Review: Primordia

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What will the world look like without us humans? More than a few games have speculated on the synthetic future but few are as grim a vision as Primordia. Not even the worst of the brown military shooters can match the muddy wastes and rusting towers of this title. As unappealing as that might sound it’s all by design, to make the colorful characters of this adventure shine even brighter against a dim backdrop. And as long as you can get past the dark overtones, you’ll find that it really is a brilliant journey.

In the barren wastes of a far-future world we find Horatio Nullbuilt, a humanoid robot who could be mistaken for a tusken raider animatronic. He and his faithful hovering companion, Crispin Horatiobuilt, reside in the ruins of an ancient aircraft that Horatio is intent on restoring to service. Those plans are interrupted in a dramatic way that leads the duo to Metropol, a decaying city of robots in service to an unseen despot. By the end of their adventure, Horatio and Crispin find themselves at the center of a social and political conflict that will determine the fate of the city.

Right away, it should be apparent how much thought went into conceiving of this mechanical world. The naming conventions, the manners of speech, and even the robot designs themselves indicate a deeply developed and stylized world without humans. These robotic denizens define themselves by the builders and functions, and their personalities match to a T. Their digs are just as interesting, with wrecks and ruins re-purposed into mechanized living spaces. It’s a living, breathing world of machines that don’t even breathe, and the differences are striking and apparent once you get past the pleasant familiarity of the characters.

I really can’t say enough good things about the writing, but Lord knows I’m about to try. Plenty of adventure games stumble over stiff scripts and unnatural characters but you’ll get none of that in Primordia. Horatio is an excellent mix of gruff and kindly, and his sidekick bubbles and prods in just the right ways to play off of him (and others) without becoming grating. Just the first few scenes should be enough to ingratiate them to you, an important hurdle for any character-driven game. And the supporting cast is delightfully varied and colorful as well, spanning the full range of devout mystics, shift traders, duty-bound servants, and adorable beeping things. There’s creativity here that I haven’t seen since Planescape: Torment which did a lot to keep me invested in the plot.

On the mechanical side, Primordia again does everything it needs to to keep the puzzles clever and moving. Your inventory allows you to examine and combine items, often with Horatio or Crispin voicing little hints about how an object can best be used. Crispin himself pulls double-duty as a source of hints and a usable object, something you would be wise to remember anytime you spot an item just out of reach. There’s also a PDA-type device that tracks important puzzle info and provides a handy map, and while the display is absolutely tiny it gets the job done and is used in some clever ways on its own. At no point did I ever get stuck on any of the puzzles, despite a few that taxed my brain in unexpected ways. There’s a really good logic puzzle and a tricky text parser sequence that stood out as high points in the genre, though the overall spread of puzzles is well above average.

There’s not much I can level against Primordia, honestly. I mentioned that it’s a grim and muddy future but the characters elevate it above that and keep all the gloom to the periphery. While the scope of the game is just as grand as it needs to be, it plays out over a pretty small number of scenes so it might feel smaller than it should. There are also some political overtones that you might not agree with when the multiple endings roll around, which is to be expected from a game whose plot is so steeped in robo-sociology but nevertheless might rub the wrong way. I’m absolutely not going to knock the art, intensely low-res though it is, because the far-future designs of the robots and their environs are absolutely fascinating to behold. The sound design is far more reserved but does what it needs to, and in particular provides some excellent voice acting throughout. Primordia is the total package, an adventure game that challenges and inspires in every aspect from its characters to its puzzles.

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