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I was 13 years old when I first locked eyes on Primal. It had that po-faced goth sensibility that was so popular in 2003, and meshed nicely with my personal brand of long hair, KoRn t-shirts, and regret.
Our heroes Jen and Scree -- a spunky goth girl with shapeshifting demon powers, and a squat paternal gargoyle who I quietly wished was my dad -- quickly wormed their way into my heart. But it wasn't just Jen and Scree's dynamite chemistry, it was the constant anticipation of "what's next?" Each new world was a buffet of sprawling environments, terrible yet endearing cutscenes, and slapdash superpowers that were all style and no substance.
Over the years, as I traded in classic games like Killzone, Blood Omen 2, and my extensive Tony Hawk collection, Primal was the one game that always held a place on the shelf. It would sit there, solemn and dedicated, papa-Scree watching me from the box art with quiet pride. Primal, I thought, is a timeless classic; it's the sort of underappreciated gem that I will play along with my children in 20 years, as we marvel gayly at its uniquely artistic achievements.
Booting it up again for the first time in years, I cringed at the opening sequence where Lewis (Jen's boyfriend who sports an unforgivable goatee and frosted tips combo) is kidnapped by a demonic entity, and our hero is nearly killed after tripping over and scraping her knee. Honestly though, nothing from 2003 has aged well: the music, the TV, the people, the games -- it's an absolute horror show. This was to be expected.
But as I trudged through the next few laborious hours, those memories of the first time I played Primal came rushing back. It turns out, the awe I felt 16 years prior when Jen did a cartwheel kick while dual wielding fiery swords wasn't indicative of Primal as a whole.
The shining allure that pulled me back so many years later is dull brass now. I remember being completely enthralled by the overwrought finishing moves and effortless style of each demonic form (murderous goat, electro fish, spooky wraith, flaming bird-person), that I let myself forget the teeth-grinding frustration of the game itself. It's not a game I will ever enjoy again, but for all its flaws, I love it dearly.
Primal is not without its charms, after all. The four distinct worlds you traverse remain hauntingly beautiful to this day. Whether it's the icey decaying ruins of Solum trapped in eternal night, or the ancient industrial underwater city of Aquis bathed in cool autumn sun, there's something undeniably atmospheric about the experience.
But for all its grim beauty, frustration is the game's main flavour. Take opening a large door for example: you run up, hit X, watch as Jen fruitlessly strains against it, stop to ask Scree for help, and then watch them both flex their butts at you until it eventually opens. It's so needless; much of Primal plays like an old man with back pain, pottering about the allotment with laboured, deliberate actions, occasionally transforming into a demon in slow motion.
And yet Primal shines vividly in my mind as something strange and beautiful. The developers clearly set their sights beyond what they could ever achieve, but the sheer attempted scope of Primal is unmatched by most modern games; from the tales of paranoid kings, to the timeshifting wraith powers, every world you visit is unique, with its own history and culture that gives it a distinct sense of place and purpose.
Of all the worlds, the enchanting loneliness of Aetha was my favourite. It's classic baroque horror, and stands out in particular for its French revolution-inspired tale of a kinky undead aristocracy demanding blood sacrifices from a dying village. There's grandiose pomp to the whole thing, and it even includes sequence where Jen disguises herself as a duchess in order to sneak into a ball. It's thoroughly stupid, and couldn't be more out of place, yet I cannot help but appreciate game's variety.
After all these years I've still never played a game quite like Primal. The ambition of modern games feels notably muted in comparison, serving up the same few square feet of cave and field, stretched over miles and miles. They're big and beautiful and sleek, but safe and boring. Primal may have flown too close to the sun, failing at almost everything it set out to do, but at least it had the wild idea to fly in the first place.
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