Developer: SCEE Cambridge
Released: March 2003 PS2
Primal is an action-adventure game in the vein of Tomb Raider or Ico - wander through hazardous areas, battle foes native to those places, solve tricksy, tricksy puzzles and emerge to save yourself, others, and perhaps the world. Further similarities to Tomb Raider include a strong female heroine (although a far more interesting and "real" one than Lara) and a considerable focus on combat. The bit borrowed from Ico is the two person dynamic - although Primal takes it further and makes both characters playable, and able to perform tasks that are quite different.
Without delving too much into the story ... After Lewis, Jen's rocker boyfriend, is attacked and abducted by a creature that seems a cross between a Rancor and a bat, Jen wakes in the hospital to witness a small, animated gargoyle and ... herself, lying comatose in the bed. After a brief 'whoah' moment, the gargoyle does the "come with me if you want to live" thing - except the impetus is provided by a hint that Lewis may be found by following. The quest begins ...
Jen (and the player) then finds out that the mortal, human world is just one facet of reality, the most mundane one. It weakly reflects the struggles that go on underneath, in the four daemon (which is like demon, but more fancy) realms of Ice, Fire, Water and Air (vaguely) - and the Nexus holds them all together. It is here that the lords of Order and Chaos keep each other eternally in check, balancing all the worlds that are. Except recently, the balance has tilted dangerously towards Abaddon, the lord of Chaos - and the forces of order have hired you to help them out.
Why you? Well, you get to find out later - let's just say you're uniquely suited for the position.
You will traverse the four realms, gaining the abilities of the inhabitants of each - bestial strength (ability to leap higher and run slightly faster) of Solum, waterbreathing of Aquis, time control of Aetha and battle ferocity of Volca. Each realm will have an overarching subplot for you to resolve, a plethora of puzzles to which you'll have to apply your brain and your newfound abilities, and some generic bad guys (although unique to each realm) to dispatch so you don't get too bored running around - the game can get a bit backtrack-tastic, especially if you get confused as to what to do next, but the built-in warp gates mitigate this problem somewhat. There's also a boss battle for you to tackle in each realm, some straightforward, and some requiring a bit of tomfoolery with levers and cranks and such.
The cool bits
For one thing, the entire two-person mechanic. Scree can climb walls, regenerate you when you're down, possess statues, and become a rope anchor. Jen can leap fairly high in Ferai form, swim underwater (Scree can walk underwater, but he doesn't have the freedom of 3 dimensions) in Aquis form, and later timeshift to get past fast-moving barriers.
Secondly, the art direction is unique and fantastic. Even if the old Order/Chaos + 4 Elements thing isn't exactly new, the shape it takes in this daemon realm is very fresh. Each realm has an immediately felt identity (as do its inhabitants), and the graphic competence extends to the rendering techniques; Primal looks great. The world, the lighting (droolific!) and even assorted character animations have top-notch design.
Thirdly, the voice acting is perfect. Hudson Leick of Xena's Calisto fame, and Andreas Katsulas of Babylon 5's G'Kar fame make Jen and Scree come alive (cliche but true); not only how they say their lines but also what they say (to the writers' credit) sounds just like it should.
The uncool bits
The combat is blah. It seems as if the designers wanted to make a hybrid adventure / action / fighting game, and spent a lot of time on combos, varied strength attacks, and very cool animations for each of the forms that Jen acquires. Unfortunately, all of that time seemed to have left no development effort for making the combat fun. It is mostly unresponsive, unintuitive, and a tedious, tiring chore. It seems as there is little or no feedback on landing hits, or getting hit, so you're simply not even sure whether to follow-up or retreat. Fortunately it seems that the playtesters realized that, and for the most part you can get away with simply spamming 1 attack - the opposition will never be particularly tough.
A few of the puzzles rely on simply spotting an obtusely concealed or disguised lever or a door, with no apparent clues that a particular element of scenery is "active". While the majority of the puzzles are fun and entertaining, these few ones where you're running around back and forth unable to figure out what you've missed can ruin quite a few minutes of an otherwise solid game session.
Backtracking happens. A few of the puzzles change a few things in the state of the world - while this is usually shown by a cutscene, it's not always obvious where exactly that location was. Here you again end up flailing a bit. This is minor though, and really goes away further into the game.
The worlds are very player-oriented. While Solum and Aetha at least look as if they may have been inhabited by someone at some point, Aquis and Volca both feel like elaborate puzzle boxes, with no sign of living quarters or any signs of inhabited areas.
Load times. Oh man, load times. Even though these are cleverly disguised by slowly opening doors (ala Jak & Daxter, or actually the other way around) while the data streams in, there's quite a few spots when Jen and Scree get separated. Unfortunately to switch between them requires a reload of the missing data and ........................ LOADING. When you get near the end of the game, brace yourself for a really really cool concept completely RUINED by the loadtimes.
So Primal is a slightly flawed action/adventure game with some really outstanding bits (voice acting
, art design, graphics
quality and especially the lighting model, most of the puzzles) and a few not so well designed bits (combat, a minority of the puzzles, some world design). You can pick it up these days for 10 bucks
, and check out this frequently overlooked rough gem for yourself.