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Joystiq hands-on: 30 minutes with Prince of Persia

As a dot far in the December horizon, Prince of Persia shines brightly on many lists as a must-buy title this holiday season. As fans of the franchise, the announcement of a new Prince in a new setting was exciting, but also had us worried. A cel-shaded Prince with an A.I.-controlled ally following you throughout the game? Many believed the latest in the franchise was changing too much of what fans enjoyed of the previous series. But after playing the game, do the changes work?

After spending 30 minutes with the PlayStation 3 version of Prince of Persia at a Sony Holiday event in Toronto we didn't just walk away relieved ... we walked away more excited than ever.

Gallery: Prince of Persia (2008) | 37 Photos

Rebooting the classic franchise with a brand new lead character, Prince of Persia introduces the world to a new Prince and his mysterious magical ally, Elika.

The world of this Prince of Persia has become corrupt with an evil dark matter which only Elika can cleanse. As the title character, players must journey through the environment with their magical ally to rid the world of this dark evil. In previous Prince of Persia titles the environments were built with one route in mind, obstructed by puzzles along the way -- in the new Prince of Persia the world itself is the puzzle. As one connected world, the game allows players to select their own paths rather than following structured missions.

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Strangely, Prince of Persia appears far more cel-shaded in still images than in actual gameplay. Make no mistake, the world is visually designed to appear as a storybook unfolding at your controller, but the effect isn't as jarring as it appears in some of the images released. It offers a fresh, colorful and vibrant world to discover and fight for. The look immediately works for the game, though the audio falls flat as the Prince is too "wise cracking" when we hoped he'd be charming. Immediately we had the sense that he is too much like Nathan Drake of Uncharted and less like the Prince we loved from Sands of Time.

"Secondly -- and most refreshing – Elika acts as a weapon."

Elika isn't simply a story element. As a character she brings in two unique game mechanics. Firstly, she acts as the Prince's savior in dire situations. The most known example is the short sequence that plays when Elika pulls the Prince to safety if he falls into an abyss. Secondly, Elika herself acts as a usable weapon. During battle, which is only ever against a maximum of one enemy, Elika can be used to attack either by herself or as a part of a larger combo. Battles are dramatic and rewarding as the camera will often highlight combos for a more cinematic experience. Unfortunately, the epic 2-vs-1 fights can be dragged down to earth as being knocked down by an enemy can result in a quick-time event, that if failed, will restore an enemy's entire life gauge. To counteract this, the game allows players to "one-hit kill" enemies by knocking them from a ledge or pinning them against a wall.

Among the darkness of the world are transportation nodes that bring the Prince from one area to another with the help of Elika. Acting as quick bridges between areas of the game -- perfect for speed running -- the nodes offer gamers the opportunity to skip ahead to the "action." According to the representative from Ubisoft guarding the preview build, all areas of the game can be accessed through exploration and puzzle solving, but using the nodes makes the process faster. Hopping into an unlocked node and calling for Elika's help fires the Prince and his ally into a mostly on rails mini-game, where the pair fly through the sky toward the next node – while the user is forced to dodge the environment. It was interesting, but often frustrating, as making any mistake would result in redoing the entire sequence.

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Prince of Persia almost feels like everything was purposely stacked against it so it could shine brighter when players had a chance to pick it up. In the 30 minutes we spent with the game, we noticed that the presentation rarely showed us something we'd seen before, and the simple animations that make the two lead characters "human" are a subtle but grand touch. The characters feel real, the environment looks right and the world is inviting – this is what our hope was for a new Prince of Persia. On December 2, we'll find out if Ubisoft Montreal can deliver a new generation of Prince.

[Update: According to a certain unnamed Prince of Persia producer in the comments below not all enemies can be instantly killed. Only standard enemies that populate the world can be defeated using this method. Also for clarification, other than the ability "Flight Guardian" described in this article and shown in the video, the game also includes the abilities 'heal land,' 'collect 'light seeds,' 'return to temple' and 'purchase magic power.' This piece only described what was shown in the demo available at the Sony event and is not based on the final product which is said to include much more.]

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