I’ve always had a thing for some of the slightly more obscure games out there – the ones that don’t get largely publicised because they don’t follow the trend and stick to the accepted rules of game design. That was why, when I was but a teenager and a very good friend of mine introduced me to Primal, I was instantly in love with the game.
It’s an action adventure game with a dash of horror added in for good measure, with a storyline that struck a chord with the teenage rocker in me. Set in a world full of monsters and demons, plus a gargoyle helper, it is a very dark game that was perfect for me at the time.
The thing is, up until recently, I hadn’t gone back and played Primal for probably 13 years… So, I decided I would take another look at it, now that I’m not an angst-loving teen, and see whether it still ticked all the boxes.
The basic storyline follows a young girl named Jennifer (Jen for short), whose rock band boyfriend gets kidnapped by demons. From there, she becomes a sort of astral projection and travels to a different, spiritual type of world.
Once there, she is tasked by her gargoyle companion Skree to help bring balance back to the world, saving it from the brink of chaotic ruin. It was this basic aspect of the story that initially intrigued me as a young teen – the idea of a game with metalhead main characters and demons was so rare that I was instantly transfixed.
However, now that I’m an adult, I find the base storyline to be rather generic. It doesn’t really seem as “far out there” as it once did when I look at it as a whole. Instead, it is the individual elements that happen along the way that build up the intrigue.
Even in the first land you visit, the world building is very well done. Each clan of demons has their own backstory, rituals and culture, which you have to understand in order to help restore the balance to that world.
As a teenager, I was transfixed on the darkness and heavy metal-based themes. As an adult, I can appreciate the deep and careful thought that went into each character, tribe and world. The base storyline may not be that unique, but the effort that went into every other aspect of the game’s plot is a testament to the developers.
A lot of action adventure games tend to rely on a single main character with guns or swords, running and jumping their way through (honestly) rather simplistic level design. You’d come across a handful of enemies but most of the game was about traversing the land. Combat would generally feel like an afterthought.
Primal manages to both follow this tradition and break it at the same time. That’s why the gameplay aspect of Primal is so hard to judge.
You spend a large proportion of the game running around vast worlds on foot, clambering over obstacles and finding your way around. This is very typical of action adventure games, and in this sense, Primal doesn’t really do anything new or different.
However, you can do this as either Jen or Skree, with both having different abilities in terms of how they interact with the world. For example, there are times when Jen will need to carefully navigate small ledges whilst Skree can just dig his claws into the rock face and crawl along or down. This means that you get two very different experiences of the same area in each level.
Then there’s the combat. In most action adventure games, combat feels tacked on as I already mentioned. There’s generally not much thought to the design that goes into the combat system, with you just running around shooting at your target until it dies.
There is where Primal really stands out. You get different attack types to carry out, there’s a “block and guard” system, and even finishing moves that vary depending on what weapon or form you are currently using.
On top of this, enemies also have different attack patterns and behaviour styles. This, therefore, means that your fights will often become frantic battles to the death, rather than gymnastic contents with guns. You also get some really good fight music that kicks in almost seamlessly whenever combat begins. All of this makes for an incredible shift in tone between the platforming style sections and the fights.
Ok, so Primal came in 2003. That’s 15 years ago, which makes me feel somewhat old. Anyway, despite that, it makes great use of the PS2’s graphical capability. Every demon clan and each world feels unique and original, with the overall landscapes feeling expansive and inspiring.
The cutscenes are well animated, with the characters having realistic reactions to many of the events. There are a few moments when the character models seem to miss collision detection, such as when the Ferai king is holding Jen by her arms, but they are constantly passing through each other. This can somewhat break the immersion, but these moments are few and far between.
In combat, the fight moves are animated beautiful, each one flowing on from the last like a martial arts movie. Even when in demon form, the attacks are fluid, and actually feel more powerful.
The character design of Jen is also worth noting. The standard human form of Jen is realistic and doesn’t rely on exaggerated movements to look good, if you get what I mean. Then, when she turns into her demon forms, the character model for each one feels significantly different from the other. It would have been so easy to create a “default” demon form and just change the colours to represent which demon tribe she was channelling at any given time.
Instead, the developers took the time to create unique character models for each form, which is very impressive.
And That’s All Folks
Considering the fact that I original fell in love with Primal purely because it appealed to the heavy metal fan in me as a teenager, I know see how naive that was. Coming back to the game all these years later, I can appreciate everything else that went into the game, from the visual design to the storyline and gameplay elements.
This is a great game, even if it is based upon very cliche elements, to begin with. It starts off feeling like nothing special, but very quickly turns into its own beast, much like Jen herself as the game progresses.
Have you played Primal? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!