Ubisoft Montreal producer Ben Mattes began PAX's Prince of Persia presentation by addressing the developer's decision to introduce an entirely new Prince for the series. Mattes explained that they believed the trilogy that began with 2003's Sands of Time wasn't the only Prince of Persia tale worth telling. After a brief concept art trailer depicting the new Prince, Mattes launched into a gameplay demo.
The Prince's new world has a unique, painterly, slightly cel-shaded effect. Let me just state this right up front: the level I saw showed some of the most beautifully drawn and animated game artwork I've seen. The classical score that accompanied the Prince throughout was dramatic and evocative, and from the game's title screen to the demo's final moment, I was amazed at the quality of the overall presentation.
Mattes played through the short level, sending the Prince and his lithe, white-clad female companion Elika though what looked like a fairly traditional Prince of Persia platforming level. Through most of the level Elika simply followed the Prince as he wall-ran, leapt, and swung his way through a desolate, canyonlike landscape devoid of life. Mattes described a sort of hub-and-highway system to the new game's world, where more linear passages that preserve the series' platforming sequences connect open areas that offer branching paths.
Occasionally the Prince and Elika worked in tandem, using Elika's abilities to launch them both great distances from luminous emblems attached to walls. When Mattes made the Prince fall toward his death, Elika reached down and pulled him back to a nearby point, preventing his demise. As in past Prince of Persia games, the character animations were fluid and beautiful. Coupled with the game's new visual style, even the most basic platforming was quite a sight to behold.
As was the case with Sands of Time, the new Prince of Persia clearly draws inspiration from 2001's PlayStation 2 title Ico. Though Elika is certainly a more capable companion than Ico's frail Yorda, she's a similarly luminous counterpart to a scruffy male protagonist, and her magical abilities and lifesaving grasp echo Yorda's actions in Ico's pivotal scenes. Other artistic touches, like the fantastically animated masses of inky smoke that appeared around enemies and on the landscape, bring to mind both Ico and the more recent Okami.
As the level progressed the Prince and Elika made their way toward a glowing blue emblem, fighting and pursuing a hostile, claw-wielding enemy that Mattes referred to as The Hunter. Mattes said the game will focus on single-enemy encounters, but he didn't talk much about how the combat worked. The fighting was certainly impressive, featuring all sorts of sweeping, cinematic camera movement. The Prince switched between offensive and defensive melee tactics and occasionally worked with Elika in spectacularly acrobatic fashion. I have no idea how the game's combat actually works, but it looks amazing.
Once they defeated the creature, Elika activated the blue emblem and the world around the characters was transformed, in another scene reminiscent of Okami, from a dark desert wasteland into a bright, idyllic setting. Here, Mattes went "off-script," as he put it, and showed how the landscape now included luminous orbs called "light seeds" that function as the game's currency. Mattes explained that the light seeds were hidden throughout the game, often in hard-to-reach places, and could be collected to unlock new abilities for the Prince and Elika.
The entire demo was really quite captivating, even if it left numerous questions about the game's story and gameplay unanswered. The only time the magic seemed to fade were a couple of occasions when the Prince and Elika spoke and the Prince came off sounding a bit on the smart-alecky side. It's too early to know where Ubisoft's headed with his character, and they've certainly taken the Prince in unappealing directions in the past (see: Warrior Within). For now I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they've crafted the game's story and characters with the same care they seem to have applied to its visuals.
After wrapping up the demo, Mattes announced a special collaboration between Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins Mike Krahulik to create a special 32-page comic tie-in to the new game. The comic will provide context to the game's story in the form of a childhood tale told to Elika by her grandmother. Mattes showed a few pieces of concept art from the comic, emphasizing Ubisoft's close cooperation with Holkins and Krahulik and his own heartfelt enthusiasm for their work on the project.
The comic will appear online at the rate of a page per day, beginning on a yet-to-be disclosed date. Mattes announced that players who preorder Prince of Persia will automatically be upgraded to the limited edition version of the game, which will include a print version of the comic. Mattes didn't give a firm date, but Prince of Persia's release has previously been announced for late 2008 for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.