Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe - Cambridge Studio
Review Date: 5/25/03
Jennifer Tate is your typical gorgeous twenty-one year old rocker chick, working as a coffee shop waitress, saving up money to go to college, and living with her loser boyfriend who fronts a local heavy metal band. Basically, the kind of woman I've always wanted to date. (does this also reflect my desire to be a loser fronting a local metal band?) Her life takes a drastic turn when she and Lewis get attacked outside of a night club by a hideous demonic creature, leaving her seriously wounded and in a coma. In her unconscious state, she is visited by a kind gargoyle named Scree, who frees her spirit and takes her to Oblivion. You see, Jen is a half demon hybrid, and she has been chosen as the champion of Order to oppose the machinations of Chaos and bring balance back to the troubled realms of Oblivion. It also appears that Lewis may have been brought to Oblivion as well, which gives her the strength and motivation to fulfill her task.
First of all, this is an art game. Its greatest strength lies in its visual presentation, and the character design, grandiose architecture, dramatic lighting, and lavishly detailed environments are superb. Complementing the beautiful scenery are a handful of wonderful visual effects, including an excellent atmospheric haze that obscures objects in the distance and various water effects that affect the "camera lens" as if you were actually following Jen and Scree as a photographer. Simply wandering around the realm of Aetha is alone well worth the price of admission. The sound design is also excellent and very crisp. On numerous occasions I couldn't tell if bird noises and other environmental sounds were coming from outside my apartment or from within the game itself. The orchestral music score is also quite nice and appropriately moody.
Apart from the awe-inspiring visuals, "Primal" is primarily a character driven game. Both Jen and Scree are playable characters, and they have to work together to overcome various obstacles. The chemistry between them is fun and endearing, thanks to the excellent voice acting provided by Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas (although I had a very hard time not picturing G'kar whenever Scree was speaking). While Jen's flippant attitude and party girl mentality is grating at first, she steadily grows on you as she takes on responsibility and eventually comes to grips with her destiny. The writers definitely had "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" in mind when coming up with Jen's character. Scree is absolutely wonderful. He's the serious minded one - solemn and wise, with a strict sense of duty and a sentimental soft spot veiled by tragedy and angst. He is the Giles to Jen's Buffy.
Unfortunately, a fair share of problems distract from the overall enjoyment of the game, with the most notable one being the nausea inducing chase camera. The poor cameraman who is following Jen and Scree on their adventure is sadly not equipped with a steadicam, which makes every slight variation in terrain translate directly to the player as a harsh jerk in perspective. The camera is constantly bouncing on every axis, and I came close to vomitting on several occasions while playing. It's so bad that you either want to run as fast as you can to get to level ground, or walk as slowly as possible to minimize the effect. Regardless, it's very difficult to play for more than an hour at a time without feeling ill. Another annoyance with the camera is re-orientation, which just jerks the camera back behind Jen's head instead of smoothly panning it into place. The cut scenes are nicely realized, but transitions are often abrupt and disruptive. Since Jen can take on various different demon forms, the biggest irritation with the cut scenes is that she's usually not in the same form that the player is, which creates a disconcerting continuity issue. The game also suffers from disruptive audio breaks whenever you cross boundaries into areas that have different audio cues.
The gameplay and story progression are pretty typical for the action/adventure genre. Jen and Scree have to meet certain objectives by solving environmental puzzles, unlocking doors, and fending off any unfriendly creatures that get in their way. Only Jen can engage in combat (Scree just turns to stone and watches), which is initiated by heavy metal guitar riffs and followed by mindless mashing on the L2 and R2 buttons. While Jen has some impressive moves in her arsenal, the fighting engine seems random and unpredictable, and it's often easier to just run past enemies than to actually fight them. The somewhat jarring heavy metal accompaniment may seem annoying and inappropriate, but it serves well as an indicator that unfriendlies are around that you may not be aware of. This was one of the biggest flaws with "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", where the only time you knew a vampire was in the vicinity was because you heard them uttering the same cheezy lines over and over. The puzzles aren't overly difficult, but it can be confusing not knowing what you should be doing next. This leads to possibly the game's greatest (or lamest, depending on your perspective and gaming personality) feature, which is the ability to ask Scree for help. Whenever you're not sure what to do, Jen can ask Scree and he'll point her in the right direction. This saves you numerous time wasting backtracking trips as well as trips to flip through a strategy guide, and at the same time serves as nice little bonding moments for the characters.
While the story is deeper and more fleshed out than most video games, the writing is clichéd, predictable, lacks subtlety, and has the stench of TV mentality to it. The game also ends very abruptly, with no finalé or closure, and with one of the most burning questions left unanswered: What is the significance of Jen's tattoo? This is even more frustrating and inexcuseable because they very specifically set up the question at the beginning of the game and fail to follow through. On a personal and psychological level, while I found it very easy to get into Jen's character, I found it overly difficult to get into her motivation to find her lost boyfriend. While I appreciate the role reversal of the whole "damsel in distress" theme, I didn't find Lewis compelling enough to deem worth rescuing. I'm not sure if this is a knee-jerk chauvinistic or homophobic reaction, or just the fact that I prefer female characters to not have any reliance on or emotional attachment to men. Regardless, if you're a female action fan with an appreciation for visual flair and presentation, it's worth your while to give "Primal" a shot.