Primal is a difficult beast to pin down. On the one hand, it wants to be an action game with elaborate fights and combo moves, while on the other it aims to be a very deep, and emotionally involving, adventure game. Even after many hours of play, I can’t say for sure whether it succeeds at both, but I will say this: Primal is a very unique game that I’m glad I came across. It’s rare to find a title nowadays that really stands apart from the crowd and is proud to be an individual, and on that basis alone I would recommend checking out Primal in an instant.
I will say one thing right off the bat: Sony’s marketing campaign is wrong. Their marketing department must have only seen the fights (of which there are plenty) and sold it on the premise of monsters fighting each other in several arenas, a rip-off of “Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee” with stranger designs and better graphics. I honestly believed it to be a fighting game with better graphics than most when I picked it up. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to have an oddly existential side, and offered a different take on the struggle between good and evil than I’d seen before. Plus, the storyline… well, that’s where I’m struggling myself.
What defines an adventure game? What defines an action game, or a fighting game, or a puzzle game? Whoever at Sony came up with Primal I must give credit to, because while most games are up-front with what they are and what you can do while playing, this one has to be discovered one piece at a time. The maps are fairly large, and intricate, so it’s easy to get lost and despite the initial text pop-ups explaining what the characters can do and such (which were written in a too small font, by the way), there really isn’t a lot of hand-holding. At any point in the game, you can ask your companion what you should do next, but it’s usually a broad and/or cryptic message like, “We should look for Jarod.” Alright then chief, but since I’ve scoured three maps and gone in a circle for the last hour, do you think you could be a little more precise? “We should look for Jarod.” Grrr.
The main character is Jen Tate, an average rock-chick with some really wicked tattoos on her (the on in her mid-back, which will prove to be pivotal to the game, is especially well designed) is walking home with her boyfriend one night when they get attacked by a big nasty thug who’s got the ol’ blazin’ red eyes thing going for him, then she wakes up in the hospital to find a rather eloquent gargoyle staring at her. He will be her guide into the four demon dimensions in which the rest of the game takes place, and she will learn about her past, her future, the universe, and how to lay the smack down with a righteous fury.
More than anything though, this game is about exploring. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it, but Primal struck me as being an exceptionally well thought out metaphor of a game, where you have to explore the worlds around you, but also the universe within. You are taken on a very deep spiritual and emotional journey as Jen, as she tries to balance the scales again between Order and Chaos. Fortunately, you can also switch characters and go between Jen and Scree, the aforementioned gargoyle, who not only acts as your guide, but your conscience as well.The graphics to Primal are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The details to the characters, and the amount of depth to each of the worlds is amazing. This game has to be played, if only to walk around in it and see what everything has to offer. Voice acting is a tricky thing. When employed poorly, you can fall to levels of camp seldom seen since Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra or your average midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When voice acting is exceptionally well done, however, a game can transcend itself to become closer to a work of art, like my favorite game Planescape: Torment did. Primal employs an elegant cast of actors who bring vivid life to their roles. Jen is not an immediately likeable character, nor is the easily exasperated Scree. But actors Hudson Leick and Babylon 5‘s own Andreas Katsulas bring so much soul and pathos to their roles that I kept wanting to hear more about what they have to say. Without spoiling anything, Scree’s heartbreak at seeing how things have become worse in his realm than he anticipated is achingly conveyed by Katsulas. Leick, too, impresses, and makes Jen at times resentful, playful, coy and cocky, and sometimes all at the same time. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how voice acting in games should be handled. With professional character actors (I’ll admit, I’m a Katsulas freak and any performance of his I’ll seek out) and a well-written script and strong direction, Primal demonstrates what a game is capable of being. This is the only area where I have to knock Primal down a notch. The combat, so thoroughly showcased in television spots, is weak at best, as you have to hit the L2 and R2 buttons repeatedly to hit with one hand, then the other, then hitting both L2 and R2 at the same time to execute a finishing move, which can change depending on your circumstance (can’t give away all the secrets of the game). The camera can get a little awkward, but I’ve yet to see flawless camera work in a third-person game. Primal is a very strong exploration game, and what you will find is worth your trouble. The extremely compelling story is one of those “up ’til 3 a.m.” type games, which blows when you have to be up four hours later to be at work. The pain is worth it just to find out what this game is all about. After experiencing the story, I’m not sure I’d pick Primal back up again, other than to show it off to friends/neighbors/total strangers, and anyone else who needs to be converted to it’s coolness. It’s the kind of game where I’ll let sit for a long while after completing, just to have it sink in and to have enjoyed a well-told story. I will go back to it in the future, though, so do not make the mistake of thinking Primal is a one-time deal. But it’s one of those rare titles where once experienced, you just can’t go back and enjoy it fresh again for a long time.