Monday, August 1, 2011

Cheap Thrills: Prince of Persia - The Forgotten Sands (2010)

I don't usually write about recent games, but lately I've been playing Ubisoft's Prince of Persia - The Forgotten Sands from 2010, the latest in a long-running series dating back to 1989 and Jordan Mechner's classic Apple II game.  I'm classifying this one as a cheap thrill because I happened to pick it up during the massive Steam summer sale as part of a $14.99 5-game Prince of Persia package, so I paid about $3 for it if I value each of them equally (it normally retails for $19.99 by itself on Steam at this writing; there's also a $29.99 Digital Deluxe Edition that includes a soundtrack album and a few other goodies.)  I played the Windows PC version using an XBox 360 controller; the game is also available on HD consoles, the XBox 360 and PS3.

I honestly haven't paid a lot of attention to the Prince of Persia series in recent years; I've played the SNES version of the original game, as well as the XBLA HD remake.  I also own the TurboGrafx-CD edition, though I haven't played it, and I have played a little bit of the early 3D Prince of Persia: Arabian Nights game on Sega's Dreamcast.  So I came to the 2010 game with strong memories of the 1989 game, and it seems like a good time to consider -- after 20 years, how has this series evolved?

When Lara Croft made her debut in Tomb Raider, that newfangled 3-D game felt a lot like Prince of Persia brought into the equally newfangled polygon era.  And the 3-D Prince of Persia games feel a lot like -- surprise! -- Tomb Raider.

That isn't to say that the game feels like a clone of the Eidos series -- it retains much of the flavor of Mechner's classic, with a distinctly Middle Eastern fantasy look, spikes to step carefully past, walls to climb, gaps to jump, timed door switches, and swordplay.  It also adds a lot of new elements that work well in 3-D -- acrobatic bars to swing and leap from, vertical and horizontal wall scrambling, and magical abilities that allow the Prince to freeze water in mid-air and restore missing pieces of a crumbling kingdom.  In The Forgotten Sands, the story takes a little detour from the traditional rescue-the-princess-from-the-evil-vizier theme, with this Prince fighting to save his brave but power-hungry older brother.

What I do notice is that the difficulty is considerably reduced here, as compared to the 1989 original; the health bar is more flexible and easier to recharge, and even enemies give up additional health.  We also have the ability to reverse time, providing extra opportunities to make those tricky jumps and climbs.  I was able to breeze through the first few levels with few problems, and as the difficulty ramped up, I was glad to discover that the checkpoints are frequently placed, so we rarely have to play more than a minute or so to get back to the tricky spot.  Because of this, the game has a nice old-school "one more try" feel about it -- any time I got frustrated, I was able to be persistent, or put the game away and come back to it fresh, and generally get through the section with a sense of accomplishment.

There's also a difficulty-reduction menu option, which I tried to avoid because once we've lowered it, we cannot increase it again.  But when I got to the final climb up a tricky vertical tower with lots of tricky water freezing/unfreezing timing to deal with, I was glad to have the option to kick the challenge down a notch.  There was one jump early in the level that I just could not make consistently, and I often found myself using up the Prince's time-reversal credits before I got very far.  Lowering the difficulty replaced one of the waterspouts with a fixed bar, and made it possible for me to finish the game without further reducing it.

Forgotten Sands' combat is also more forgiving than in the original game -- where the Apple II-era Prince of Persia required careful timing of dodges and sword thrusts, against fairly intelligent opponents, this game throws dozens of undead (and relatively brain-dead) sand-borne enemies at the Prince and allows him to knock bunches of them back with one move and slay them readily with his magical sword.  There are some challenges with larger, more powerful enemies, and the foes become more frequent and numerous as the game goes on, but most of the combat is not hard to deal with.  But it's consistently entertaining -- even though we can get away with button-mashing for the most part, and the fancy moves are largely on auto-pilot, the animation and vintage Harryhausen style of the battles still makes them great to play.

I'm planing to go back and tackle some of the interim Prince of Persia games in the future -- The Forgotten Sands is itself a callback to the 2003 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which spawned two other sequels, so I have a lot of exploration to do.  But it was fun to come back to the world of Prince of Persia after all these years and find that, even without Mr. Mechner's involvement, it still retains that sense of action-packed puzzle-solving.  Good stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment