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Primal (PlayStation 2) artwork

Primal (PlayStation 2) review

"Primal's combat is so tiresome that it's easy to ignore the game's lesser flaws, as well as its moments of greatness."

Primal asset

If anything in the game Primal can be considered captivating, it's the darkly gorgeous realms that the protagonist Jen visits. For instance, among the many detailed locales is an elaborate network of houses and structures built into an immense misty mountain, similar in some ways to remote communities in the Himalayas. Other stages send you deep into a collection of lagoons and submerged tunnels, through a snowy valley plunged in eternal night, and a treacherous temple inspired by the tombs of Egypt. Each stage is gloriously rendered, showcasing crumbled townships, hidden beaches, and trap-laden corridors that bolster Primal's adventurous design.

Jen is not alone on her travels. In the early phases of the game, she teams up with a gargoyle-like sidekick named Scree to battle the embodiment of chaos--a fowl entity known as Abbadon. Throughout the storyline, Jen and Scree bond, become acquainted with one another, and find themselves in plenty of socially awkward situations. Unaccustomed to the cultures of the realms outside of her own, Jen regularly finds herself making comical faux pas and cracking poorly timed jokes. There to facepalm and remind her to curb the tasteless humor Scree, the no-nonsense, all-business half of this odd couple. But it's neither Jen's stupid jokes nor the occasional instances of boorish behavior, nor even Scree's chiding that makes this duo a worthwhile addition to the story. Rather, it's the chemistry they share despite being an odd couple that makes them prime candidates for adventure game protagonists. Though they seem to merely tolerate each other early on in the campaign, they eventually develop a close and almost touching partnership.

Primal boasts some wonderful production values for its time, and it really shows. The game's animations are fluid, the environments and hellish demons that inhabit them are both terrible and awesome to behold, and the effort put into fleshing out the game's mythology is at times impressive. Unfortunately, it seems that the developers spent most of Primal's budget on style and forgot to include much substance in the finished package.

Primal asset

The most heartbreaking part about playing Primal is witnessing first hand just how splendid it appears and how charming its characters can be, only to watch the experience crumble once evil rears its head. That's when you whip out your trusty knife and commence slaughtering the competition with jerky, awkward combos executed via shoulder buttons. Rather than mindlessly mashing the shoulder buttons, you can create a variety of combos by timing your button presses in relation to Jen's current position. For instance, if you hit 'R2' at the tail end of a basic knife swipe, Jen might execute an overhead chop. If you press another button at the right moment, she'll raise the knife in an upward slash.

While this system theoretically eliminates the mindlessness that comes with mashing one or two basic attack buttons, it doesn't make for interesting combat. For starters, Primal's combo attacks are a tad slower and clunkier than in most action games. Not only does this harm the game's pacing, but it can be more of a liability than anything. Executing lengthy combos leaves you vulnerable to attacks from surrounding targets, and it's not a rare occurrence for a foe to stab you while you're in the middle of a crushing combo. At such points, you might wonder if it isn't wiser to stick to simple attacks, which may also leave you pondering why the developers bothered with a more complex battle system in the first place.

That especially tends to be the case in later battles, with the final stage being the worst offender. By that point, you battle humanoid rock creatures capable of performing surprisingly quick jabs. When dealing with these guys, I found I walked away with more health if I forsook combo attacks and stuck to spamming Jen's basic stab. In other points of the campaign, it was more effective to mash the hell out of the shoulder buttons and execute smaller, simpler combos than it was to concern myself with proper timing. In other words, the combo system that was supposed to be Primal's bread and butter, combat-wise, is actually counterproductive.

Primal asset

That isn't even the worst part about the combat, though. What truly gets my goat is the game's control response issues. For instance, I witnessed a few occasions in which Jen failed to initiate the first part of a combo attack. After pressing an attack button, she simply stood there and welcomed an oncoming sword slash. More often than that, though, the game failed to register my presses while in mid-combo, which (again) only left me vulnerable. Sure, there were times when I belted out a wicked combo and brought an enemy to his knees with little effort, but such instances were few and far between. Most of the time, I found that combos were a waste of time and/or health. Suffice to say, it didn't exactly make for a terribly exciting experience, especially when you consider that the campaign is riddled with combat segments.

Lackluster combat also sucked the enjoyment out of the game's defining feature: Jen's transformations. In each of the four realms, Jen acquires a power that transforms her into a hybrid of that region's dominant species. For instance, the first realm is inhabited by a satyr-like race called the Ferai. Upon meeting the Ferais' king, Jen gains the ability to morph into a human-Ferai hybrid, compete with razor-sharp claws and powerful legs for leaping insane heights. Unfortunately, the combo system doesn't change just because Jen does. Although her attacks are different, the same rules apply, and so do the same flaws.

Primal asset

I could pick apart a few other small bits of Primal, such as its irritating second stage, which consists of awkwardly swimming from one lagoon to another whilst struggling with a hyperactive camera. There are also a few instances of terrible voice acting, unbearable narrative cliches, and ambiguous puzzles, but all of these pale in comparison to both the game's strongest and weakest qualities. The gorgeous scenery and wondrous worlds to explore make up for minor narrative quirks, but Primal's combat is so tiresome that it's easy to ignore the game's lesser flaws, as well as its moments of greatness. All in all, I don't completely regret my time with Primal, but I do regret that the game wasn't the interactive dark fantasy experience I had hoped it would be.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 30, 2013)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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Linkamoto posted October 30, 2013:

Sounds like an interesting game. I'm wondering if this came out towards the end of the PS2's lifecycle, since it does appear to have some nice visuals as you mentioned. Very concise yet wholly thorough review here. I especially liked the way you described the transformations, which seems rather disappointing that no new gameplay tweaks or special powers come with it.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 30, 2013:

I don't remember exactly when it was released in relation to the PS2's life. I do remember seeing it in just about every bargain dump bin at one point, which is where I found it. I don't think that it's a completely rubbish game, though. I think if the combat had been more fluid it would have been a much better game. Anyway, thanks for reading!

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