Gargoyles are a girl's best friend.
Struggling goth gal Jennifer Tate is having a really bad day. Just when things seem to be brightening up, a demon monster shows up at her musician boyfriend's gig and whisks her hunk away. Man, don't you just hate it when that happens?
As Jen travels into far out realms with a friendly gargoyle name Scree and the power of bestial transformations, she just might have a shot of saving her beau and the demon world of Oblivion. Unfortunately, it's up to you to help her out in Sony's new 3D adventure, Primal. Though it occasionally nails the atmosphere, the gameplay is stuck in limbo.
Primal offers an interesting take on third-person action adventuring by giving you two distinct characters. You must switch between Jen and Scree in order to make your way through Oblivion. For example, Scree can climb stone, while Jen has other powers, such as a high jump. Working off the hints and directions given by Scree and other NPC's, you must use each character's resources to open doors and work through passages.
It sounds cool enough, but the game design is slightly fractured. Jen's jump is area-sensitive - she doesn't have the freedom to hop about at will. Why can Jen only jump up this steep embankment and not there? And what separates one stone wall from another? There's stone practically everywhere! Why can the gargoyle only climb up this side and not that one? The answer to these questions is that Primal's two-character system relies on linearity to function. No total freedom here, sadly.
Jen also possesses the ability to fight. Scree, on the other hand, just turns into an immobile statue. Whenever an enemy is in close enough proximity, rock music starts to wail, and Jen is automatically locked-on. The fight moves use pressure sensitivity, but it still feels too shallow, much closer to button-mashing than an actual fighting system. The hit detection sometimes feels a little off as well. Punches occasionally go straight through enemies. Most enemies also require a finishing move to eliminate, which feels forced and unnecessary.
As Jen progresses through the game, she'll gain four different creepy forms based on the four enormous regions of Oblivion. When she loses the energy of one of these forms, she'll fall back into her normal earthly form. To remedy this, Scree can suck up energy and give it to Jen. It gives the two some sort of chemistry, but even that cannot save Primal from its odd linearity.
Unlike games like Soul Reaver or Metroid Prime, Primal doesn't reward you much for getting one of Jen's new forms by emphasizing the need to tread over past levels and reach heights previously unattainable. Instead, the game pushes you ever onwards. You'll get a new ability and know exactly where to use it, with little in the way of open-endedness. Bummer if you want more than just a linear adventure.
One of the coolest details in the game is the rift gate. Rift gates are teleportation devices that transport you across the territories of Oblivion. When you start one up, the image of the destination appears on the other side. Jen then walks right through and is transported there without any load time. While I imagine the load time is masked by the time it takes Jen to start up the gate, it still feels very seamless.
Primal does a fine job of handling the creepy atmosphere thanks to its excellent graphics. The main character models are sharply detailed and the lighting effects are particularly noteworthy. Shadows bend against surfaces and flicker naturally. Ominous dark clouds coalesce on the distant horizon, while earthy fires glow and sparkle. It's a pretty entrancing game.
And then the jittery camera breaks the spell. The camera tends to hop around to much, and Jen's slow gait doesn't help matters. One of these days a third-person adventure will get the camera right.
The music alternates between light orchestral bits and pounding metal. The voices are well cast and help flesh out the humor and drama. The game also comes with French and Spanish audio tracks. I thought the game seemed more artsy-fartsy when I played it in French with English subtitles. Try it out.
Primal runs into some odd troubles when it comes to saving. I stopped to save once, but when I returned to the game, the castle I was in was completely gone and Jen was floating. I could move around and different parts of the environment would be clipped. I paused, and then came back to the game...but now I was stuck behind a rock, trapped. Other bugs have been reported online, so consider yourself warned and remember to make multiple save files.
More than anything, Primal reminds me of Sony's own The Getaway - a game rich in atmosphere with gameplay that doesn't keep up. Primal is bound to be stuck in the shadows when compared to recent a recent doozie like Zelda, but at least those shadows look terrific.