Sometimes you’ve got to take one step back to take two steps forward. It’s not a sentiment that comes easily to the Prince of Persia games, despite their penchant for time travel. Ubisoft’s elegant third-person action adventures are specialists in the art of always going forward, threading chains of acrobatics around and through ostensibly open-plan wrecked hallways, courtyards, temples and towers. Even the 2008 release, with one agile regal foot lodged in Zelda’s free-roamable door, wound its disconnected areas into arabesque loops and spirals.
Nevertheless, Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands is heading backwards – away from the expansiveness and expense of its dalliance with Elika and ‘single-player co-op’, back to the much-plundered treasure troves of Sands of Time. The game is set shortly after the events at Azad, in the kingdom of the Prince’s bulkier, hairier sibling Malik. It might as well be set in Azad, though, as the salient narrative elements are the same: a city engulfed in conflict, an ancient magic that transforms humans into sand demons, and a power-hungry nincompoop (in this case, Malik himself) who unleashes the latter on the former.
The fifth incarnation of the Prince sits closest in temperament to that of The Two Thrones (less the fruity ‘dark’ ego, of course): still quite green, but with a few rough edges sanded off. The plot built around this likeable personality is a coming-of-age tale of almost perfunctory simplicity. Historical insight, eye candy and sparse opportunities for banter are provided by Razia, a nubile and oddly Russian-sounding water djinn, who also furnishes you with the powers of time reversal and elemental control.
The first of these works much as it has since the Sands of Time series began. Screw up in the middle of one of the game’s many florid platforming sequences, and you can hold R1 to rewind those errant seconds. Outside combat, elemental manipulation basically amounts to the freezing of water features so you can climb, rebound from or swing on them: horizontal jets become monkey bars; overflows, pillars; waterfalls, walls. Cleverly, later areas oblige players to freeze and unfreeze their surroundings en route: you might need to release L2 for long enough to leap through a sheet of water, then clutch it again to solidify the fountain on the other side.
The platforming move-set has been pared down to the wall-runs, bar swings, slides and chimney kicks that made the Prince’s name in 2003, and the action is framed once more by Ubisoft’s masterful guided camera, discreetly lining up the next handhold, pressure switch or platform in a manner that makes a mockery of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s high concept signposting of terrain features. Getting lost in Forgotten Sands is all but impossible: if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re probably not meant to go there. Ancient stone sarcophagi stocked with experience points, health and magic refills occasionally appear in the corner of the game’s vision.