“I know you mortals think you’re at the heart of everything, but believe me, you’re not.”
Initially released on March 25th 2003 exclusively for the PlayStation 2, Primal is an action adventure game that was met with somewhat mixed reviews upon its release. Despite its average critical response, the game managed to generate quite the cult following in the years leading from it’s release, leaving many with high hopes that at some point a sequel will be released. Having recently played through the PS4 port of the game, I’m going to be discussing what made the game so unique, what happened to its sequel and whether there’s any hope for a future title in the franchise.
If there was ever a console that was responsible for video games that have gone on to become cult classics, it was the PlayStation 2. Games such as Beyond Good & Evil, Shadow of The Colossus and the haunting Forbidden Siren were very much the genre defining gems of their time, leading the PS2 to be considered one of the best consoles to ever be released. Now defunct, the once great SCEE Cambridge (who are primarily known for their legendary BAFTA award winning series MediEvil) was responsible for a game that stood out for myself (and no doubt thousands of others) in 2003, the action adventure classic: Primal. The game was met with mixed reviews when it released, so it’s very possible that it fell under the radar for a great number of people. Nevertheless, the game generated quite the following, leading it to becoming a fan-favourite among many, eventually leading up to a port for both the PS3 and PS4 as part of Sony’s back catalogue of PS2 classics.
If the ‘making of’ documentaries that accompany the game are to be believed, the game was something of a labour of love for Chris Sorrell and his team at SCEE Cambridge. The game is based around the characters of Jennifer Tate and a gargoyle known as Scree, and follows their exploits across the four realms of Oblivion. The character of Jennifer (referred to as Jen in the game) is your typical headstrong, twenty-something woman who isn’t afraid to do what’s necessary to make ends meet, working a waitressing job so that she can eventually fund her way through college. Jen was designed with a powerful female protagonist in mind and this is reflected in her voice actor: Hudson Leick who played a similarly powerful female called Callisto in the 90’s cult TV series Xena: Warrior Princess. The same process was used to voice the character of Scree, taking inspiration from another 90’s cult TV series known as Babylon 5. Andreas Katsulas (who played G’Kar in Babylon 5) was recruited for his rich, authoritarian voice; which was selected to be a direct contrast to the aesthetics of the character of Scree, who is diminutive in stature. Being primarily a fantasy game, Chris Sorrell and his team drew upon their own inspirations from the Fantasy genre, which is evident in both the selection of the game’s voice actors and the demons that inhabit the many realms of Primal, which vary from the Lovecraftian-esque creatures of the sea found in Aquis, to the Elizabethan-era like demons found in Aetha. The game is steeped in high-quality production, with the graphics and presentation being heavily advanced for its time back in 2003; unfortunately, what caused Primal to bomb at release wasn’t its presentation, more so the gameplay that accompanied it.
The Wraith: The residents of the realm of Aetha are heavily inspired by Victorian-era vampire fiction such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As aforementioned, the game follows the adventures of Jen and Scree as they journey through the four realms of Oblivion; the game begins with Jen’s boyfriend Lewis performing with his band at a nightclub called the Nexus, only for himself and Jen to be attacked by a demon upon leaving the venue. Jen is left for dead, clinging to life in a hospital when the enigmatic Scree releases Jen’s spirit from her body allowing them both to travel to the Nexus, a convergence point for the four realms where the primal forces of Chaos and Order are channelled in Harmony. Following her entry to the realm of Solum (a realm of eternal night and winter governed by its harsh but fair people the Ferai) Jen soon learns that she is a hybrid; part human, part demon having been touched by chaos as a child; allowing her to channel the demon aspects of all the four races found in Oblivion. What follows is a quest to restore order and balance to the four worlds, learning about her true self and the nature of her adversaries along the way. The narrative is one of Primal’s strongest features offering a mature story with dark undertones, but not so serious that it can’t engage in some light-hearted humour once in a while. The contrast between Jen’s whimsical nature and Scree’s stony (pun intended) and firm personality is what makes the player genuinely care about the fate of the characters, and is a testament to the acting ability of both Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas (who is unfortunately no longer with us after he died in 2006 after a short battle with lung cancer).
The gameplay found in Primal is fairly unique in what it represents, offering both a linear story and a semi-open world which work well together within their complex framework. The main features draw around the game’s combat and exploration, which are both vital to the experience found in Primal. The combat is dictated by Jen’s demon aspects, with each one offering different abilities and approach to fighting. The most versatile form is the Ferai aspect that Jen obtains early on in the game; it focuses on close quarters combat offering increased strength and agility, allowing Jen to jump to heights that would not be possible in her human form. Unfortunately (as diverse as it is) the games combat gets a bit stale after a while, being nothing more than a button mashing affair; Jen may have a lot of moves, but unfortunately they get overshadowed quite quickly based on personal preference of L2 or R2. Thankfully, it’s somewhat saved by Primal’s more than stellar soundtrack; one which creative director Chris Sorrell single-handedly chose to represent the tone and atmosphere of the game. The combat score is probably the most enjoyable part of the whole affair, with the dark electronic sound of Industrial Rock band 16 Volt matching the game’s tone perfectly. Jen’s demon forms operate on energy requiring the player to manage their resources wisely. Energy can be obtained and stored by Scree via numerous sources, with the most common being the essence of dead enemies. Polar to Jen’s abilities are Scree’s, which are more geared towards puzzle solving and exploration rather than head on combat (although he has options should the situation call for it). Scree’s stand out skill is his ability to transfer his soul into any statue made of the same material, allowing him to unlock doors, create bridges and even engage in combat. Another solid aspect to the gameplay is how both characters work in tandem with each other, utilizing each other’s skills to progress through the games puzzles which can be both simple and frustratingly complex. The developers stated that this was their intention, as they wanted to shy away from traditional ‘lock and key’ puzzles that were found in similar titles and instead focus on puzzles that would test the creativity of the player; which for the most part work surprisingly well.
Primal Nature: Jen’s demon aspects offer different forms of combat depending on what the situation calls for.
Following what could be described as a promising promotional campaign, the game fell short of success upon release. Having bombing at retail, Primal fell into the annals of forgotten video games, being somewhat saved later on by its cult status. However, despite its mixed critical reception SCEE Cambridge wasn’t dissuaded, and began work on Primal 2 shortly after the first game was released. Early into production however Sony acquired the rights to make a 24 video game tie-in, ditching the Primal 2 project to focus on the tie-in instead. From what we know about the sequel, the game was initially either going to take place in one of two scenarios: the first concept was that the focus was on Lewis this time around, following the events of the first game but from the perspective of the lord of chaos and his attempt to throw oblivion into disarray; the second would have featured Jen as the protagonist again, with the races of Oblivion turning their interest on Mortalis (the human world). Concept art featuring a leather clad Jen on a spiked moto x bike and subway tunnels filled with spider-esque Wraith mutants make the second concept is arguably the more interesting of the two, and had it been done correctly, it could have presented the Primal series to a vastly broader audience. (The cancelled Primal 2 concept art can be seen in the gallery below, courtesy of www.unseen64.net).
However, according to a former SCEE Cambridge employee under the moniker of ‘Kaiden Clement’, development for the game resurfaced in 2011 when the project was revived under the codename “Demon Huntress” and was pitched as a PS4 launch title. Primal 2 would have been an open world game featuring online multiplayer, as well as the return of Hudson Leick who was apparently ‘in talks’ with SCEE Cambridge regarding the reprisal of her role as Jennifer Tate (indicating that they were planning to go with the second concept after all). The title was estimated to be about 80% complete when Sony pulled the plug in January 2013, where they laid off a number of staff during a restructure of SCEE Cambridge into a subsidiary of Guerrilla Games, shifting their focus onto the development of Killzone games for the PlayStation Vita. Guerrilla Cambridge was eventually closed in January of this year after two releases; Killzone: Mercenary for the PS Vita and RIGS: Mechanized Combat League for the PS4. Since the cancellation there has been very little mention of the series, aside from its inclusion in Sony’s PS2 classics project for the PS4. As it stands Primal is currently available for £7.99 on the UK PSN Store and features trophy support and enhanced graphics over the original. While it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see another title in the Primal franchise, Ubisoft recently revealed at their E3 conference that they’re creating a sequel to the fan-favourite Beyond Good and Evil after all these years, so it’s definitely not out of the realm of impossibility that someone could do the same with Primal, finally giving the series the justice it deserves.