So I thought I’d let everyone know my thoughts on this game. First, some hefty background:
I’d categorize myself as an avid POP fan. Ever since SOT wowed me, I have followed the series pretty closely. Although I think the POP games are fantastic and one of the most underrated game franchises in the industry, none the sequels have touched SOT’s greatness for me. WW was a testament to how much brutal abuse and bastardization the game could take while still being a quality title and TT was some mixture between the two, although to this day I don’t know why Ubisoft thought that was a good idea. I played a tiny bit of the 2008 reboot, enough to convince myself I didn’t care for a game that played by itself. When the Forgotten Sands was announced, I was both excited and worried – I loved the direction of the original trilogy, but with both the release date and theme tied closely to the movie, I was worried FS would be a result of a weird hybridization between the “movie-tie-in” syndrome and “game-catering-to-movie-crowd.” Because the game didnot have seemingly enough time to be polished, along with the restriction of trying to appeal to movie goers, I was afraid.
I’d like to note a few reasons why I chose to pick up the Wii version as opposed to the 360/PS3 alternatives. First, I would like to point out that we should not compare the two games, despite being given the same name – they are completely different from each other. Secondly, the Wii version runs on the Jade engine, which is native to the original SOT trilogy. Fans of the series know what to expect from that engine and it gave me hope that Ubisoft Quebec could squeeze out more from that aging engine in a shorter development cycle than make a brand new game on a next-gen engine. All of that, plus the fact that the 360/PS3 versions sported a more dramatic, Two-Thronsian art style as opposed to the Wii’s enchanted visuals reminiscent of the original SOT, led me to my purchase of what many gamers are calling the “inferior” version.
Okay, so here is my experience of the game, play by play. I put the disc into the Wii. Once it loads in the Wii menu, it plays some mystical guitar and didgeridoo. I am in pause at this moment, as the music is very pretty, I dare say more so than SOT. Just that little 30 second loop had me hooked. Thank you TomSalta, great composer from Red Steel 2. I can honestly say he has done Stuart Chatwood service here. Click the link below to hear that music I was listening to, before even starting the game.
I then start the game. The title screen boots. Beautiful rendering of the Prince's sword, along with that enchanted music again. I am in awe, once again. The POP series has a fantastic history of having high-level presentation values and FS is no exception. The game isn’t trying to open up with some epic theme or dramatic strings to bring heroics to the Prince’s character - rather, this change in tone of music lets its gamers know that the game is making a return to its original Arabian Nights origins. From here, I boot the game.
I recommend having subtitles on when you play the game yourself, as the voices are at equal or lesser volume than the music or sound effects. The “genie” as we call her, is leading prince down a treacherous path of destruction as all that surrounds you is falling to pieces. Yuri is back to voice the Prince and sounds identical to his SOT self. One small thing that bugged me is that Yuri didn’t seem in top form in TT, but rest assured he is back in this game.
For an opening stage, the beginning of the game is engaging. The usual tutorial jumps are there and for series veterans, this may bore you. But because the locale is gorgeous and the rush of getting from A to B is eminent, I doubt many vets will mind. After the short stage is over, the real game begins.
The prince proves to be just as selfish as he was in SOT, but not without grace like WW or TT. He has dignity and reasons for his desires – he, being the youngest of his father’s sons, is denied a true throne. While he may have learned to stray from Honor and Glory to win his father’s approval, he has decided to create his own path by finding his own kingdom. He found Zahara in a marketplace and being promised near-immortality, a princess, and a kingdom, is following her almost blindly. Our question in participation of this cat-and-mouse game is whether or not to trust the genie, as she seems deceptive at best. This adds for some great tension as we, just like in SOT, are shouting at Prince for being a bumbling buffoon, while at the same time questioning for ourselves what may lie beyond the next barrier – Treasure or Tragedy?
The music, graphics, voice acting are all top notch. Okay, the genie’s voice leaves something to be desired, but a small quibble. None of this would matter if the gameplay was weak. I can happily say that in terms of the game mechanics, this is where tears of joy almost brimmed my eye lashes. This is, from what I can tell and foresee, the next level of POP. It takes all the great platforming and level design of SOT, adds a bit more depth with level exploration, and allows prince to run, dance, side-step, and jump much faster than before. Please, do not watch gameplay videos of this game and judge how this game plays; you really must play the game yourself to feel the sheer wonder in how the Prince controls. SOT was a joy because the controls were simple and the levels catered to what the prince could do. I would argue its sequels suffered because the Prince handled identically to his SOT counterpart but the levels demanded too much from him, adding frustration to some of the platforming and combat segments. Ubisoft Quebec was not lazy in completely reworking how the Prince performs all of his actions. He has all the usual tricks, but vets will notice differences in nuance in how exactly each mechanic is handled. While you can run up a wall, as usual, you don’t have to commit to the wall jump anymore. Oftentimes, even if you didn’t hit the jump button at the end of wall run, Prince would backflip over the ledge and fall to his death. This is not the case any more as he now flips and slides down to where he was previously standing. His running and jumping are much faster and his sliding along ledges is quicker so as to keep the game moving quickly and with pace. Also, many of the vertical cracks that 2008’s POP introduced are here, along with what looks like a glove much like the one held by that prince. Overall, the prince handles like a Spider-man in terms of speed and dexterity, while not being too nimble as to make the puzzles overly easy.
Combat has returned to SOT form. You wave the nunchuck to use your fist/gauntlet and the wiimote to attack with your sword. The popular jump-over-the-enemy-and-slash-from-behind attack is back and stronger, dealing more damage and knocks down. The Prince can now jump over enemies and flip them over, hurling them into other enemies. There is a light RPG system in place, allowing Prince to unlock stronger attacks and abilities, keeping combat fresh and new. While the combat is simplistic, it is satisfying as a means of breaking up the platforming which SOT got right the first time. Also, complaints of Wii-waggle should be dismissed as the sword attacks are very responsive to your flicks and once you gain a sense of Prince’s recovery and sword combos, you will know the proper timing for each swing of the wiimote. What is different this time around is that each enemy has different characteristics – drones, Knights with giant shields that need to be cracked in order to deal damage, and archers within the first hour. Instead of just being generic bad guys, these are serious threats to the Prince, leaving the player to strategize who to tackle first when fighting in large groups. Luckily, at keypoints in the game, it is possible to attack the highlighted leader in blue, in which its destruction makes all the other enemies disappear. This allows the player to end battles quicker if he/she wants to move on to the next platforming section, although attempting to do so may end in death as the leader’s followers will try to defend him.
The prince is given magical powers by way of creating puzzle-thwarting structures that allow him to traverse otherwise impossible terrain. This leads to possible branches in linearity, as the player can choose which route to take and explore the levels batter. Also, there are few segments which are impossible to retread as the game encourages and allows the curious gamer to go beyond the beaten path. This is no Metroid, but for a POP game this is a huge step in a wonderful direction.
The last aspect of FS that I want to point out is how the game handles death. While the SOT trilogy gave gamers the ability to rewind time and fix platforming mistakes (which was revolutionary), 2008’s Prince, who lacked time powers, couldn’t truly die. While each side has their critics, I believe FS for the Wii has created a happy medium. Within the first hour, the only “sand” power you get is the ability to freeze enemies. Other than that, there is no time travel. While the game is very forgiving, you can store or save three “lives.” Any death, either by combat or platforming, results in a complete restoration to a point prior to the death, which uses up a life. If one dies without having any stored lives, the game restarts to the last fountain checkpoint, which is also consequently your save point. So yes, no Game Overs here, but FS does not suffer from the pitfalls of the lack of dying. While I admit this system is a bit forgiving for a hardcore gamer who grew up in the 80s, this is a great compromise that works well at still punishing the gamer for lofty mistakes, but not so much so you wish there was a rewind feature.
There is also a lot of extra content. POP vets will know that the series is notorious for having a lack of extras and replay value. While the original SOT didn’t need it – its replay value was intrinsic, after all – its sequels have been ill-equipped to compete with their peers in terms of value-for-your-money. This changes with FS for the Wii. Within the first ten minutes, thanks to my curious eye, I unlocked the original POP. I don’t know if this is the SNES version that was allegedly included in the game, as what I played seemed a perfect representation of the MAC version, but future play will explore that. There are several unlockable costumes for the prince, along with an achievement system akin to Metroid Prime Trilogy, which mimicked what was established for all titles on Xbox 360. All of this, along with extra levels that can be unlocked as challenges much like Bionic Commando Rearmed, and this game is the most feature-packed POP yet. I was pleasantly surprised – a POP game, if done right, doesn’t need any of this, but the fact that it is present is icing on an already wonderful cake. Then consider that this game had a very strict time constraint and is considered a mere “side-quest” to its next gen alternatives, it becomes bedazzling that all of this could be fit into the development cycle with so much polish.
Forgotten Sands for the Wii is wonderful so far. I expected nothing more than a decent platforming romp, in which Ubisoft Quebec delivered me a masterpiece that ranks among SOT. If SOT is the best game in the series, FS is very close behind, beating out all of its previous games. The gameplay, including combat, is vastly improved to SOT, with only the story not being as compelling as SOT. If the game keeps up the pace that I have witnessed, especially after experiencing the epic first boss battle (which incorporates the wonderful platforming we all love), this may dethrone SOT for me. I can’t compare this game to its next-gen brethren, but given from what I have seen, this seems to be the more proper jump for POP fans, pun intended.