I see you have returned, traveller. It is time again for us to speak of sifting sands and shifting skylines. To talk of the tears of time and tears in time. We have found the last story, the final tale of The Prince Of Persia, and it is in the story that goes nowhere and means nothing, and yet, anchors a person to a time and a place.
Sit by the fire, traveller. Be still, and listen.
The Final Middle
The Forgotten Sands is the strangest child of a very strange franchise. If you lined all the games up and looked at them side by side, there’s clearly a lineage between them. Sands of Time was youthful and sweet, Warrior Within strove to establish itself as serious, Two Thrones tried to recover and stitch those two ideas together. Then 2008 wanted to set off in a new direction and become its own idea expanding on foundational game principles and the feeling of freedom of movement, before jerking back into the same continuity with The Forgotten Sands.
The Forgotten Sands is what aficionados of media will often call a midquel, a distinct separate story that is set some place in the middle of another one; it happens somewhere between Two Thrones and Sands of Time, with their lovely, circular time motif, and since it sits in that place it does so uncomfortably. No character development can be too large, because the story has to fit somewhere between those points. No greater event can tip the Prince off his course towards the two. There’s no unexplained development to show, and there’s no sudden change in behaviour that the story can well explain. Unless you were going to use this story to show how the storybook Prince became the Godsmack Fanboy Prince – which the story pointedly does not.
Pretty sure everyone is just embarrassed about Warrior Within at this point.
If you remember the complaints that have run through this game series since Sands of Time it’s that the combat just has been no good. Sands had combat that was a bit rubbish with cutscenes and stun-locking and repetitive whiffing through things to set up executions. Warrior Within improved the combat system at the expense of everything else good, and while Two Thrones expanded the combat further, by introducing stealth kills, at the same time, it made me want to avoid the combat. Why do combat when I could do those cool stealth kills?
The Forgotten Sands decides to take things a step further. First, there are more ‘parkour buttons’ to push. One button freezes water so you can run along its surface while another restores broken pieces of terrain temporarily so you can run along them. Essentially, you now have more pieces to juggle in your parkour sequences. You may think that’s good, you may think that’s bad – it’s strongly reminiscent of 2008, but there’s the reverse-time mechanic from Sands of Time to ground the feeling back in the earlier games. Courses are more complicated and you manage more buttons, but whether you manage too many buttons is up to you to decide.
The combat, again, is expanded, and this time it’s done with an upgrade tree. Did that phrase make part of your shriek and run away? Normally it does for me, too. I don’t know why I liked talent trees so much in some games (Far Cry 3) and disliked them in others (Almost Everywhere Including Here). The upgrade tree adds things like mana reserves, more health reserves, but also allows you to develop a number of magical abilities based on elemental themes like Water (meh), Air (who cares), Earth (BE INVULNERABLE TO BOSS MONSTER ATTACKS) and Fire (KILL EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEAR YOU). If you pick the right abilities early on, combat becomes positively trivial (fire, fire, fire, yes, fire is best),which is probably for the best, because without the cheaty magical abilities, the combat relies on masses of numbers and is honestly a little grindy and dull. It feels like the worst kind of game-delay system, where a developer puts in something tedious, then lets ‘smart’ players sidestep the tedious thing with a ‘choice.’ Observe as every player makes the ‘choice’ – and the grindy tedious thing becomes a failure state.
Still, even with that complaint, there’s enough sinew to the combat system that I didn’t find it an arduous chore, and fighting enormous hordes of skeletons while my feet were on fire did at least give me reason to keep mobile in combat, and avoid the Assassins Creed style block-counter-kill-a-thon that Ubisoft games had become by that point.
As with every attempt to improve the combat of Sands of Time – which was definitely flawed – the game series took a step forward, and a step back. And speaking of steps back-
Sometimes you can summarise a story’s problems perfectly by describing a single element and just watch as everyone recoils from it in horror. In The Forgotten Sands, the element is that there’s only one major female character, and she is turned into a sword, then killed so the Prince can defeat the villain.
That’s sort of the whole shape of the plot. There’s a fairly generic framing device – an invasion of a city – and a basic sort of arc of betrayal/oh-no-not-betrayal. There’s a guiding character and the hero obtaining weapons and abilities, and there’s a villainous character who you defeat, oh wait, no, you didn’t, now you have to defeat them again. There’s not much sinew to the game, though, and all of these elements felt light and hollow. The female character is not as present as Farah was, nor is she as persistently important as Elika. Rather than the sly and clever Dark Prince, the Prince conflicts with his own brother, who’s so memorable I’m not even going to bother looking up his name.
It’s such a shame. 2008’s story demanded closure and the Sands of Time arc demanded no expansion. The mechanics of The Forgotten Sands are stronger than those of Sands of Time, and the parkour courses requiring a shift in which buttons you use is closer to 2008. The plot is a cul-de-sac – it neither adds nor removes anything from the canon.
I don’t want to say cash-in or anything silly like that (because games are made, usually, to make money, a-doy), but so much of The Forgotten Sands feels redundant. I like to imagine it might have been an expansion of Sands of Time – which is the Prince game I feel it most closely resembles – but when you scrape past the mechanical improvements, there’s very little soul to the game. Competently executed but meaninglessly shallow, I suppose – and oh glory, from the soft storybook narrative of two characters in Sands of Time to the Death Rock growly angst of Generically Angry Warrior Within, this game certainly falls closer to the latter in terms of personality.
Binding Past To Future
What I think that has stuck with me, though, is that every single one of these games, these spectacle games, directly connect me to my friends.
Sands of Time was a gift from Jen, a lovely Canadian friend. Her boyfriend had moved out, leaving behind game discs. Rather than throw them out, she sent them to me, and I, honestly touched at having been considered this way, sat down and dedicated myself to finish the game. She’d given it to me. It’d been a gift.
Prince of Persia 2008 was a game I dismissed, but my friend Katelyn convinced me to try again. It was a momentary interjection – Hey, did you notice this? – and it put my mind in movement. I sat down with a game I had dismissed – scorned even – and I ground my way through it, bit by bit, pushing through mounds of technical errors and conversion problems to bore away at the game that lay underneath it. It had taken one moment of reflection, one simple idea, expressed in a goddamn tweet to make my brain jump a track and perceive an experience entirely differently.
The Two Thrones was an exhibition to play when my friend Melamber visited me. Every fortnight, Melamber would swing around to our place, and I’d make him dinner, and we’d laugh and we’d share some time together and we’d play videogames, or he’d watch one of us play a videogame, and we’d think about and talk about the experience in this sort of on-the-couch multiplayer expansion of a single player game. It was a sort of exhibition sport. I think that’s why the stealth kills are scored in my mind as so brilliant, because there was literally a moment of flourish, where I could tag that guy and then tag that guy and then up the wall and that guy is gone as well and I’d turn to look at my friends and say “Well any questions?”
The Forgotten Sands was a game I played when I visited Melamber. It was a long game, but I still remembered clobbering it in two sessions – sitting ensconced in a beanbag on his floor, with Fox next to me drawing pictures, and Melamber eating popcorn while we reasoned out puzzles together. Watching those rooms where I didn’t have to think or plan I could just go and hearing the gasp of breath as he realised what I was doing as I was doing it. The Forgotten Sands has its flaws, it has deep flaws…
But I think I’ll always be fond of the game, because of those moments.
Melamber has moved away. He lives a thousand kilometres away and I barely ever talk to him any more. I feel like that’s my flaw, my sin. Videogames were a catalysing force, something that brought us together and gave us a common experience. He didn’t want to play through all of his videogames, but he did want to see what they said, or did. And so we played together, without playing together.
We talk about videogames with this strange dispassionate distance. There’s been a furore recently, spawned by idiots and hate groups, about some notions of journalistic purity, where a connection between reviewer and game is seen as volatile and dangerous. The notion that somehow again we return to this poisonous idea that writers are immune to cause and effect, that game experiences should not influence us in a greater context, when the task of reviewing a game is exactly about putting that game experience in a greater context.
Videogames, more than any medium I’ve shared with people, are a thing we can immerse ourselves in, we can share as experiences, and we can indulge each other’s mutual mental company. We discuss games using metaphor and simile and comparisons to other games, all the while building this shared lexicon of meaning, these snippets of warm glows and intense frustration.
It’s strange, after a series like Quest for Glory to be thinking that the Prince of Persia series is so important to me. It isn’t. While the games are all very high quality, and I strongly recommend people play them, it is always with a caveat of the many, many things they each do wrong. The games are weak… but I loved the playing of them, and the people that drew me closer to.
If you and I have spoken of games, chances are, we’ve had these little moments. These shared words on fun and joy and frustration and achievement. Don’t let go of those moments. Games are important, games give us things to share, and a common context. Even flawed and broken games, games which try things and don’t quite manage them.
You can get The Forgotten Sands on Steam, and for less than full price, you can buy it and Sands of Time at the same time. Unfortunately, while I played The Forgotten Sands on a PS3, the PC copy has this disclaimer:
A PERMANENT HIGH SPEED INTERNET CONNECTION AND CREATION OF A UBISOFT ACCOUNT ARE REQUIRED TO PLAY THIS GAME. YOU MUST BE AT LEAST 13 TO CREATE A UBISOFT ACCOUNT WITHOUT PARENTAL CONSENT. UBISOFT MAY CANCEL ACCESS TO ONLINE FEATURES UPON A 30-DAY PRIOR NOTICE PUBLISHED AT http://www.princeofpersia.com
Basically, if DRM is a dealbreaker, this game comes with DRM, the DRM that Ubisoft manage, and you should know that.
Buy it if:
- You want more of that highly rewarding parkour gameplay.
- You like expanding the gameplay of Sands of Time, but don’t like the non-punitive punishment of 2008.
- You found story elements distracting, rather than engaging.
Avoid it if:
- You cared about Farah’s role in the story, or about women’s role in this story, or about women’s roles in any stories at all, really, sigh.
- Your reaction to upgrade trees is to shudder and run.
- You felt the mechanics of Sands of Time hit a sweet spot for complexity.