there. However, the style, oh, that was a wild rollercoaster. Sands of Time was a fairytale, Warrior Within a God of War clone and The Two Thrones a bit of both with some stealth added on top. Then came the reboot with thieving prince, a helpful princess and beautiful artstyle. This one didn’t sell according to expectations. Fortunately, it was 2008 and the movie adaptation was slowly becoming a reality. Ubisoft wouldn’t miss a chance to tie in to that!
So, The Forgotten Sands was born – a movie tie-in in visuals only, a spiritual remake of Sands of Time which makes one shout-out to the previous trilogy and logically places itself as an interquel (really) and last but not least it’s completely stand-alone, done-in-one – open to the new players! How do you not sell that Mr and Mrs Marketing Person?!
That’s the line, I imagine being repeated in Ubisoft PR meetings. It’s all the more sad because there hasn’t been a Prince of Persia title since then. The brother from a different mother – Assassin’s Creed has taken it’s place. It’s a shame because they’ve already moved out of the Middle East, and press ‘A’ for parkour isn’t nearly as enjoyable as gameplay mechanics of PoP.
Anyway, the game. The best part about The Forgotten Sands is its fantastic oriental-inspired music. I’m listening to the soundtrack right now and it’s tremendously enjoyable, definitely as highly refined as in all previous games. It has emotion, it has style and it fits the game’s atmosphere perfectly.
The graphics, on the other hand, aren’t as spectacular, but still quite competent. There are extremely few options to set them up, but it works well, so I can’t whine too much about it. The problem lies in the artstyle, after the visual extravaganza of the reboot, this looks just simple – lacking. A bronze-yellow-black color palette doesn’t help matters at all. Quite obviously, the visual basis for the world was Sands of Time – both the first game in the trilogy and the movie adaptation, but it doesn’t amaze in the same way as either of them.
Also, an immense issue is that of level design. I still find it absolutely absurd how the locations in this generation have only gotten smaller. It’s something that hurts all the more in a game such as this. Especially, taking into account that Forgotten Sands succeeds in replicating that fabulous feeling of being a super agile skillful person jumping around like a mild-mannered monkey on cocaine.
Unfortunately, the smaller levels lead to certain amount of simplification. In a glorious mission to widen the playerbase they accomplished the obvious – killed the thinking, eliminated the slow moments. There’s no looking up into the sky in awe – ‘Wow! I’m going to climb that?!’ No, there’s only running left. Press forward and go, go, go. I believe this may not be necessarily bad in and of itself but, holey moley, does it not get dull after some time. When my mind wanders off and after I come to I find I finished another level, then things aren’t going the way I’d like them to go.
Luckily, the game design as a whole is rather fantastic. Every mechanic is introduced in a timely well-explained manner and then used to its fullest. The difficulty also ramps up in an organic manner. That’s why I believe it’s a grand game for a PoP beginner. Also, the game ends before it can get really boring and the finale is appropriately bombastic.
However, for a veteran there just isn’t enough compelling challenge. There are two new features specific to this game, which while really fun, aren’t enough to hold the whole game together. Though, the freezing water in time is an absolutely lovely ability, which I could do all the time and it should absolutely stay in for the potential sequels – it drives the game forward in the fun department. The same can’t be said about combat, though. The idea was that Prince always fights a horde of enemies. It’s not a bad idea, really, but the execution is dreadful. Just keep mashing X until everyone is dead (or deader).
Eh, I realize I haven’t written anything about the story of the game, but I’ve really gotten disillusioned in the gaming narratives lately, and Forgotten Sands is certainly one of these barely articulate monsters. It’s awfully simple – there are three characters – the villain, the hero and the exposition lady. The lack of any princesses in the game is sad, because they always added some flavor, were likable and allowed for lots of fun banter.
And here we get to my main problem – Forgotten Sands may be a a fun little game, but it doesn’t inspire any meaningful thought – it’s empty, it’s soulless. There is nothing beyond the game – it’s pure filler. Through most of my playthrough I was wondering why it didn’t get better reviews, but by the time I was finished, I knew. However cliché and probably repeated ad infinitum this is – Forgotten Sands is forgettable. To me, that’s one of the worst things you can say about a popcultural creation.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Platformers are like survival horror and stealth games – not for the famed ‘everyone.’ Mindlessly coping everything that can make the game popular doesn’t work in such cases. Honestly, if I paid $60 for Forgotten Sands I’d be sad and pissed off. It’s a bargain bin title in length and in ambition. It’s just that, no matter what the idea behind it was, and what marketing possibilities the title had.
[Amusingly, there are four versions of this game, each with different story and gameplay. I’ve played the X360/PS3/PC version. The different ones are on PSP, 3DS and Wii. The PC version I played was chained to UPlay, but that didn’t taint my experience in any way.]