Primal follows the story of Jen, a 21-year-old rock chick trying to make ends meet in the big city with her rockstar boyfriend, Lewis. Attacked by a demon that steals her boyfriend and leaves her for dead in a back alley, Jen is rescued by a gargoyle, Scree, who drags her into a demonic battle of order versus chaos.
Jen is taken to the Nexus, the place where Chronos manages the forces of chaos and order. It’s clear that Chronos is struggling as the forces of chaos threaten to overpower everything. From here, Jen is introduced to the four demon realms, each governed by a different demon species. Balance must be brought to each realm, and somehow Jen must get her boyfriend back.
The last time I played this game was well over a decade ago, so it was interesting to see whether the dialogue would be cheesy now. However, I’m pleased to report it withstands the test of time rather well. Jen could easily have been an annoying character, or an over-sexualised blank slate, but while she at first appears to be nothing more than a goth Lara Croft, what she turns out as is a practical and sarcastic realist with tons of punch, who shows strength and weakness at various points in the story and manages to be strong without being emotionally neutered. Her interactions with the more stoic Scree are fantastically funny, and in a way they remind me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Giles.
Also worth a mention are the other voice-overs, particularly those for some of the demon species. A lot of attention was paid to making the demons’ native languages sound real and believable, and if you read the subtitles you can even start noticing the grammatical structure of certain words. The phrase uttered by the Ferai king, for instance, while he performs a sacred ceremony, has stuck with me for years: Ab pinag dee, ab pinag dee. It’s never translated, none of it is, and that makes the world feel somehow more real.
The puzzle-solving elements are great, as you can control either Jen or Scree, and the puzzles you need to solve involve utilising both their skills in tandem. This stops Scree being relegated to just a sidekick character. For instance, being made of heavy rock, Scree can climb walls and isn’t affected by strong water currents, while Jen can fit through slim spaces. As a side note, I love the fact it takes Jen some time to jump and clamber over things. After the initial frustration, I grew to enjoy these animations, as it really made me feel the weight of the actions. Same goes for Scree when scaling walls and opening doors.
This brings us to the battle mechanics. In each of the four demon worlds, Jen obtains powers of that world’s species. You start with the Ferai, a proud and warlike race. Their powers give you a greenish glow, majestic horns and the ability to furiously claw through your enemies and jump twice as high as normal. Then there’s the Undine, the Wraith and the Djinn. The changing process is controlled by the four directional buttons – a different demonic form is mapped to each button, and you can switch at will – and the accompanying transformation scene is pretty sweet.
There’s no transition into battle scenes other than an epic guitar riff swooping in – battles are initiated by coming too close to an enemy, and the controls are simple: the R2 trigger for right attacks, L2 trigger for left attacks. You can chain combo attacks by pressing either trigger at the right time, which is approximately as the first attack ends. Then, when an enemy is close to death you can execute a finishing move by pressing both R2 and L2 in tandem. Blocking and dodging is done via R1 and L1, and if you’re in a demon form, you can replenish Jen’s health with Scree’s life force once the battle is over.
Scree doesn’t really have health, but he can use his stone body to store life force for Jen. This is stocked up by finding energy stones. Scree can’t really do much during battle, he just hardens up his rocky shell to avoid damage. However, Scree can possess statues much larger than himself if he has enough lodestones. This can lead to some pretty cool moments.
One thing that games are notorious for when it comes to different humanoid species is to portray the male members of that species as a huge range of shapes that diverge drastically from the common human form, whereas the female members of the species tend to stay conspicuously close to human form, as though the creators are scared of doing anything to make them unsexy by human standards. However, as you can see in the following screenshot of the Queen of Aquis, Primal does not fall into this stereotypical trap. It’s quite refreshing!
It is interesting to note just how much the demon portals (called Rift Gates in this game) look like Stargates. Especially as they are covered in esoteric markings and rotate in order to function. Every time Jen and Scree start turning those damn gates, all I hear is ‘Chevron One, Encoded… Chevron Two, Encoded…’ and so on.
That’s not really a criticism – I quite like the rather obvious comparison. But there are a few other bugbears – for instance, why does every underwater level ever have to be so difficult to control? I also feel like the threat of death is not quite present, as if Jen loses all health, her soul simply returns back to her physical body in hospital, and Scree is given tons of time to make it to a Rift Gate and pull her soul back into the demon world. Also, the first hundred times you watch Jen transform into a demon is manageable, but I do wish there was a skip button. It’s a cool little sequence, but once or twice is enough. And finally there’s that annoying waterdrop filter applied to the camera whenever surfacing from water or whenever it’s raining. This is a nice idea, but it’s very overused and gets in the way of your visibility when fighting enemies and so on.
One of the things I was impressed by was how beautiful some of the scenes were. I don’t honestly remember the game being so conceptually interesting the last time I played it, and it seems a lot of the architecture and atmosphere of some levels I had completely forgotten about. The beaches of Aquis being a case in point.
All in all, this game has so much going for it, and it’s great to see such an enjoyable game brought back for the current-generation Playstation. I urge you all to check it out!
images © SCE Studio Cambridge, screenshots by Holly Ferrie