Evidently, I got my copy of Primal at the now officially defunct Blockbuster chain of video rent stores. It has two fugly stickers on the front cover, one beneath the plastic and the other on top. The first shouts directly at me that this is a “previously rented game,” and the other is a medium-size red circle highlighting how much I purchased this gem for back in June 2003 as a financially struggling college sophomore–a cool $14.99. I can’t believe it has taken me ten years to finish this game for the very first time. A part of me kind of wishes I hadn’t because, I’m sad to say, it was certainly better remembered than experienced.
Primal is the story of a cafe waitress named Jennifer Tate and her rock-n-roll boyfriend Lewis and a teeny, but totally keen gargoyle called Scree. See, Lewis ends up getting kidnapped after one of his band’s concerts by some demonic being from another realm, and Jen is badly wounded during this, leaving her comatose in a hospital bed. While unconscious, Jen is visited by Scree, who takes her on a soul journey of sorts to the Nexus, where they discover Chaos is engulfing everything. To save her boyfriend, Jen must discover who she really is and help fight off Abaddon, the embodiment of Chaos.
It’s standard third-person action adventure fanfare, and with Jen and Scree exploring four very different realms for answers, the Nexus acting as a hub for story beats between all the happenings. In all my years of starting Primal over and over, I only ever saw the opening snowy realm of Solum. Truthfully, I kind of assumed this is where the entire game took place and was bummed to not see that be the case, because Solum has personality, much more than any other realm, though Aetha comes close. You can control both Jen and Scree, switching between them freely with the push of a button–take that, Grand Theft Auto V–and you’ll explore rooms, find locked doors and ways around them, fight off enemies, collect items, and meet a bunch of colorful characters, like Arella, who is championing for Jen to win.
And that’s Primal‘s best part–the story. The people you meet, the ones that support your cause, the ones that hinder it. You really do feel like you’re playing an active role in some special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars. Jen is spunky and compassionate yet always ready to crack a joke, and Scree refuses to let up his seriousness; together, the two make quite a pair. By the end of the game, their relationship has grown beyond just helping each other out. From a glance, a lot of the world-building could seem superfluous, but I think enough is said to make all the realms come across as real places, even if they are mostly devoid of life and signs of life, save for Solum, which I mention again as I think its frigid landscape littered with stone buildings and campfires came off quite well. The story told there of a fallen prince in a society where the king, at the height of his power, sacrifices himself worked better than some later plots, which were uninspired.
Okay, now the bad parts, and it’s more or less everything else in Primal: combat, swimming, getting lost, no mini-map, camera, the music, the lack of music. I’ll try to cover each topic briefly.
Combat is oddly mapped to the PS2 controller’s shoulder buttons, which makes for weird, clunky fighting, and I found countering–hitting the block button just as an enemy strikes–to be impossible to nail consistently. Some enemies can only be killed with a finishing move, which you do by pressing L2 and R2 at the same time, a technique that worked only one-third of the time. Jen can regain health by absorbing it from Scree, and Scree can store up more energy to give Jen from fallen enemies (and some other places), so it’s a constant cycle of fight, absorb, refill, move on.
The second realm of Aquis has Jen and Scree spending the majority of their time underwater; that’s fine for Scree as he controls just the same, since stone sinks. But Jen’s swimming controls are unintuitive, and the camera is constantly getting frazzled at trying to keep up with her POV, flipping high and low. I can’t imagine many people got to this section and continued playing. The original Tomb Raider had better swimming controls than this, and I think that’s saying a lot. Oh, and did I mention that you still get into combat situations while underwater? Yeah, I found the whole realm maddening, as well as a wee depressing. There’s very little music, so you are just swimming around listening to nothing but the swoosh of Jen’s feet, wondering why you’re still here playing this underwater step back.
There’s a map, but no mini-map. There really should’ve been a mini-map, because it’s extremely easy to get lost due to erratic camera movements and most of everything looking identical. Especially when swimming or using Scree as he climbs up walls and across ceilings. You can press start at any point to view the map, but only if Scree is near you. Occasionally, the map wouldn’t even load. Just a dark, black screen. So, it’s glitchy and hard to follow as you can only see the section you’re on currently, but if your destination marker is in another building further down you won’t see the marker until you are close enough to pop that part of the map. Make sense? Absolutely not. Since Primal is very much about exploring, this aspect could’ve been stronger. I ended up using a walkthrough from time to time to get me back on track, especially in Aquis.
Music in Primal is all done by electronic rock band 16Volt. Not my thing, personally, but they fit the story and look and have a videogamey sound, I guess. Their music appears mostly during fight scenes and boss battles, but also in cutscenes and the opening of the game. That said, when you’re not fighting, all is silent, which can kind of unnerving, but mostly boring, as even just some light instrumental would’ve helped fill the void.
As they travel about, Jen and Scree can find Tarot Cards, which unlock concept art from the main menu. That’s nice and all, but nothing to go crazy over. I think I found maybe half of the Tarot Cards by the end. However, as you progress, the game itself unlocks behind-the-scene and making of movies, interviews, and special trailers, which are fantastic, mostly for being stuck in the past. They might come across as cheesy or overdramatic in how Primal was trying to be sold, but they’re interesting nonetheless. Especially the interviews with Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas.
I don’t know. Like I said, there’s a part of me that wishes I hadn’t gone through and seen the rest of what Primal had to offer, as I found a lot of it frustrating and disappointing from the gameplay side, but I guess I ultimately needed to know. Now I can speak more confidently about the game, about its good parts, while also warning those that are making their way to the Nexus for the very first time about things like an entire realm devoted to just swimming and janky camera control and the atrociously repetitive combat and and and…