Almost since the dawn of the home console market, Nintendo has been hailed as the king of the first party title. With smash hits like Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Metroid and more, it was hard to dispute this claim. However, since the launch of the current generation consoles, a new company has stolen the thunder from the monster franchises of Mario and Zelda. With wildly innovative games like Mark of Kri, amazingly deep and fun platform titles like Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank and fresh adventure titles such as Drakan, Sony's first and second party efforts on the Playstation 2 are hard to beat. Now Sony's Cambridge Studio is out with a brand new game in Primal. A dark and dreary Goth adventure, Primal tells the tale of a young woman named Jen and her quest to save the land of Mortalis from the evil Abaddon.
The game opens at an inner city Goth rock concert, where shortly afterwards Jen's boyfriend is abducted by a bizarre looking demon, and Jen is herself fatally wounded in the encounter. When she wakes up, she finds herself separated from her corporeal form, which is lying in a hospital bed, and is confronted by a mysterious gargoyle like creature that calls himself Scree. Scree informs Jen of the danger that is about to destroy her land and beckons her to follow into the land of Oblivion so that she may help restore order to the world.
Graphically, Primal is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, there aren't many games on the Playstation 2 that look better. All the textures are very smooth and rich and the backgrounds are incredibly detailed. Both Jen and Scree, and all characters in the game, for that matter, are very well drawn, fluidly animated, and full of expression. The worlds in Primal are huge and varied, ranging from rocky precipices of eternal night to languid beaches and waters bathed in soft sunshine.
There are some really nice special effects in the game as well. Whenever holding a torch, the flames leap and flicker realistically, and the heat it gives off distorts the surrounding air just as it would in real life. Likewise, whenever light casts a shadow, it's done quite well, as the shadows bend and distort as you move through the light. Overall, it's hard to find any fault with Primal's visuals, and it's clear that Sony's Cambridge Studio spent a lot of time on the game engine.
Unfortunately, the gameplay in Primal is nowhere near as impressive as its visuals. Most of the gameplay involves either basic person/item fetch quests or logical puzzles such as figuring out how to progress from one area to the next. There is not a whole lot of action in Primal, and most of your time will be spent walking around exploring and talking to people. However, there are some fairly fresh ideas involved in the exploration. From the start, Jen and Scree are teamed up on their journey together, but often times they cannot traverse the same path. This forces you to take active control of one or the other and find a way to pass certain barriers, walls and crevices and help the character you left behind join you on the other side. For this, each character has special abilities. Scree, for example, can scale almost any concrete surface, allowing him to climb castle walls and unlock doors from the inside. He can also possess statues and use them to solve key puzzles. Jen is able to fit through small cracks in walls as well as shimmy across narrow ledges. In order to successfully progress in Primal, you must use both characters unique abilities to aid the other. While this may sound intriguing, it quickly becomes mundane and boring, and the lack of active combat does not help in this regard. Overall, there are four different worlds to be explored throughout Primal. While the visuals of each world are quite diverse, the gameplay remains boringly the same throughout, often creating a sense of mundane déjà vu that is killer to the overall atmosphere that the graphics strive to achieve.
When you do find yourself in a fight, the gameplay doesn't get much better either. Being made of stone, Scree is impervious to attacks, but you can't take advantage of this because Scree apparently does not know how to use his fists, or anything else for that matter. Jen, on the other hand, has some fighting skills that she can employ. She can also transform into different demon forms that she encounters along her journey, and each one gives her distinct abilities that can be used in combat and exploration. However, combat just isn't that much fun. Whenever fighting an enemy, you use the shoulder buttons to attack and block. You can execute right and left sided attacks by using the R2 and L2 buttons, a spinning attack by pressing the L1 button and a blocking maneuver by pressing the R1 button. As if this fighting system weren't cumbersome enough, battle is also slow and unchallenging as well. Most enemies will fall in short order to simple attacks. In fact, learning the combat system's nuances is hardly important. You can just bash one of three shoulder buttons repeatedly and you should come out on top. In the end, the gameplay in Primal is a weak case of "the grass is always greener". Whenever exploring, you wish you were fighting, but as soon as you get into combat it makes you thankful for all the exploration in the game. However, those who enjoy heavy exploration in their adventure games should still find a great deal of fun in Primal.
Even though the main premise of the gameplay in Primal is often tedious exploration, at least the camera and controls cooperate to make the most of the experience. The camera in the game is completely free, allowing you to adjust it on the fly at any point in the game using the right analog stick. This is a good thing not just because of its flexibility, though, as the camera tends to jump around every now and then causing slight disorientation. The controls are equally free and intuitive, making progress across the game worlds a fairly easy and enjoyable task.
While the gameplay in Primal may leave something to be desired, the sound is most definitely on par with the graphics. The music in the game is a superb blend of Goth rock and macabre orchestration, all of which come together to infuse the game with a sense of romantic blight that works very well in a game such as this. For the most part, the soundtrack is slow and ominous, but whenever you engage an enemy, it picks up and changes over to a more hectic beat. The voice acting is top notch as well, as all the spoken dialogue in the game is delivered smoothly and convincingly. In fact, the dynamic between Jen and Scree, brought out through the dialogue, quickly becomes the high point of the game experience, somewhat making up for the lack of action in Primal. Throughout the game, you'll witness scenes of unrest between the two, as Jen demands answers that Scree is either unable or unwilling to give.
Overall, Primal is a game that delivers superbly on all fronts except for the most important one; gameplay. With breathtaking graphics, brilliant sound and dialogue, and fairly steady and intuitive controls, Primal still ends up being a decent title for those looking for a good adventure game to tide them over until the next big thing. However, unless you're an exploration junkie who just loves investigating anything and everything, you may want to pass this game up, despite Primal's impressive production values.
4/18/2003 Ryan Hartmann