It has been only a month since our last look at the new Prince of Persia game, but a lot has changed in that time. Our last chance to see it was during the Tokyo Game Show, where we were given a glimpse at the very beginning of the game. This time around, we had a bit more time to explore the world at our own pace on a more complete build of the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Our last preview covered the haphazard introduction of mystery woman Elika while your character, the prince, is out looking for his gold-laden donkey. Your paths cross, and the two of you become best chums after you protect her from a group of attackers that you later realize were guards sent by her father, the king. You break into a prison that houses Ahriman, the god of darkness, with the goal of making things right, and during an ensuing battle with the king, he spitefully frees the deity. With Elika in tow, you get the heck out of dodge before the rapidly crumbling prison becomes your tomb. The escape itself is a challenge, and you'll need to muster all of your wall-running and gap-jumping skills to make it out as chunks of floor disappear beneath your feet.
Once outside, you'll be able to explore the world as you see fit. Our preview code only allowed us to venture into the Lava Rift region of the game, but we've been told that you'll be able to have at it and pick your own path. Hitting the back button on the controller brings up a top-down map of the various zones, and by selecting one of the available areas with the cursor, you can set a waypoint that Elika will help direct you to once you close the map. The indicator is available at any point during the game--including while hanging off of environmental obstacles--and lights the way with a floating magical aura. It's not unlike Dead Space's floor marker, and given that the game's play areas are quite large and at times look very similar, it's a welcome hint to stop you from walking around in circles.
Once we had our waypoint set, we went scampering through the desert towards the City of Light. To clear a gap inside a particular cave, you'll need to use the assisted long jump, a move that Elika uses to propel you forwards after you hit the Y button in the middle of your jump arc. Inside, you'll be presented with walls ripe for scaling and the slippery slopes you'll jump between on your way to the first battle. Make no mistake about it: If you don't like jumping games, Prince of Persia definitely isn't for you. But if your idea of a good time is hanging from poles or wedging your character's fingers into tiny gaps on monstrous cavern walls, then you'll want to read on.
Once you arrive at the city, you'll get your first taste of combat. POP forgoes waves of enemies in favour of a more intimate one-on-one approach to battle. There's no targeting or lock-on mechanic to mess around with, and though you're free to manipulate the camera using the right analog stick, you'll never take your eyes off of your adversary. X is your all-purpose sword attack, B is your grab and throw, and the A button kicks off an aerial attack with a jump. The right trigger provides you with your block stance, but also gives you a chance to counterattack if pressed as your opponent attempts to land a blow on you. The Y button is used to unleash Elika's magical attacks, but their need to be performed in close proximity to the target adds a combo dynamic that you can weave into your attack rotations as you're working them with the blade. It's also worth mentioning that this isn't a button basher at heart. Yes, there are plenty of opportunities to do it, and it'll work, but you'll just wear yourself out when calculated, deliberate button presses will do the trick more efficiently.
You'll be able to cut up grunt-level corrupted rivals with a few slices and dices of your sword, but once you come across the warrior enemy, you'll need to adapt your approach drastically. Considering that they take no damage from either magic or physical attacks, you'll need to use the environment of the arena you're in to even things up. Ring-out tactics can be extremely effective, and you can turn the tables quickly by either knocking them backwards with a series of quick jabs or baiting them and then rolling through their legs to deliver a finishing blow from behind. You'll face the warrior on more than one occasion, and each time the experience is slightly different. When you can't knock him over a ledge, you'll need to change things up by backing him into a corner and damaging him with debris from falling stone pylons.
Corrupted enemies often guard "fertile ground" spots that Elika can use to restore life to the immediate surroundings, which is done by repeatedly tapping the Y button when standing in the right spot. Once an area has been successfully restored, you're able to begin collecting light seeds, the game's currency for unlocking princely abilities. Our build included two upgrades, the Hand and the Breath of Ormazd. Once you return to the temple to unlock them, you'll be able to make small teleport moves and run vertically up walls with wanton disregard for gravity when presented with the appropriately coloured wall pad. Although Hand of Ormazd is a set animated path that you'll follow once it's triggered, Breath requires more user interaction, and you'll need to avoid running through corruption goo as you go or you'll be killed and returned to the closest stable platform on which you began your run.
Death itself is an interesting concept in POP because you'll never see a game-over screen, no matter how many times you fail at a task. Every time you misjudge a jump, fall short, or get too friendly with an enemy, Elika's guiding hand will pull you to safety or blast your foes with energy long enough for you to stagger out of harm's way. There's no micromanagement to the experience, so you'll never run out of lives, saves, or energy. There is a slight penalty when fighting enemies that take damage, given that dying will restore their health bar back to full, but in our experience so far, boss battles haven't shared the same fate.
Prince of Persia will be spelunking its way onto the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3 in early December. Stay tuned to GameSpot for our upcoming full review.