One of those buzz words you hear bandied about in video game reviews is “originality”. Critics have always complained that games should offer something new, and not simply be a rehash of what is already on the market. Primal is one of those kinds of games that flies directly against this ideology, and yet manages to be a decent adventure game in the end.
Instead of coming up with a completely new idea, Sony employed the best elements from a wide range of games. Primal
manages to resemble Ico, the Mark of Kri, Soul Reaver, Dark Cloud 2, the Getaway
, and even Resident Evil
. I’m almost sure the list is longer than that, but I really don’t want to dwell on the notion that the game is not very original. Instead, I think Primal should be celebrated as being a success, even if its creativity is in question.
Primal is the story of Jen, a waitress with a rather awkwardly placed tattoo, and her adventure to find her boyfriend. Of course, finding him won’t be easy, as he was taken to a completely different world, one that doesn’t look anything like the cityscape Jen is used to.
To help the transition, Jen teams up with a walking, talking gargoyle statue, named Scree. Together they make an unstoppable team that ends up helping purify the Undine’s water, helping a father and son reunite, and even sneak into a rather grotesque gathering in a majestic ballroom.
Like most adventure games, Primal relies heavily on its plot, weaving several stories together to make one of the most fulfilling adventures on the PlayStation 2. The game does have its fair share of cinema-scenes, but doesn’t bog the pace down with them. Instead the game manages to tell the story of a lost, and hopeless girl and how she became a self confident, and insightful woman.
Picturesque scenes like this are far and few in this adventure.
For much of the game you have full control over both Jen and her companion, Scree. While Jen ends up being the fighter, Scree finds himself doing a lot of the grunt work and menial tasks. He is able to climb certain walls, walk against heavy water currents, completely avoid enemies, and many other things Jen cannot do by herself. On the flip side, Jen has a fair share of character traits unique to her that you will need to exploit by the end of the game. Together they can help each other out, and make a fierce team able to handle just about any challenge thrown their way.
For the most part the computer-controlled character will follow right behind you, but this is not always the case. The AI tends to get caught on objects that litter the landscape, and Scree who is supposed to collect the items, often needs a little coaxing before he’ll do it. These are minor gripes, but it seems like in this day and age good AI this stuff should be a given.
No matter where Jen and Scree end up going, prepare to be teleported from one bleak environment to another, making Primal feel almost like an advertisement for Prozac. You start in what appears to be the dead of winter, only to be followed up with the murky depths of a poisoned waterway. By the time you’ve beaten the game you’ve traveled through a rainstorm to pits of fire, and you’ll be good and ready for something a little more bright and cheerful.
The level designs are nice, including a great deal of detail and personality. Each of the worlds look completely different, and even offer unique architecture and creatures to fight. The graphics are a little misleading, though, as the game has a funny way of looking a lot bigger than it actually is.
Most of the areas you run through only have one path, and no real way of altering the course you are on. The game is an extremely linear process, and the level design understands that. This isn’t all bad, as it has giving the programmers a chance to create facilitating visuals filled with individuality. The backgrounds are right out of a horror film, even if the game never manages to deliver any scares.
The characters themselves, especially Jen, are quite large and very impressive looking. They animate well, though that is certainly not the game's strong suit. The enemies, on the other hand, go from amazing all the way up to stunning. Even the basic baddies are both interesting looking and extremely well drawn, and they only get better as you make your way through the game's four worlds.
Like a number of other recent Sony titles, Primal takes a decidedly minimalist approach. There is no heads-up display, and when you’re exploring you really don’t push more than the action button. Looking at your map and all other activities are done using the options menu, completely taking you out of the action.
Thankfully the controls are simple, because they have a funny way of changing depending on what you are doing. The moment you get into battle the button configuration completely changes, making you use the L and R buttons on top to control your combatant. You’ll notice that the buttons change yet again when you are using Scree of underwater, so the challenge is keeping track of them all.
There are a number of tricky jumps you will be forced to withstand, but the odd thing is, you don’t really control the jumping. Jen and Scree just kind of jump when it is required of them, so it begs the question of why the programmers decided to make so many time consuming jumps in the first place. You can’t even fall off of the sides, so there is no peril involved at all, and they become just another annoying thing you will have to navigate around if you want to beat the game.
Hey baby, what's your si- uhh nevermind...
Knowing you would be spending a great deal of your time fighting enemies, the developers decided to add a few moves to the mix. By using the R2 and L2 buttons, Jen is able to perform deadly attacks with her right and left body parts. Using these properly, gamers can put together rudimentary combos that make fighting slightly more interesting. There is also a useful spin attack that takes out enemies that are swarming around you.
For the most part the combat controls are smooth and it’s easy to pull off moves. But after a few hours of brawling, you can grow tired of fighting, and wish there were more puzzles to solve. The combat is extremely repetitive, and even with the multiple buttons, it ends up feeling like your just button mashing. Hopefully you’ll be quite a ways into the game before you notice this shortcoming, but if you don’t like the battles early on, you won’t like them any better twenty hours in.
For those who do go for the long haul, Primal actually offers gruesome finishing moves to watch after you beat up an attacker. This is actually one of Sony’s selling points, talking up how you can perform Mortal Kombat-style moves on your adversary. And while I’ll admit, the idea intrigued me, it should be noted that this comes with a couple pretty severe problems. For one thing, Primal makes you finish your enemy off before you can move onto the next foe. It would have been nice if you simply had the choice between finishing them or moving on, but instead you have to see the same few fatalities over and over again.
Even though the finishing moves are extremely easy to pull off, they don’t seem to work when you want them to, and it always seems like they fail when you’re completely surrounded. And to make matters that much worse, the move that often gets mixed up with the finishing move, takes a REALLY LONG TIME to perform, leaving you open to numerous cheap shots by surroundings baddies. This unresponsive game play can actually cause a lot of unneeded frustration, and ultimately make you use items you should have been able to hang on to.
The novelty Primal has comes in the way of Jen’s ability to shape shift. In each of the four areas Jen will acquire a new form, each a little uglier than the one before. In the Ferai form you will be able to climb higher and hit harder, whereas in the Undine form you will be able to swim with the best of them. The most interesting form, though, has to be the Wraith, which allows you to tinker with time.
Each of these forms is used primarily in their own world, so you won’t use them as frequently as you’d expect. Some of the puzzles towards the end require you to use all four of these forms, but chances are you will use one much more than any of the others.
While Scree cannot shape shift, he can possess other statues to complete puzzles and even fight enemies. Like the forms Jen takes, this aspect of the game isn’t as fully realized as I was hoping it would be. It would have been nice to have been able to take control of a few more giant statues, as this was one of the few times I was really excited about the outcome of the battle.
By the end of the game, Primal sets itself up for a nasty final chapter that will have you playing to the end just to get some resolution to it all. And even if you get sick and tired of the repetitive controls, there’s no denying that this is a story driven game, and your enjoyment hinges entirely on how into the story you are. I had a love/hate relationship with the story, finding myself fascinated by much of it, and yet sick of the melodrama within a few hours of starting the game.
I also worried that the game would have a very limited amount of replay, but once you’ve completed the game, a whole horde of extra DVD-like extra features come into play. You can watch documentaries, read about the game, and much more. Whether or not this is enough to keep the 400 KB save on your memory card is debatable, but at least it’s a start.
When you strip away the pretty graphics, great music, and story, you’re left with a pretty generic game. But Primal does everything as well as its been done before, no better, no worse. It has an interesting story that is worth playing the game for, but it’s certainly not for everybody.
What do you get when you combine every game that came out in 2002? I have a funny feeling the result is a little like Primal, a game that lacks originality, but also manages to be a satisfying adventure.