For the past year or so, industry analysts have been continually comparing the videogame industry to Hollywood. The similarities between the two are befitting to such a comparison, after all, both are forms of popular entertainment, both rake in money by the billions each year, and both are home to some of the most brilliant and creative minds in the world of digital artistry. But only recently have videogames started making leaps and bounds towards a unified interactive product; one part videogame, one part cinema. While this new cinematic realization in the videogame industry will certainly result in prettier, more visually and conceptually intricate titles, one can’t help but question what sort of impact this style of development will have on the most important (IMO) aspect of gaming in the long run; gameplay. Case in point, SCEA’s The Getaway. Sure, it was pretty damn amazing from a visual and storytelling standpoint, but the gameplay itself wasn’t all that innovative or indeed fun.
Primal, too, has been bitten by the Hollywood bug and sports an impressive visual presentation and intriguing plot, but the pre-scripted gameplay, which basically boils down to moving from point A to point B and then figuring out how to trigger the object that will lead you to point C, seems more geared towards an audience that has never heard of Ninja Gaiden. Primal is a great game for showcasing the visual brilliance the PS2 can crank out, and the puzzle-focused exploration will certainly hold the interest of gamers who aren’t expecting an action-oriented experience, but for a old-school gamer, Primal may come off as an ignorant bitch who is too preoccupied with looking good to ponder whether the player is actually having fun.
The intriguing story of a half-demon girl and her Stonehenge sidekick opens as you are taken to a heavy metal nightclub where the on-stage band is laying down the law amidst hordes of aggressive fans who are too busy rocking out to notice the nine-foot-tall monster with glowing red eyes standing amongst them. But to the lead singer on stage, the mysterious beast is impossible to miss. (The contrasting of a brooding motionless beast whose eyes are set against a dark black background and staring at the lead singer as moshing concert goers jump about oblivious to the fact is truly creepy.) Nevertheless, the band finishes their song without skipping a beat before calling it a night. As the lead singer exits the nightclub with his girlfriend Jen by his side, the monster attempts to confront the him, but Jen, not knowing the true identity of the monster, rudely turns him away telling him that her boyfriend isn’t signing autographs tonight. It isn’t too long before the couple is brutally attacked by Mr. Hulking Demon guy, leaving Jen sprawled out on the ground in a pool of blood and her boyfriend who knows where. Fade to white. As the cut-scene fades back in, Jen is lying in a hospital bed, in a coma. Before too long, a diminutive gargoyle with a thoughtful demeanor rips Jen’s spirit out from her body, prompting a long line of questioning on Jen’s behalf in regards to her current out-of-body experience. The gargoyle persuades Jen to accompany him on a quest to save not only the demon world to which she is somehow connected, but also her boyfriend. As the story is pushed forward, you’ll learn of Jen’s true origin, the lead players in the struggle for good and evil, and even some interesting revelations and plot twists. It’s all very well choreographed, and assuming you progress on a consistent basis, it can keep you entertained in much the same way as a good movie.
Eventually, the elaborate (I’m not complaining) cut-scenes subside and you are able to actually control Jen, and even switch to her gargoyle companion named Scree on the fly. As you move Jen around, Scree will obediently follow her, and vice versa. The ability to control two separate characters hints at co-op entertainment found in games like Munch’s Oddysee, Resident Evil 0, and Lost Vikings. But in Primal, this function serves only to make things more complicated, since progression usually relies more on individual abilities than it does creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts through creative teamwork. And to make matters worse, their unique abilities aren’t all that great. Jen can transform into demon form and fight bad guys via a clumsy trigger-based combat system while Scree is able to turn into an immobile yet invincible stone gargoyle and scale certain walls. It’s like Blood Omen 2 in high heels, or Ico minus the creative gameplay.
I must admit though, the game has a certain rhythm to it. You can bring up a detailed map at any time and receive pertinent info from Scree by hitting the triangle button, so running around not knowing what to do or where to go next is rarely a problem, which is nice when you just want to trigger the next cut-scene and enjoy the story. Multiple teleportation devices are strewn throughout the world of Primal too, though backtracking is sometimes annoyingly necessary. But the interesting dialogue that occurs between Jen and Scree, and the fairly frequent cut-scenes that the player is awarded with for having the patience to trudge through the game’s predictable puzzles, does give the game some semblance of flow and cohesiveness when taken as an overall experience.
In true Hollywood spirit, almost nothing in Primal occurs unless it’s pre-scripted. Jen will automatically jump in certain areas, climb up to a higher platform assuming you position her in the right location, etc. The only time you can punch and kick is when there is an enemy in front of you (nothing happens when you hit the attack button otherwise). The only skill a player needs to progress in Primal is a keen understanding of videogame dead-giveaways, like noticing a crack in an otherwise consistent wall or an out of place lever. You can’t even die if you want to since the characters simply refuse to fall off cliffs. But what the game lacks in interactivity, it partially makes up for in cinematic presentation.
And what a cinematic presentation it is. The game’s meticulous and vast environments are all seamlessly connected, the character models are some of the most detailed ever seen on the system, and the way fire dynamically reacts to fluctuating wind has got to be seen to be believed. Sony Cambridge has also devised a brilliant light and shadow system for Primal, the likes of which have yet to be paralleled on the PS2. But as technically impressive as Primal is, it does suffer from a couple small hang-ups. The camera system can easily get hung up on walls and isn’t very responsive to player input while the character is moving, and slowdown often occurs when more than three or four characters are being animated simultaneously. The soundtrack in Primal was constructed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and rock band 16 Volt; the result is a beautifully charged arrangement of sweeping instrumentals mixed with edgy Gothic creations that do justice to the game’s rockin’ protagonists. Voice acting is great too. With professional talent onboard and a truly interesting script, Primal manages to eke out one hell of an aural experience. Dolby Pro Logic II support helps sweetens the deal.
Dedicating a single development studio to creating a “movie quality” videogame may be too tall an order, and one that might be better filled by contracting professional Hollywood help while maintaining gameplay focus in-house, lest they forget in their endeavor to create the perfect cinematic ambiance; that a good game ultimately boils down to fun gameplay. A pretty face may get you in the door, but interactive ignorance will get you thrown out the window. Primal may not be the magnum opus that SCEA has been hinting at for the past few months, but it is still a notable achievement that should serve well as a stepping-stone to truly interactive Hollywood style games in the future.